Tim: This looks a lot like a public park, but it is actually the grounds of a Hilton along I-35 in Dallas. While the weather outside is nice, the action here is indoors where over the course of three days in March, thousands of people have come to play with, gawk at, and in some cases, buy pinball machines going back to the 1940s and ‘50s. In some ways, it is like a very active hands-on museum. I talked with conference organizer Paul McKinney about the gathering. He says that not only has pinball gotten bigger in the last few years, it is queuing younger too. Paul, what is this, that’s all behind us here?
Paul: Well, this is the 2013 Texas Pinball Festival. And what we have is about 400 or so machines on the floor. The majority of them are pinball machines. A few of them go back to the ‘40s up into the very modern ones that we have now. A lot of them are collector machines that they work on all year, fix them up, and bring them to the show just to be able to share them with the public.
Tim: Now this can’t be your full time job as organizer of pinball machines, what is your day job, what do you do?
Paul: You know, sometimes this is a full time job. Well, I do project management, computer software, and I am somewhat kind of a little retired and able to spend time on this.
Tim: I am shocked you do either one of those things.
Tim: So how many people are here at the show here?
Paul: Well, we have to guess at this point. We still have another day to go, but at anytime we may have as many as 1500 people or so in here. We usually run maybe 3000 over the life of the show.
Tim: Okay. And you have a much more exact count on the machines that are here. You have a more exact count of the machines.
Paul: Oh yeah, we went around and counted this evening, so we know what we have. We are up to 402.
Tim: Now this is called the Texas Pinball Festival. But you are not limited to Texas by attendance or the vendors?
Paul: Oh no at all. In fact, we actually have quite a few people from out of the country, a number from the UK, we usually have South America and Germany well represented, we’ve got Nova Scotia, Canada, and it is just all over the US.
Tim: Now this being 2013, it is really interesting to see pinball, where it wasn’t ten or fifteen years ago.
Paul: Absolutely, and it has really picked up in the last couple of years. We have two new manufacturers that are on the scene, Multimorphic which is out of Austin, and then we also have Jersey Jack pinball which is introducing the Wizard of Oz pinball game here in our tournaments this time.
Tim: Now this festival though has been going on even during some leaner years. How did it get started?
Paul: Well, absolutely. There were about five or six of us, and we would usually run into each other at auctions, looking for old pinball machines to restore, and we started visiting each other, and sharing our collections, and we just thought, well let’s take our games and go find a hotel room, and share them with folks, so we started 13 years ago and about 60 games, just kind of the show has grown from there.
Tim: Now do you have a Holy Grail? Do you look for certain games? Do you play certain games more? What is your favorite?
Paul: You know, I don’t have a Holy Grail. I mean I’ve got games that I’ve never seen before that I like to play. I am very attracted to the art work, and have an appreciation for that, so that’s what I look for in games.
Tim: Now one thing that we talked about earlier today and I would like you to tell some of our readers about is that there is some legislation that is one of the reasons that pinball machines got scarce. How is it that pinball machines disappeared for so long?
Paul: Oh, well, there was a time when pinball machines didn’t have flippers, and you would plunge a ball, and it would go in a hole, and give you some points. And at that point, it was a game of chance. And because of that, it was considered a gambling device. So there were a lot of municipalities that basically didn’t like people making money which would be illegally on gambling machines. So along came the invention of the flipper and what the flipper did was make that game a game of skill. And that allowed them to be back in the marketplace again. But a lot of those laws still hang around even here in Texas. And they will put pressure on you when you are operating, and there is some overhead side to that.
Tim: How does Texas stack up to other states in that regard?
Paul: It is like county by county, is the way that it really is. So it just kind of comes and goes with the seasons.
Tim: It sounds like alcohol.
Paul: A lot like that. But none of us put these machines in that category. And another thing that has happened with machines is really different now, you used to be able to find these machines out in the wild, and I think you still will, you will see them in theaters now, and you are probably going to see more of them in places like that. But for the most part, these things have survived in people’s homes with collectors.
Tim: This is definitely an all ages event?
Paul: Oh absolutely. That is another change that we’ve seen. Thirteen years ago, most of the people at the festival were kind of like me, you know, my age; they grew up playing the games and they collected them. Now if you look around the festival today, you will see that this has grown to, I guess we are close to 50 percent women, a lot of families and kids, parents who might have played when they were little, taking their kids out and introducing them to it.
Tim: Now what shall we expect next year?
Paul: Next year, we are hoping for some more machines. And by that time, I think we are going to have both these manufacturers that had some machines on location. _____7:59 usually cranks out about three machines a year, and we know about some really neat upcoming releases that they are going to have, so...
Tim: Anything else people should know about this festival here?
Paul: Every person comes out tired.
Tim: When in the year do you start planning? When will you start planning for the next one?
Paul: We will start planning in about two weeks for next year.
Tim: Wow! Okay. If somebody has a machine at home, and feel that they would love to get it on the floor here, what should they do?
Paul: If someone has a machine that they want to bring to play at the Texas Pinball Festival, just go to our site texaspinball.com, give us about a month or two to get it going on next year, but you will have an exhibitor registration page and just fill that out, and come and enjoy.
Tim: Now I won’t ask you to place any bets on this, but is this the largest such gathering in the world?
Paul: I’ll place a bet. Yes, right now, we are pretty close to the largest display of pinball machines in a setting like this for a festival in the world. And I would love to challenge the other festivals to be just as big because the ones that are close, we all know this is just good for pinball, and we like that.