Arts » Visual Art

Pinball Wizards

A free pinball palace? That's super

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ASCENDING THE STAIRS OF THE FORMER AMERICAN Greetings factory at 1300 West 78th Street, you may hear the frenzied clicks of flapping wood paddles and blips and chirps of electronic encouragement.

This joyful racket is coming from one of more than a dozen classic arcade machines of Superelectric Pinball Parlor, a living museum of kinetic gaming hosted by local artists Benjamin Haehn, Nathaniel Murray and David Spasic.   

The best part of it all? You don't have to raid your laundry fund of quarters to play. During their popcorn and music-drenched open houses the third Friday of every month, Superelectric's games are all free.

"Free play makes it easy for people to approach if you don't know what it will be like," Spasic says.

"We want to make it a community space," Haehn says.

 Superelectric's trio met while studying various fine arts at Bowling Green State University, but did not become close friends and collaborators until after graduating and moving to Cleveland.  Murray and Haehn rent a space in 78th Street Studios, a former factory and current enclave for the city's culture class. Between open houses, the studio serves as both an apartment and the home of their business, Superelectric Press, a print shop for such clients as Derek Hess and Oliver Barrett.

The first step towards an arcade was taken nine months ago, when Haehn dug out from his father's basement Cow Poke, a Western-themed pinball machine by D. Gottlieb & Company. Haehn said he had not played with it since he was five, but after dusting it off, he worked the flippers for hours at a time. His passion became obsession when his friends started staying up all night to play the silver ball.

 "We got the bug," Haehn says.

The shared obsession became a hobby, and one the boys wanted to share with the wider world.  They scoured Craigslist for used machines, and found willing sellers locally on the East Side and Medina, and as far afield as Pittsburgh and Austin.

Many sellers were happy to get back the space in their garage or mother's basement, but that doesn't mean getting the machines out of their resting places was easy. Neither was carrying them up the three flights of stairs to Superelectric's space. Though Murray says they've never put any of the games on a scale, "We know how much they weigh."

Most of the machines needed fixing up. Though lacking backgrounds with machines or electronics, the artists had a willingness to experiment.

"We like to tinker with stuff. The Internet is a big help. By now we can diagnose most problems," says Spasic.  

The collection of games spans three decades and three continents of pinball history. Cow Poke, built in 1965, is Superelectric's oldest unit. The newest is 1985's wrestling-themed Tag Team, whose early computer technology allows multi-ball play between teams whose scores are tallied automatically.  

Some machines, like the DayGlo-colored Faces, have been repatriated from Europe, where game manufacturers exported their products during the periodic moral panics in which American cities banned pinball for its resemblance to gambling. Others are more exotic still, like the two machines for Pachinko, a Japanese variant of the game played on vertical units.  

When asked which machine newcomers absolutely have to play when they visit, the Superelectric trio can't reach a consensus. Murray and Haehn say their favorite is Dragon, a 1974 tie-in game for a pulp-fantasy movie that ended up never getting made. However, Spasic says he hates it—and sometimes, Murray and Haehn do too. Dragon's mazelike field of obstacles and short, sometimes-sticky flippers make it the most challenging game in the parlor.  It's the only machine that's never been "flipped." No one has ever scored high enough that the counter had to start over again at zero. Even the semi-pros at Superelectric, with their hours of practice-talk about Dragon like it's a game of chance.  

"You can have the best ball ever, or the worst game you ever had," Murray says.

Though Superelectric plans on keeping some pieces in a permanent collection, they are open to selling some of their units to interested buyers, and have done so already. They're always hauling machines through their door, but only have so much space. Furthermore, Spasic says he wants to offer players something new to see every month. Haehn says he wants to cultivate appreciation for the craftsmanship of the machines and the handmade screen printing which decorates them.

Going forward, the Superelectric collective hopes to sell a line of promotional posters and T-shirts, and start painting its own designs onto machines. Their first planned theme: Galapagos, the archipelago inhabited by finches and tortoises that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.  It's appropriate, given how the parlor has adapted cultural artifacts to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

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