Column #19 - published March 5, 1999
In the mid Seventies, in Van Nuys, Ray Campi recorded for my label, ROLLIN' ROCK RECORDS, a song titled "Pinball Millionaire" which appeared in the LP "Rockabilly Rocket" (Rollin' Rock LP-013). Little would I know that 25 years later, in Las Vegas (where else??), would I actually meet this Pinball Millionaire in the flesh!!! His name is TIM ARNOLD and he owns the largest pinball collection in the world! He actually owns every single pinball machine ever made (bar six !!!)
The Wild West was very popular in the pinball days!!
Dan Kramer, of the Rockabilly Mailing List, who sold me my first pinball, the fabulous Western Rockabilly classic, "Gold Rush", gave Tim my phone number, so as to call me next time he threw one of his famous parties, where one can play hundreds of classic pinball machines, shooting games, and video games ... FREE OF CHARGE!!
Saturday January 16 was the magical day. I gathered the whole family and we drove six minutes from my house to Arnolds' compound. The first weird thing we notice is that there is an airplane hangar in his backyard!! As soon as we enter this hangar, our jaws drop ... .hundreds and hundreds of machines spread out all over, and hundreds more, still needing to be reconditioned, stacked up to the ceiling!!
PINBALL HEAVEN!! - PINBALL HEAVEN!! - PINBALL HEAVEN!!
Wow, man alive, now I know what Billy Zoom meant, when he recorded for my Rollin' Rock Records, "Pinball Heaven" (Rollin' Rock LP-009) in 1973!! Only in Las Vegas, only in America. ... wowwwww, ain't had so much fun in a long time!!
GOLD RUSH, my own pinball machine which Dan Kramer sold me, features some extra cool looking cowboys and cowgirls: check out the purple hat kickass rockabilly look on the cowboy, and the sexy cowgirls with pointy "wobblies"!!
Anyway, I had to interview Tim Arnold for this column, and here's an edited version of the interview which lasted almost two hours:
RONNY: Let's start from the beginning. How did you get into this thing?
TIM: I was a kid, I used to skip school a lot, and used to steal pop bottles, so I could go to play pinball. I was eight, nine, ten years old at the time.
RONNY: Why play pinball, why not movies, or... ?
TIM: It was a college town, East Lansing, Michigan, and there were pinball machines everywhere; initially we just put our dimes in, and play legitimate pinball, but then we had more fun figuring out ways to cheat the machine....coat hangers thru a crack in the glass, puttin' them up on rocks, hittin' them with rubber hammers to find a spot that would give you something...
RONNY: In Italy pinball machines were the craze in the 1950s, how about here?
TIM: In the 1930s pinball machines had no flippers, they were like slot machines, and they paid you cash. In 1952 pinball machines and slot machines were made illegal, then they picked up again in the late Fifties (of course they paid no money at that point).
RONNY: How did you get started in the business, and how old were you?
TIM: I started buying gum ball machines when I was 13 years old, 'coz I thought it was a good way to make money. Then I started putting out candy machines in different stores. Once a month I'd go out and collect a buncha pennies!!
RONNY: And your parents, what 'd they think of it?
TIM: They tolerated it. It was better than doing drugs or something!! They even helped me in a lotta ways, things like driving me around.
RONNY: So now you were making a few bucks...
TIM: I wasn't really making any money, 'coz every time I'd get a dollar I'd go and buy another machine... Then the guy at the pizza store had this pinball machine called "Mayfair" for which he wanted $165, so we bought the machine. We put it in the garage, kids started coming over, putting quarters and dimes in it, and pretty soon it was paid for, and so we bought another machine, "Thoroughbred", and that was only $100. (The year was 1972). We started putting one pinball machine at the Domino Pizza in Ann Arbor, one of the eight original restaurants. The owner thought it was kinda funny, these high school kids were hustling pinballs. We ended up putting in twelve machines total. It was kinda neat, I ended up being the Pinball Pimp, and while my friends got into a lotta trouble selling dope, and I figured out, hey this is great, this is a better racket than dope, and it's perfectly legal!!
RONNY: How did you get to where you own one of each machine ever made??
TIM: Every time we went to buy a new machine, they'd say we'll take your old machine in trade and we'd give you $ 50 a piece for 'em, so we said well, thanx, but no thanx!! So we bought a wherehouse and we started just stacking them up to the point where we hit four or five hundred machines and the floors were starting to buckle because of the weight!!! Meanwhile we've grown to five arcades, we had employees, and a payroll, insurance, and all the regular stuff, and it started to become a lot less fun for me. We started to get lists from people who were working at the factories, lists of every machine ever made, so I started thinking what would happen if somebody would try to get one of every machine ever made, I mean could it be done? When I made an inventory at the wherehouse, I found out that we had 40% of the mechanical machines already! So all I had to do is get the ones from 1947 to 1965, and I'd have them all. I needed to pack all these pinball machines in a truck and move them someplace where it's warm and dry, 'coz I didn't wanna scrape all the rust off them, so I moved out to Las Vegas with them.
RONNY: So how did you transport them to Nevada?
TIM: The three R's: Rent, Ruin & Return! We rented Ryder trucks, there's supposed to be a 7000 lbs. limit, while we were putting 30-35,000 lbs on each truck, which pretty much broke them, and then gave 'em back!! (This is in 1990). Now I am in the process of restoring them in as new condition as possible, about one a week. In November I got the final mechanical machine, so out of 384 mechanicals from 1947 thru 1979 I have them all! And I've got all the digital games except six and I am closing in on those!
RONNY: Pinballs were very popular in Italy....
TIM: I'm looking at this "Roadrace" game, the one I'm working on right now, and they made 1500 of 'em for the US and the rest of the world, and then they made 2600 that went to Italy!!
RONNY: What's your plan for the future?
TIM: Eventually I wanna start the world's biggest pinball arcade, here in Las Vegas, that's my plan.
RONNY: Wow, what a dream this is! I know it's gonna come true!! Dreams always come true in Las Vegas!!!! Sooner or later!!
(This concludes the first part of the interview. The second part covers pinball history, and will not be included here for reasons of space, and time, my lack of time, that is!!! :-) :-) ).
Some very snappy Westerners on this machine!!
I must thank TIM ARNOLD, a true believer, and an amazing American entrepreneur, for saving these great icons of American culture, and letting so many of us enjoy them, free of charge, and wish him the best of luck with his mammoth flipper arcade!!
(This column is dedicated to Dan Kramer of the Rockabilly List, who put me in touch with Tim Arnold)
Always Rollin' The Rock,
A real telephone dolly!!
Rockin' Ronny Weiser,
The Rockabilly Rebel Westerner from Las Vegas,
The Wild Wild West
ROCKIN' RONNY WEISER - See his on-site Rockabilly HOF web page