Phoenixville’s Jamme Thomas acknowledges that a bigger build is best for pinball. Larger bodies can more easily nudge the machine, among other tricks of the trade. Thomas is short, affording her a different point of view. “When I try to shake the machine, it shakes me,” she says.
A software developer by trade and a pinball wizard by passion, Thomas calls Malvern’s Pinball Gallery her second home. “After the pandemic shutdown, I came back in,” says Thomas. “I had tears in my eyes. I was so happy to be back.”
Thomas and 19 others are part of a unique league started by the wife of Pinball Gallery owner Bill Disney. Each participant logs five pinball games a night against different opponents in pools of four. The five-week season is capped by a tournament. “I don’t know of any other ladies league,” says the retired Unisys software engineer. “They make friends playing, then do other things together. They sign up for snacks. There are door prizes.”
Sue Lubanski drives an hour from Bucks County to participate in the league. She used to play when she was 17, and now she’s addicted again. “Before, I’d just hit the ball and see what would happen,” she admits. “Then I found other ladies who play—and you can bring machines home. I have seven machines I’ve bought from here.”
For Lubanski, that’s been a $25,000 investment so far. Thomas also has a machine at home. American’s “Octoberfest Pinball on Tap” model cost her over $7,400—and pinball machines are like tattoos. “Once you get one …,” she says.
Leading pinball machine manufacturers Gottlieb and Williams exited the pinball business in 1996 and 1999, respectively. That left only Stern. Others have entered the scene in recent years, but the aggregate number of machines produced annually is just a fraction of the output before videogames. As the arcade industry nosedived over the decades, it was tough to find a pinball machine anywhere, save for the occasional basement. “It’s a different world now,” Disney says. “There’s too much other stuff.”
Pinball’s undisputed heyday was in the early 1970s. The Who’s Tommy, a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball prodigy, made its debut in 1969. Who lead singer Roger Daltrey played the lead character in the subsequent 1975 film, and there were three Tommy-inspired pinball machines. The Disneys still have the vintage 1975 Bally “Wizard!” machine at home, and a 1994 version representing Tommy’s Broadway run. When Daltrey recently performed at the Mann Music Center, the Disneys loaned out all three machines for pre-show publicity.
There’s a 1976 Elton John “Captain Fantastic” machine in the Malvern store. Disney estimates that he owns between 130 and 140 pinball machines right now, along 20 video arcade models. In 2009—just months removed from a major recession—he and his wife, Sherry, opened the first Pinball Gallery in Downingtown. Six years later, business has taken off in the impressive 4,500-square-foot Malvern emporium. “When we first moved, there weren’t enough machines to fill it,” Bill says. “We had sections blocked off. We’ve kept expanding.”
But these are machines—and machines need repairs. “They break all the time, and if you can’t fix them they stay broken,” says Disney. “If you can’t keep up, you go downhill fast. So there’s not a lot of competition in the area.”
At Pinball Gallery, admission is $10 an hour, $18 for two hours and $25 for an all-day pass. You can play all year for $300. Several coin-drop machines collect donations for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The disease has taken a heavy toll on Disney’s family, afflicting his wife, sister and mother.
In March 2020, the International Flipper Pinball Association suspended national and worldwide play and point-based rankings among its 71,000 players. Its sponsorship of state and world championship competition resumes this year. The Disneys got a head start, bringing back local leagues and tournaments this past summer.
Pinball Gallery can lay claim to Broomall’s Rick Prince, who’s been ranked as high as 115th in the world. Barring a permanent pandemic shutdown, he’s plenty good enough compete at Pittsburgh’s Pinburgh, known as the world’s largest match-play pinball tournament. As far back as 24 years ago, he advanced to the round of 32 among a field of 64 at the world pinball championships in Las Vegas. “Pinball is a small world, but it’s passionately followed,” says the 66-year-old Prince, who hosts his own Halloween-themed tournament every October ultilizing his 18-game collection. “People who are into pinball are really into pinball.”
“Pinball machines break all the time, and if you can’t fix them they stay broken. If you can’t keep up, you go downhill fast. So there’s not a lot of competition in the area.”
But even Prince has to give way on ladies’ night at Pinball Gallery. “My husband asks, ‘How can you play for six hours straight?’” Lubanski says. “I say, ‘Don’t you realize that half the time is talk time.’”