FARGO — There was a time in America when pinball machines were banned in public spaces because some considered them a type of gambling that attracted crime and corrupted children.
Mostly major cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, enforced the ban. In the 1940s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ordered police raids of establishments to seize and destroy pinball machines — with sledgehammers. It was still legal to own a pinball machine for private use, but any bar or arcade that had pinball machines hid them in dark corners or behind curtains.
The ban was lifted in the mid-1970s, but there were still cities that enforced some form of the ban. Nashville, Tenn., banned pinball for people under the age of 18 until 2004.
Eventually, there was less exposure to pinball machines as arcades closed and machines were replaced with things like claw machines or ticket games.
“I stopped playing in the later ’90s when places stopped putting machines out in places, and I didn’t know any home collectors at that point,” said Ryan Babb. While growing up in West Fargo, Babb used to go to arcades with his older siblings and dad.
“There was an ‘Addams Family’ and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ machine at a 7-Eleven near my house in West Fargo that we used to go hang out at,” Babb said. “We also used to go out to Flying J or Petro because they had machines back in the day and were open 24 hours.”
Bill Brooks, co-owner of Fargo Pinball, a private membership club in south Fargo that has 30 pinball machines, said he can recall roughly five machines that were available to play in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
“Basically during the pinball die-off, you had to seek out pinball and play where you could find it, whether it was at a laundromat or the airport,” Brooks recalled. “Heck, we drove to Dakota Magic Casino once to play some pinball down there.”
Brooks said one of the reasons it was harder to find a place with pinball machines was profitability versus maintenance.
“As people started staying home for their entertainment and not playing pinball machines, the pinball machines still needed maintenance,” Brooks said. “Unfortunately, the money to pay for maintenance wasn’t there.”
Another reason was the boom in home consoles. “Pinball and arcade games have always been entertainment you go out to experience,” Brooks said. “People’s idea of entertainment was no longer going out of the house, but staying in the house.”
About half a year ago as Drekker Brewing was working on their new Brewhalla location in north Fargo, Brooks and Jesse Feigum from Drekker talked about how breweries and pinball go together.
“We were thinking it would be a great fit to have pinball machines at their new location,” Brooks said. In early November, they lined up a night to have pinball machines at Brewhalla.
“We kept having people tell us how much they liked them there and how few places there are to go play pinball, so we decided to just keep them where they were,” Feigum said.
The pinball machines have been at Drekker Brewhalla ever since.
“I had never seen Drekker and I had never been in here,” said Dan Stephney. “But the first time I got here I was like, ‘This is what Fargo Pinball (Club) needed,’ and pinball, in general, was a place to play. I think it’s the right crowd, the right environment; you walk in and you see these things and your eyes are drawn to them, and they aren’t stuck in the corner, stuck in the back rotting away.”
Stephney plays in the pinball league that kicked off March 5 at Drekker and is a member of the Fargo Pinball Club. Brooks said it’s fair to say this is the first pinball league in the Fargo-Moorhead area. He compared it to a bowling or golf league, but Stephney said the players in league are competitive.
He’s a two-time North Dakota state champion, and the current North Dakota state champion is in the league. Most of the players that have signed up are members of the Fargo Pinball Club, but the league is open to anyone.
“You don’t need any special attributes to play,” said Mike Moberg, a Fargo Pinball Club member. “Anybody can step up to these things and once I see someone do it, it’s fun to watch them get to the next level.”
Moberg also participates in the pinball league. He is sometimes referred to as “Coach Mike” because he is so familiar with rules and strategy and will show people new games and coach them on shots.
Moberg said he thinks pinball is having a revival because it brings back memories for people his age — their early 50s — who grew up with pinball. Will Reul is in his early 20s, but he was around pinball his whole life. His dad, Mike Reul, plays pinball and is a home collector. Both are in the league at Drekker.
“My dad’s had countless machines in the house. That’s his machine over there,” said Will, pointing to an Iron Maiden pinball machine.
“We’re not that good,” said Mike as Will sat next to him and laughed. “But we like to compete and we challenge each other at home all the time.“
Brooks said the great thing about league play is getting the opportunity to interact with people who love pinball as much as they do.
“The way those rules overlap and interact with each other is also unique to each game, and it’s interesting to hear everybody’s take on the optimal ways to score,” Babb said. “There always seems to be something new to talk about or a game you might not be familiar with.”
Fargo Pinball Club has two machines — “Super Mario Bros.” and “Street Fighter” — made by a company that had a factory in West Fargo. From 1985 to 1996, Premiere Technology’s factory in West Fargo manufactured wire harnesses for pinball machines as well as other electrical equipment. Both of the wiring harnesses in the machines at Fargo Pinball were made in West Fargo, then shipped to Premiere Premiere Technology’s other factory in Bensenville, Ill., for assembly. Due to declining demand for pinball machines, Premiere Technology closed in 1996.
“We don’t know how far these machines have traveled, but they’ve come home to the F-M area,” Brooks said.
Owning a pinball machine
Brooks said just like classic cars, pinball machines are available in a wide variety of prices.
“You can have anywhere from Ford to Ferrari,” he said.
Machine purchase prices generally range from $500 to $25,000 or higher, with the price mainly affected by the machine’s rarity, popularity and fun factor. Brooks said a fun, rare game is a real find. There is also a lot of maintenance that goes into a pinball machine.
“You really have to enjoy soldering to maintain a machine,” Brooks said. “Just like people who restore cars, restoring pinball machines gives you the same satisfaction.”
If you go
What: Fargo Pinball League
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays
Where: Drekker Brewing Co. — Brewhalla, 1666 First Ave. N., Fargo