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The Basement Arcade Bar: Pinheads are Flipping!

Jul 01, 2018 08:30AM ● By Jason Huddle

The Basement Arcade Bar: Pinheads are Flipping!

“Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve played the silver ball.”

  - Pinball Wizard (From Rock Opera, Tommy, by The Who)

Downtown Concord has ramped up its entertainment choices, but it’s unlikely anyone could have predicted an arcade. This follows a national trend, however: the resurgence of pinball in nostalgic bar arcades.

Pinball has roots going all the way back to 18th century France in the form of Bagatelle, a game where players navigated a small ball along a wooden board with both holes and nails. The goal was to maneuver the ball around the nails with a pool cue-type stick, getting it to drop into a hole for points.

Bagatelle came to the U.S. during the Revolutionary War. “Full-size games were common across Europe and the United States by the 1830s, as entertainment in taverns, inns and stagecoach stops. These games were about the size of a modern pool table. Due to its popularity, manufacturers also began to produce smaller table-top versions as toys for children around this time,” encyclopedia.com explains.

By the early 20th century, spring-loaded plungers, glass panels, score counters and coin slots were being added. “By 1935, the game design had changed so that the playing field had its own table. The games were electrified, so that parts of the playing field could light up, and the game could keep score and pay out prize money automatically,” encyclopedia.com says. “Harry Williams, whose Williams Manufacturing Company became one of the foremost pinball manufacturers in the United States, added significant thrill to the game by electrifying the playing field with a ‘kicker’ that could shoot the ball out of a hole and back onto the field.”

In 1947, the Humpty Dumpty game produced by Gottlieb Manufacturing utilized the first flippers: the rubber “bats” that could be moved by pressing a button on each side of the machine to keep the ball in play.

While the game evolved during this era, however, it was being scrutinized as a possible form of gambling. A decade before Humpty Dumpty was being manufactured, pinball was banned in Los Angeles and Chicago, then in New York.

In 1956, a Federal court ruled that pinball was not a form of gambling but cities could still ban certain elements of the game – like flippers and free game payouts. “Such ordinances began to be repealed in the late 1960s, though it was not until January 1977 that pinball was finally legal again in Chicago. New York had legalized pinball the year before, and Los Angeles in 1972,” encyclopedia.com says.

That was just in time for the Who’s rock opera, Tommy, which featured Elton John as the Pinball Wizard. The ‘70s, as a whole, was a pinball decade. Artistic themes, colorful lights, sounds, speech, bonus balls, mystery points and microchips that remembered scores…it was a feast for the senses.

Then came the video game. “By the end of the 1990s, only one manufacturer was left: Williams Electronics Games Inc., in Chicago, which made both Williams and Bally brand games. Williams ceased production of traditional pinball games in October 1999.”

Since then, pinball games have become collectibles. Troy and Heather Taylor know all about that. They’ve been collecting machines since 2003.

Troy is a California native, but has lived in North Carolina since elementary school. He was one of those kids that played arcade games at the mall and elsewhere until they eventually closed down.

“About 17 years ago, I found someone selling a pinball machine (Back to the Future) and decided to buy it,” he says. “I’ve been hooked ever since, and have bought and sold many machines through the years.”

Troy was working for the then-SPEED channel and living in Charlotte. “We were definitely limited in the space we had for games in our Charlotte house,” he says. “I actually tried keeping pinball machines in an upstairs guestroom, but the floor started to bow and needed to be reinforced. My wife would like to add that she told me that would happen. They moved downstairs and took over our breakfast room at that point.”

In 2005, while in Charlotte, the Taylors discovered the beautiful historic homes on Union Street in Concord. “The house we loved (a fixer-upper) eventually came back on the market and we moved in 2013,” Troy shares. “One of the greatest things about our house in Concord is that the prior owners added an enormous garage at the back of the property. It’s too far from the house to really use for everyday parking, but is perfect for an arcade. I was able to really expand the collection when we moved.”

Troy learned how to repair broken-down machines by way of other collectors and the Worldwide Web. “The home collector community really took ownership of these classic games when arcades started to close and made sure they survived for the next generation to enjoy,” he says. “The Internet has also been a huge help when repairing games. You can find manuals online and knowledgeable people in arcade/pinball groups. Quite often, when repairing a pinball machine, you just ‘pop the hood,’ use common sense and try not to electrocute yourself. Most parts are readily available online now.

“There is a fairly large local scene of collectors. I have bought, sold and traded machines with a lot of them. I’ve also had machines shipped from multiple places across the country,” he adds. “We pulled one pinball machine someone spotted from a dump in South Carolina. It cleaned up beautifully and went on to live a happy life.”

So while the Taylors found themselves immersed in home renovation, they also kept the idea of a money-making arcade in the back of their minds.

“We always talked about opening a place, but didn’t know if we could handle it while working full-time,” Troy says. “Now that we have a daughter who’s headed to college, we decided it was time to turn these games off of ‘Free Play’ and make them earn. Your quarters will definitely turn into tuition!”

As it was with the purchase of their Concord home, timing was instrumental. Angela Long, a Concord businesswoman and friend of the Taylors, owns the historic building at 14 Union Street S. When the ground floor space came up for lease last year, she contacted them.

“We wanted more opportunities to spend our free time and money in our own downtown rather than driving somewhere else. We have fantastic restaurants, ice cream, handmade chocolates, crepes, doughnuts…the food scene is covered! But we wanted an inexpensive option for something to do downtown that didn’t revolve around food,” Troy says. 

He and Heather jumped at the chance to open The Basement Arcade Bar utilizing the collection of

pinball machines they’ve amassed personally. “The Basement is a place where locals can drop in to meet friends and family for a casual drink and game time. You can absolutely have a good time with us for $10, and the time commitment is up to you. For a lot of young people and families, that’s especially important,” Troy notes. 

What’s exciting to the Taylors is seeing the original pinball generation light up almost as brightly as the machines when they enter the Basement. They’re also bringing their younger family members.

“Our customers tend to span all age groups and we have an incredibly diverse crowd,” Troy says. “We see a huge population close to our age who played these games growing up now bringing their own kids. We have lots of grandparents as well. Many of them remember dropping their kids off at their local arcade in the ‘80s. Now they have grandchildren who may have never seen a pinball machine in real life. Kids who are used to playing games on phones are especially blown away by pinball. It’s such a real, tactile experience versus the virtual world they’re used to.

“Our game lineup changes frequently,” he adds. “I’m always on the lookout for a great game in decent shape. There are also some fantastic new releases that we bring in from the few companies currently producing pinball. Stern Pinball in Illinois survived the death of arcades and the Great Recession, and turns out incredible new pins made in America.” 

It’s not lost on the Taylors that they’ve created a local, walkable entertainment venue backed by community support and other local business owners that complement the arcade. It’s also catered to member adults 21 and older after 9:00pm. A variety of adult beverages are for sale, as well as munchies.

“North Carolina ABC laws can be quirky, and businesses selling alcohol have to choose a classification like restaurant, brewery, distillery, event venue, etc. Each has its own guidelines concerning required food sales, seating and more,” Troy explains. “That’s why The Basement is categorized as a private club. That just means that we have to do the following:

• Charge an annual fee ($1 is all it takes!);

• Collect basic member information (We can usually just scan your driver’s license.);

• Check in members for each visit;

• Members must be 21-plus and may bring up to five guests under 21 until 9pm;

• Under-21 guests must be supervised at all times;

• Our check-in kiosk is really simple and will get you in quickly.”

As for his personal game favorites, Troy says they’re Sega Super GT and Attack from Mars pinball. “My wife is torn between Ms. Pacman and Bram Stoker’s Dracula pinball. Our daughter is the Joust champion.

“My wife’s Ms. Pacman will always stay here (at home). We have a stand-up cabinet and a cocktail table version at the bar, but hers is sacred.”

For more information about The Basement Arcade Bar, be sure to visit their Facebook page.

Article By: Kim Cassell

Photos Courtesy: Michael A. Anderson Photography


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