June 06

NEWS : Update : Keeping the Ball Alive: 30 Years of Stern Pinball by PaperFlock Inc

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Daemon and Joe from Paperflock have released an update with information pertaining to its KickStarter project of Keeping the Ball Alive : 30 Years of Stern Pinball.


Hello Kickstarter Backers!

I know we are long overdue for an update and we really appreciate your patience.

The good news is this book is going to be even better than we planned! As you all might have guessed we were waiting on the announcement before we did this update. We are trying to include as many of the newer machines as we can, but are still trying to lock down which of the new titles we can use.

So when will we finish this thing? The addition of new machines is such an amazing opportunity, and we want to take advantage of it to the fullest. This means following some of the new titles’ production through to completion sometime in September, which will put our finishing and printing sometime in October! We will of course be working diligently on the writing, photography, layout, and all details of the book up until that time. We believe that including these machines will be a great addition to the book and a great way to look at the process.

We would also like to reach out to any of you that have historical photos of Stern facilities, people, or machines in the wild you would like to contribute to the project. We have a couple amazing people that are sharing their historical photos with us, but want to open up this opportunity to our backers too!

The writing is also coming along nicely!

Here is a rough draft of the intro for the book:

It’s another morning in the biggest factory where pinball machines are made. It’s out in Elk Grove Village, a suburb of Chicago, in a building Stern Pinball has had for just over a year. Hundreds of men and women sit at rows of cafeteria tables eating their breakfast. You can smell egg and tortilla from the crow’s nest. Floating over them are banners, each for one of Stern’s recent machines, a hall of accomplishments. They resemble the flags stadiums hang for championship years and retired numbers. Game of Thrones. Kiss. The Walking Dead. AC/DC. Star Trek. Avengers. Evergreen properties new and old that the last remaining major maker of pinball have left their mark on. Suddenly, from around the corner, the sound of a woman’s horrified scream rings out. No one flinches. The workers continue eating, packing up their containers or using one of the microwaves that make up an impressive wall. The scream must be pretty familiar by now. It’s one of the sound effects used for the Ghostbusters machine, one of Stern’s newest releases. It plays during the match for a free game, while the dot matrix display recreates a scene where Sigourney Weaver’s character, Dana, is dragged away by the hands of ghouls into a portal to the netherworld. The staff only begin to move when a buzzer too dull for a gameshow rings. They all head back to their workstations around the sprawling floor. Throughout the day they’ll be hammering, drilling, wiring, and hundreds of the other intricate steps required in making one hulking pinball machine. Solderers sit quietly while wisps of smoke drift away from their kits. Testers prod drop targets with their fingers to see if they react properly. Gary Stern, owner, the co-founder and whose father Sam is the namesake of the company, said there’s about three days of labour in every pinball machine. There are between 250 to 300 people working in the building on the average day. Their extended community of suppliers hovers around 3000 people who get some or all of their livelihood from the business. This scene of people making such a niche, beloved device, this business, this work, “this is capitalism at it’s best,” said Stern. Steve Ritchie is one of the most famous designers in pinball. He’s responsible for some of the most influential and beloved titles from the 80s and 90s. Black Knight, High Speed, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Those machines were for Williams, a company that no longer exists as it was best known. He continues his legacy with Stern Pinball now, making machines based on properties like Spider-Man, Elvis, Star Trek and AC/DC. That day, dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans, he was giving a quick tour of the factory floor. It was good that there was a living legend leading the way. The floor can be labyrinthian to the layman. Giant spools of wire, assorted parts and unassembled circuit boards eventually blend in with the Valentine’s Day decorations still strung up. “Factory assembly has right of way,” said Ritchie, while wishing the ramp builders a good morning. Along the assembly line. Through cages of empty cabinets and unmounted backglasses. He said the tour was actually moving against the tide, not necessarily in the order that machines are built. Again, if you didn’t spend a lot of time in the factory or in the guts of a pinball machine, it’d be a little hard to tell. In some laneways and narrows, stacked to either side are the wooden cabinets of Stern’s newest product, a machine based on the 1966 Batman television series starring Adam West, Burt Ward and Cesar Romero. The centerpiece of the machine is a rotating platform, a lazy suzan that cycles between the Batmobile, a tiny old TV set and the flashing red Batphone, which Commissioner Gordon or Chief O’Hara would call when those villainous rogues of Gotham City were at it again. Outside of the machines this rotating device is deceptively large, its formidable shape closer resembling the Riddler’s brain drain gizmo from Batman Forever. The sides of the cabinets display the campy series’ signature, colorful onomonopias. SOCK! KAPOW! BIFF!! It confuses the mind a bit, since the room is filled with its own conflicting sound effects. The whaps of hammers, whirrs of drills and sucking plucks of airguns. The machine marks the 30th anniversary of the company, uniting some of their biggest talents. Lyman Sheats, George Gomez, and even Joe Kaminkow, one of the company’s co-founders who formally left in 1999, when he felt the industry was no longer big enough to support himself and Gary at the same time. There’s something strange happening here. It’s happening around the world. Despite the odds, despite appearances, despite assumptions, pinball is rising again. People are playing pinball more and more. Pinball, which is always cool in degrees, is finding a new stride. Stern is certainly noticing. Their sales are picking up. Their opportunities are opening up. Things may never reach the impressive peaks they had before, but a resurgence now, at this stage, when the infrastructure for pinball machines and arcade operators seemingly whittled, is defiant. It’s a victory for people who love this game, and welcomed by the people who make it. Everyone has their own explanation of this resurrection, or at least a different angle on it. Gary Stern says it’s a mix of barcades, a wave of trendy bars that blend house lagers and IPAs with retro arcade games, and their own marketing efforts. There are several in Chicago alone, Replay, Emporium and Logan’s, the latter of which seems to make an effort to stay on top of the Stern catalogue. “We are growing again,” said Stern. “People are finding pinball and they’re familiar with it. The trend in this country, and I’m seeing it in some other places, a location that has something for the twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings. 30 video games from the 80s, Robotron, Defender types of games. 15 pinball machines. All easy to learn hard to master.” Joe Kaminkow says it’s more general forces. Nostalgia and people of a certain age are behind pinball’s resurgence. Baby Boomers who grew up playing pinball finally have their kids out of the house. They have their basements back. They have disposable incomes. They’re ready to stock up on dart tables, jukeboxes and some of those sweet pinball machines to show off or bask in their corndog greatness.

Shelley Sax, the third founder and Stern’s longest collaborator, has one simpler explanation on how pinball has not only begun resurging, but survived, persevered. “Gary’s very stubborn,” she said. “He’s not going to let it go away.” All three of them have become accustomed to the ebbs and flow of the industry. Before and after establishing their own company 30 years ago, they all saw their fair share of how volatile pinball’s survival can be. How transformative these traditional machines seemed to be. They kind of shrug at what were only the latest hurdles after other close calls. To the general public, it was assumed that pinball went wherever the arcade went. Away. As the 90s came to a close, and pinball wrapped up its most successful decade, arcades gave way to home entertainment. Video game consoles and the internet began to lap the kind of spectacles that arcades delivered. Sax also believes that after 9/11, even just a little unconsciously, people were less enthusiastic to see their family and friends leave the safety of their homes. This new era of Instagram and fear-of-missing-out has largely done away with that. Pinball still had customers, operators. There were still bars, bowling alleys and movie theaters. Stern’s business transitioned more towards hobbyists and collectors than they were accustomed to. But arcades and pinball, out in the world, were much more silent than their usual noisy selves. If baseball diamonds vanished overnight it wouldn’t make playing baseball impossible, but what a blow it would do to its ubiquity. Pinball lived on. Stern lived on. Pinball’s returning. It’s hard to imagine this would have happened had Stern not kept at their craft. Gary Stern likes to use the word “tenacious.” “I would say that’s the one word that would describe us,” said Stern. “Don’t quit. Keep it at. That’s what we did then, and that’s what we’ve been at for 30 years with the ups, downs and everything else.” Stern couldn’t have known that Joe Kaminkow would use the same word during a phone call from his car. “If you don’t remember how many pinball companies started and failed,” said Kaminkow, “the list is as long as your arm. From here you have Capcom and Gottlieb. Williams going away. Bally going away. To think we were the one surviving company. It’s pretty amazing. I give a lot of that credit to Gary’s incredible tenacity.” This is a story about a game I hope you like. A big, loud, ball and bat game that lived through a century of innovation and refinement. A game that has turned people into wizards. A game that once went to congress. A game that went to Hollywood. A game whose true home is in Chicago. A game that could have gone away, but didn’t, because there was one group of people who loved the game too much to let it fade away. This is a story about Stern Pinball, a company started by three people in a townhouse basement, the company who kept the ball alive.

Batman 66 Components

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Thank you all for your patience!

We are so excited to share this with you as soon as it’s done!

Dameon and Joe, the Paperflock team

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