For founder Tim Arnold, the Pinball Hall of Fame is a twofold labor of love. It combines his love of pinball and helping others in the community.
“For a midlife crisis, I could have done worse,” Arnold said. “I could have a drug habit or a blonde or something like that. Instead, here I am donating millions of dollars to help local social services and having fun with my friends.”
The hall of fame, 1610 E. Tropicana Ave., is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. It houses around 250 machines, with another 50 at an annex at the Riviera. Arnold still has 800 machines in his warehouse, so machines are switched out with some frequency.
The Pinball Hall of Fame began in part because Arnold had a warehouse full of pinball machines from his days operating an arcade and a desire to help charities. A decade ago, he began opening up the warehouse for fundraising events. That segued into a location where people could play his games every day, followed by a move to the nonprofit’s own building, which was paid off last year. The Pinball Hall of Fame entered the new year in a building it owned outright and 2.5 acres of parking.
“We used to just park on the lot, but the county decided to put it up for auction,” Arnold said. “That would have been a problem for us because there are really only 13 parking spaces in front of our building.”
The county auctioned the lot off back taxes. The space had originally been a Furr’s Cafeteria and later became a nightclub. After the nightclub closed and the building was razed, Kmart considered building there.
“I had to get in touch with all the lien holders going back to the beginning of time,” Arnold said. “In the end, no one else bid on it, so we got it for $311,000, the amount of back taxes owed on it.”
Arnold was glad to have the property purchases behind him so the hall of fame could get back to helping local charities.
“Just today I’m going down to a dealer to buy a new $60,000 cube van for The Salvation Army Family Services,” Arnold said. “We continue to support our community as much as we can. I was talking to the major (of the local branch of The Salvation Army), and they had no money in their budget for a truck. We’re like the charity ninjas. We kind of drop down wherever we’re needed.”
The Pinball Hall of Fame operates with a shoestring budget.
“We now own 3 acres of land and a modern, efficient 9,000-square-foot building, free and clear,” Arnold said. “Both properties are covered by a property tax exemption, so it now costs us just $12 a year in fees to open our doors. We are down to utilities and a couple other small unavoidable costs and a new game from time to time. The rest of the cash flow can be dedicated to our charitable giving to help local social service charities.”
A core of five to 10 volunteers staffs the location and handles repairs. Arnold fixes many of the machines himself, and from time to time, he gets help from out-of-town volunteers who want to be a part of it.
“That’s great when I get someone in here who knows what they’re doing,” Arnold said. “I can just turn them loose on something.”
There are only two companies that still make pinball machines: Stern Pinball in Chicago and Jersey Jack in Plainfield, N.J. Parts for most of the machines there have to be hand-fabricated.
“We have someone with access to a 3-D printer who can help us out every once in a while, but a lot of it has to be created by hand,” Arnold said. “The other day, I had make a leather clutch. It had to be perfectly round and a certain thickness. Then I had to soak it in neatsfoot oil because they just don’t make them anymore.”
For Arnold, the work is worth it because he loves the old machines and introducing people to them.
“I want tourists and people who have never played pinball to come in and sample it and realize it exists,” Arnold said. “This was such a huge part of entertainment, and now it’s gone. If you grew up watching movies or listening to music, you can relive your youth on the Internet instantly. If pinball was your thing, it’s just gone.”
Charles “Butch” Rock moved to North Las Vegas last summer and soon discovered the Pinball Hall of Fame.
“I bring all my grandkids down here,” Rock said. “They have games I played when I was 10 years old.”
On a recent visit to the hall of fame, Rock brought family members visiting from California. Some of his grandchildren complained that some of the old machines didn’t work anymore. They mentioned a mechanical baseball game on which it was impossible to score runs. Rock took them back to the machine, dropped in a quarter and got 27 of them.
“I used to be pretty good at these when I was a kid,” he said. “This is a great place.”
The hall of fame is always in a state of flux as machines are replaced, go off the floor for repairs or are mothballed.
“Eventually, what we want to do is feature all the best machines and a couple of the worst,” Arnold said. “We want to avoid the stuff in the middle. We’re going to prune back the video games simply because it’s pointless to have them here. If you want video games, you can get them on your phone.”
The plan is to leave six of the cream of the crop, or historically significant video games, including Pac-Man and Asteroids, and have the remainder of the hall of fame filled with pinball and mechanical-action arcade games, including gun, hockey and baseball games and some oddities such as the push button-operated dancing clown puppet.
“We get people who come in here with this look of pure nostalgia on their face because here’s something they dedicated their lives to in the ’70s and ’80s and they haven’t seen since,” Arnold said. “They’ll just stand there staring at a machine and say something like, ‘The first time I kissed a girl, I was playing this machine. I can’t believe it’s here.’ I see that kind of thing every day.”
Contact Paradise/Downtown View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4532.