St. Louis pinball repair techs fix ‘worlds under glass’ with specialized skills
Sunday night is women’s league night at the Bevo Mill bar Silver Ballroom.
A group of players in the league are racking up points on a 1990s-era pinball machine called “Junk Yard,” one of the 20-odd machines that line the south city bar’s back room.
“Each one of them has a completely different objective, and each one of them is telling you a story,” said Kristi Wilson, one of the league’s members.
More than half of the machines at Silver Ballroom are branded with existing properties: a WWE Royal Rumble gameemits grunts in the corner; the screen on the Iron Maiden-themed machine scrolls through the band’s tour dates. “Junk Yard” is one of the few independent games. By completing certain shots, players collect “junk” and — if they’re good enough — use it to build a spaceship and ascend to outer space, becoming a junk master.
Pinball machines in bars take a lot of abuse. They're used dozens of times during the week, and patrons smack them, sit on them and spill beer on them. The Silver Ballroom is one of the few pinball-only establishments in the region, and it takes a real-life group of junk masters to keep the games flashing and squawking.
Fixing a world under glass
Pinball machine repair is a specialized job that not a lot of people take on. Because of the machines’ distinctive mix of electronic, mechanical and digital components, it takes a lot of skill. Machines have evolved over decades, so techs need to be familiar with games from different eras.
Those rowdy Sunday nights are made possible by what happens on quieter Wednesday afternoons. That’s when repair techs come in to address the week’s hand-written list — compiled by bar workers — of machines’ needed repairs.
On a recent afternoon, owner Steve Dachroeden and two other men are repairing the machines. The techs bring their own tool boxes the size of carry-on suitcases filled with tiny metal parts and dozens of wrenches, pliers and pieces of soldering equipment.
Jake Flick, who owns Death Save Pinball, is working on the "Addams Family" machine, another '90s-era game. Its top is propped up like the hood of a car, and underneath are big bundles of wires in a rainbow of colors. The game isn’t sensing when a ball hits a target, he said.
“I’m trying to find out why those switches in the game aren't registering,” he said. “So I’m looking at the manual to kind of figure out where the wires lead to on the circuit board.”
Flick consulted the textbook-size repair manual, which lives in the game’s console, and finds a complicated-looking chart showing the game’s electronic switches. Those function as the eyes of the machine.
“It's literally blind under there until [the ball] hits a rollover switch or a cage,” he said. “The ball will push something up or down, and it sends an electrical signal back to the board, saying, hey, they did this, give them 100 points, or whatever that might be.”
The lights on a machine will direct a player where to aim the balls, he explains, but they don’t actually sense anything.
“It's kind of an escape from reality,” he said. “You’re inside of a little world under glass, and it requires 100% of your attention at all times.”
Like many pinball repair techs, Flick didn’t receive any formal training. Instead, he learned to repair the machines after he bought one and started tinkering with it. Most pinball techs teach themselves through trial and error, working with mentors and watching YouTube videos or reading books, he said.
Bumps in popularity
Dachroeden opened the Silver Ballroom more than a decade ago with his wife, Shelly. She came up with the name, which refers to the silver balls inside the pinball machine.
“Pinball machines are incredible, the amount of how the analog and the digital work together — it's like it's like nothing else,” Dachroeden said. “I just love them so much.”
Since the business opened, arcades and adult-oriented game bars have become more popular. Dachroeden pulled up an app on his phone that showed a current map of St. Louis, overlaid with dozens of dots indicating where one could play pinball.
“You can see that there's probably 50 places within the St. Louis area where you can play pinball now,” he said. “And when we started 13 years ago, we were it. It was just us, and you might have found one or two at Blueberry Hill.”
The only drawback to running a pinball bar, he said, is machine upkeep. He fixes many of the machines himself and brings in Flick and other repair people to help with the maintenance.
More techs are needed to service all the new machines popping up in public spaces around St. Louis. But many are aging out of the job, Dachroeden said.
“I’ve got to wear glasses and a headlight every time I'm working on machines,” he said. “We're going to need some people to learn this skill before the old guys die away. And I'm getting old!”
Pinball repair “is definitely a dying art,” said Julian Barnes of JSB Pinball, who was repairing machines at the Silver Ballroom. He was a middle school science teacher until he realized he was really good at fixing pinball machines.
“For the average pinball player, the way [pinball] works is indistinguishable from magic, because of all the physics and the magnets and the way that the ball moves,” he said. “But it's pretty straightforward.”
While Flick worked across the bar, Barnes focused on a finicky flipper, or one of the paddles that move when you press the buttons on the sides of the machine.
The game he was working on — "Creature from the Black Lagoon," based on the old movie — wasn’t working as smoothly as some would like. Metal parts on the machine expand or wear down with wear, and when the parts change shape, they make the movement of the machine less smooth, he explained.
“This is why I love pinball: every game ends in disappointment,” he said. “The only person you're really playing against is yourself.”
Aficionados are always chasing a high score, he said. And if a flipper or switch isn’t working flawlessly, they’ll notice
“Even in your best game, you're like, I think I can do better,” Barnes said. “And when the guys and girls that are obsessed with that come here to play, and they see things that aren't perfect, that’s getting in their way.”
A full-time job
“These machines aren’t in someone’s family room getting played 20 times a week. They're sometimes played, in tournaments, hundreds of times a week,” said Kristi Wilson, one of the women’s league players. “They're being beaten on, pounded…it’s a full-time job to keep these machines up and running.”
Abigail Manwarren said she saw the machines begin to flag when Dachroeden went on vacation for a few weeks.
“There’s a lot to it, that’s for damn sure. He went to Mexico lately, and I could feel it. I was like, ‘Doc, please come back’!” she said. “He’s the reason why they’re up and running, and why all this is happening.”
The players said it’s important players respect the games — their combination of fantasy and story, lights and metal. And that means respecting the people who keep them running.