And Wilmington is a hotbed for the nostalgic pastime, thanks to some local wizards
When the Oakland Raiders visited Philadelphia for their Christmas Day game last year, management and coaches wanted to find a way to keep players and their families entertained at their hotel, safely away from unruly Eagles fans.
What better way to entertain young men than with arcade games? And since taking the team to an arcade was out of the question, management decided to bring the arcade to the team. Through an internet search, the Raiders found Wilmington Home Amusements, on Germay Drive. Owner Scott Carey and his two-man crew promptly responded, and when the Raiders arrived at their hotel, the fourth-floor hallways and meeting rooms were filled with dozens of ping pong tables, indoor basketball games and pinball machines.
The Raider job is just one indication that pinball’s nationwide comeback has reached Delaware. The following month, Carey’s business hosted Delaware’s first official state tournament sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association.
The resurgence has been fueled in part by nostalgia, although many of the buyers claim their children wanted the games.
“The parents like to blame the kids for buying the pinball machine, but at the end of the day they usually admit that it’s really for them,” Carey says.
High-profile pinball fans have added to the game’s visibility.
In addition to the Raiders, Carey’s clients have included Jon Bon Jovi, for whom he restored a 1954 Seeburg Jukebox. Carey also shipped Skee-Ball and pinball machines to retired NFL quarterback and University of Delaware alumnus Rich Gannon.
And retired PGA golfer and Chester native Ed Dougherty has about 90 pinball machines set up at any one time, Carey says.
Pinball culture, which once thrived in pizza parlors and arcades, has moved to collectors’ basements and halls like Carey’s that can host competitions.
“The collectors’ market has exploded, and with that we’re finding that league and tournament play has exploded, as well,” Carey says.
Delaware also has an unofficial but committed pinball ambassador in Chad Hastings, who has organized several tournaments, including the state competition.
“The people are hungry for it,” Hastings says.
Hastings is trying to get children interested in pinball — he held a kids’ tournament near the end of March — but most of the game’s comeback is spurred by Generation Xers looking to recapture a feeling from their youth.
Bringing it all back
The 51-year-old Carey is fairly typical. As a child, he was drawn to pinball for its sense of physicality. Instead of playing a video game with a controller and watching a screen, he was interacting with a real, dynamic machine.
To him, the most important element of a pinball machine isn’t the flippers, bumpers or even the way it plays. It’s the sound. Music is the beating heart of a pinball machine. Turn off the sound and each machine is similar to the next, he says.
“As you advance further into a game, the sound and tempo increase to a point where it would reach almost like an explosion and then reset back,” Carey says.
But maybe his affinity for the sound of pinball is as much about the game itself as music’s unparalleled ability to evoke memories.
“As soon as I hear that machine, it takes me back to that time in life,” he says—back to playing Silverball Mania in a Rehoboth Beach arcade with his late father, Ray. “I would go to Rehoboth Beach and I would play a machine and he’d play next to me,” he says.
Carey’s family spent summers at the beach, and he eventually got a job at the arcade. It’s not hard to guess what his favorite part of that job was.
“After we closed up, we would go back to the arcade, open up the games and play free,” Carey says. “The employees brought their friends and we would play for hours.”
He began working at Wilmington Home Amusements in 1990, and a few years later bought the business. He focused on retail sales in November and December—holiday sales months—and the rest of the year he concentrated on expanding the business.
Years later, he would return to the Rehoboth arcade and buy the Silverball Mania that was so integral to his childhood.
“I still have that machine today, in working order,” Carey says. And he’s tried to recreate the after-work free-play sessions of his youth by hosting kids’ parties with a single price and unlimited play.
It’s a selling point for parent and kid alike. “How many parents enjoy going to kids’ parties?” he asks. “But they do here, they love it.”
Meanwhile, he grew his business into a year-round enterprise that rents machines and sells them.
Wilmington Amusement’s biggest repeat customer remains Firefly Music Festival, which now rents about 150 free-play arcade games every year. The company also recently rented machines to a tattoo festival and a beer and wine festival.
Nostalgia is big business in pinball, especially among those who have found success in the intervening years. “You’ve got all these people who have come to a point in their life where they have a little money and [as a result] prices went crazy,” Carey says.
Though pinball machines are still being manufactured, most of the demand is for units built decades ago. Each machine was a one-time build of typically a few thousand units.
This limited supply had predictable market effects once demand started surging. Take Medieval Madness, which sold for about $4,500 (adjusted for inflation) when about 4,000 units were built in 1997. Now, an original in good condition can bring in as much as $20,000, Carey says.
The burgeoning competitive scene is now boosting sales and the game’s future. And in Delaware, that’s where Hastings has found his niche.
Like Carey, Hastings developed a love for pinball early in life. Born in 1974, he spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s in southern Delaware arcades managed by his mother. Then he watched with dismay as pinball machines slowly disappeared.
In November 2015, a long-dormant urge to buy a pinball machine blossomed, and by the time the month was out, he was on the road to North Carolina to pick up a used machine.
“Next thing you know, two months later I find another pinball machine,” he says. Within six months, he had four. Today, he has 11.
But beating your own high score is only fun for so long. So Hastings eventually posted on the popular pinball forum pinside.com to find other Delawareans to play with.
After an informal get-together at his home, Hastings got a taste last year of major competition by entering a tournament in Philadelphia, where he finished 12th out of his 150-person division.
“Now, I’m really intrigued and I’m like, how can we make this happen in Delaware,” he says.
So decided to hold a tournament last September at his home outside Magnolia, about seven miles south of Dover. Forty people showed up, from as far away as New York City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Searching for local players and venues, he downloaded the phone app Pinball Map, a repository of information about where to find machines. According to the app, Delaware was a pinball desert, so Hastings asked for and received permission to update Pinball Map. He then drove around the state to log the machines’ type and locations. He found 19 locations in Delaware with a total of 51 pinball machines. The map is available at pinballmap.com/Delaware.
The dearth of good places to hold a tournament has made Hastings’ home, marked as “Chad’s Pinball Lair” on the Pinball Map, the state’s go-to competitive venue.
The state tournament
After his September tournament, he held another in December to qualify Delaware for the January state tournament.
“The only public place that could handle it was Wilmington Amusements,” Hastings says.
Carey’s business was ideal because, he says, players prefer to play on neutral ground to sidestep any home-field advantage.
“If you’re playing in my house and they’re all my machines, I know every idiosyncrasy that’s there,” he says. “From the way the shots feel to the way they come off the flippers to the power of the flippers, each machine will have slight differences that can change the result of the game.”
As the tournament date approached, Carey didn’t know what to expect. He did know that competitive players have a reputation for being very particular about their machines, so he spent the previous week servicing the 20-something machines in the showroom.
The tournament attracted 16 competitors, about 50 spectators, and some area media. The players were all men, mostly in their 30s and 40s.
The tournament winner was a New Jersey man named Robert DeStasio, who took home $93 and the right to play at the national tournament in Las Vegas on March 1 (he failed to place).
Hastings, who took fifth place, is so committed to spreading the joy of pinball that he allows strangers to come to his home and play on his machines.
“If I’m home, come on over,” he says. Yes, it helps that his girlfriend is a fan of pinball and his sons enjoy it, though his 14-year-old daughter isn’t sold.
Those interested in playing can learn more at his Facebook page, 1st State Flippers.
Carey, too, is planning to host tournaments and will post information at the Facebook page for Wilmington Home Amusements.
Hastings also would like to work with local bar and restaurant owners to “get some games out there in the wild.”
“Whatever I can do as an ambassador to get pinball on the map, that’s what it’s all about,” he says.
Keeping the game alive
While the game has, as Carey describes it, “mass appeal,” its future depends on maintaining old machines, and that’s where he and his crew at Wilmington Home Amusements comes in. But as in other fields, servicing pinball machines increasingly resembles computer repair, and there are no formal training programs.
“It’s a rare skill and a very important skill,” Carey says. “I’m training my staff to take over for at least the next generation and passing on the knowledge I’ve learned over the past 35 years.”