He Sure Displays a Mean Pinball

Clay Harrell was looking for somewhere new to store his 165 pinball machines and he knew he couldn't just put them in his backyard.
"If this was in my backyard it would be hard to walk away from," Harrell says. "Sometimes you have to be able to walk away from things."
Harrell is in the midst of moving the massive collection from a Novi storage facility to a former VFW hall in Green Oak Township. The new facility will reopen as the Ann Arbor Pinball Musem in 2014, with the entire collection open and playable to the public four weekends per year. Harrell, who lives just down the road from the museum-to-be, says the price of building a pole barn in his backyard "came in tied" with the cost of buying the hall. And, he says, the museum concept has more potential.
"This one more feels like something," he says. "The other one was more of a warehouse. People would still come over and play games, but this one is more festive."
The long hall has unique ambience, with chandeliers fashioned from wagon wheels and a frame made of old telephone poles. It currently houses 100 of Harrell's machines, dating back to the earliest coin-operated games of the ‘30s. Some of the machines' cultural references are startling: the 1951 "Minstrel Man" game features black characters in white minstrel facepaint that dive down if the pinball hits them. "Real politically correct," Harrell cracks. Others are dated in a more welcoming way: one of the newest machines, from 1993, features the cast of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
The diverse collection is the result of Harrell's decades-long obsession with pinball machines and what makes them tick (or light up). He was an avid video gamer in the ‘80s, but found the games difficult and uninteresting from a repair perspective. But when he bought his first pinball machine in the late ‘80s and opened it up, it was love at first sight.
"There's a lot of magic to these things," Harrell says. "I've grown to like to repair the machines more than I like to play them. And that's a real turn-on, because nobody ever sells a working pinball machine."
Harrell slowly began to accumulate a collection of machines, and a reputation as a formidable pinball repair expert. In 2005, when Harrell lost his IT job at Parke-Davis after its acquisition by Pfizer, he soon realized he could segue into doing freelance pinball repair. Although he now describes himself as being in "semi-retirement," in recent years he's contributed to the PinGame Journal and created pinball repair podcasts and videos for his own website. Harrell says the Internet has become a vital resource for him to connect and share information with fellow pinball enthusiasts - including the 238 who backed the museum's Kickstarter campaign, doubling Harrell's $5,000 goal.
"I don't want to say socially inept, but a lot of people who are into pinball aren't normal kind of people, necessarily," he says. "I think there's a fair number of introverts in this hobby. But once you throw computers and newsgroups in there, it's like gas on the fire."
Doug Dabkowski is one of the many friends Harrell has made through the pinball community. He lauds Harrell's repair skills, noting that a working museum wouldn't have been possible in the first place without Harrell's restoration work.
"Ninety-five percent of the games here showed up in his hands not working," Dabkowski says. "He has brought them back to life."
Dabkowski is one of the 30 or so workers and friends who flit, almost groupie-like, in and out of the museum, helping to move machines and refurbish the space. Many of them, like Eric VanDommelen, used to congregate at Harrell's Novi facility to play the machines from time to time. A veteran gamer, VanDommelen fondly recalls his high school days, when he could hit three different locations of Pinball Pete's in Ann Arbor. These days, there's only one Pete's in town. But between Pete's, Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, the Shark Club in Howell, and the Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, VanDommelen says local arcade culture remains remarkably strong.
"Oh my gosh, this place is heaven," he says of Harrell's collection. "You play pinball on location: bars, bowling alleys, things like that. And a good venue will have ten machines. The more we're out there and the more we play, the more I realize how unbelievably spoiled we are living in southeast Michigan."
Although Harrell has regularly welcomed friends into his personal arcade before, he faces a unique challenge in opening his collection to the general public for the first time. He says he's simply not sure what to expect. He'll already be nipping at the heels of Las Vegas' Pinball Hall of Fame, widely recognized as one of America's biggest pinball museums. That facility, operated by Pinball Pete's founder Tim Arnold, sports over 200 machines. The only comparable local model Harrell can look to is the annual Michigan Pinball Expo, which typically includes over 125 machines. The lines at the expo get long, and Harrell says he's heard stories of people getting to play as few as three games in two hours.
"I don't have the physical space to do that," he says. "And I don't think I have the constitution for it either. It kind of scares me, to be honest, to have a hundred people in here that you don't know, just pounding on them. I just want to be prepared for it."
Nonetheless, Harrell engaged in what he calls "some arm-twisting" with the township to get permission to open to the public four weekends a year. The township originally preferred a private museum on the property, which is zoned residential.
"From a donation point of view, we might be able to fund part of the heating bill," he says. "And it'll be nice to open it to the public and give them a chance to experience it."
The first public test of the new facility will likely come sometime in early 2014, after winter passes. Despite his concerns about the opening, it seems Harrell still can't help wanting to share his gaming treasures.
"I figure it's just once a quarter," Harrell says. "How bad can it be?"

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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