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In Tampa, two pinball wizards work to restore their hobby

As boys, their biggest challenge was finding the next quarter to play another game at the arcade. As adults, it's finding more space to squeeze another game in their home. They consider music from '80s some of the best ever and don't quite get all the fuss over Xbox and Nintendo Wii.

These guys collect pinball machines and classic video games like others collect cars and neon beer signs. Like the machines themselves, there aren't too many of them around.

Rich Menold of Carrollwood took up collecting about four years ago from his neighbor, Jeff Miller, who restores old machines. Menold started with video games, then shifted to pinball. In all, he's got about a dozen games, including a 1997 Medieval Madness pinball, a 2006 Family Guy pinball and a sitdown Asteroids machine.

By edict of his wife, Menold has to "confine his eccentricities'' to one room and the garage. He's taken over both, plus a corner of his laundry room where Donkey Kong lives. Only the best ones get in his game room, which requires disassembling each machine and removing the door.

Menold, 38, collects newer machines, typically 15 years old or less, with computerized scoreboards and digital sound. His favorite is his oldest — a Bally's Creature of the Black Lagoon from 1993.

"My heart is with the old stuff,'' he said. "You couldn't pay me to play Dance Revolution. There would have to be a lot of money and beer involved.''

Like most collectors, he finds his toys through word of mouth, classified ads and eBay. His Tales of the Arabian Nights machine came from a retired baseball player's beachfront condo in Volusia County.

Pulling the plunger and pushing the flippers takes Menold back to his youth, when a trip to the arcade was the ultimate treat.

Menold discovered Pac-Man in 1981 at Bell Wick Bowl in Hubbard, Ohio. He was 10. Kids lined up their quarters along the edge of the machine, waiting their turn. After a few games, he was hooked.

"If you only had a buck, you would play Pac-Man because it lasts longer'' than pinball, he said.

Video games quickly replaced pinball as the preferred arcade game in the early '80s, signaling the end of pinball's dominance. Today, only one company — Stern — makes new pinball machines, outliving Gottlieb, the first pinball maker, Bally and Williams.

Enter Menold's neighbor, Jeff Miller. He finds old machines, many from bars and beer-stained, and restores them like new. He spends about 200 hours on each, repainting the cabinets and polishing and replacing parts.

"When people see my stuff they drool,'' he said.

A graphic artist with a background in woodworking, Miller, 43, has restored about 15 pinball machines and 25 video games in the past five years, most of them from the '70s and '80s. He considers the work more a hobby than a business, although he can earn a few thousand dollars selling each rebuilt machine. He also sells restored machines with 60 classic arcade games in one for about $2,500.

"People tell me, 'That's not fun to me. I couldn't do that if my life depended on it,' '' Miller said. "But that's how my mind works.''

Miller has eight pinball and video games in his game room, including his most treasured, a Captain Fantastic pinball machine by Bally featuring Elton John. It's from 1976 when machines still had electro-mechanical score reels and chimes, and The Who's Pinball Wizard was a jukebox favorite.

Next to it hangs a framed photo of a 10-year-old Miller playing pinball at a Holiday Inn in Jasper, Ind., one of his fondest childhood memories. When friends come over, he blasts The Cars, Duran Duran and other '80s favorites through the built-in speakers. His nickname is "pinball pimp.''

He remembers standing five kids deep waiting to play Asteroids when Atari first released it in 1979.

"If your name was on the top of the scoreboard, you were like the Asteroid god of my town,'' he said. "You were really respected.''

Fast forward 30 years, and the same applies.

"I've had parties here with two guys on the machine for four hours straight,'' Miller said.

Pinball and classic game enthusiasts lament that it's become increasingly difficult to find machines at arcades, bars and restaurants — what they call "in the wild'' — because the machines are so difficult to maintain. Collectors get their fix by throwing get-togethers in their garages or playing alone at home.

Today most of the remaining machines in public places are showing signs of age. Fewer and fewer people know how to repair them, and many owners figure they aren't worth fixing. They're usually relegated to the back, waiting for a nostalgic child of the '80s to drop a quarter down memory lane.

Menold hates to see machines neglected and wouldn't object to a business owner's request to help clean or fix older pinballs. As a board member of Florida Arcade Collectors, a support group for video game and pinball collectors, he'd like to see more machines in bars and more young people involved.

He wants the lights, the bells and thrill of an extra ball part of every kid's memory.

More on arcade games

For info and photos of every pinball game ever made, go to the Internet pinball machine database at ipdb.org.

For more about Jeff Miller's restored machines, go to millerarcades.com or

pinballpimp.com.

To details on Florida Arcade Collectors, go to pinballflorida.com

A few pinball hotspots

Tampa Lanes: (813) 933-7634; 8105 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa.

Treasure Island Fun Center: (727) 391-9105; 7770 Seminole Blvd., Seminole; tifuncenter.com/arcade.html

Ale Houses: Most area ale houses have one or two pinball machines, including the Tampa Ale House, (813) 969-0020, 14803 N Dale Mabry Highway.

Gameworks: (813) 241-9675; 1600 E Eighth Ave., Centro Ybor; gameworks.com. Note: As of this week, only one of three pinball machines were working.

In Tampa, two pinball wizards work to restore their hobby 01/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 2:16pm]
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