The Pinball Enthusiasts

By J.F. Pirro

In American entertainment circles, if video killed the radio star, the advent of video games slowly smothered pinball machines. Then, as video games became smaller, arcades dried up, too. Conversely, as houses were built bigger, basement recreation rooms became modern in-house arcades—and pinball has since rebounded.

Denise and Brian Heins’ Whitehall basement is the modern model. A combination diner-arcade, there’s 2,400 square feet of nostalgic amusement beneath their hillside rancher. A black-and-white checkered floor leads to their Magic City Diner (named for the 1967 machine Magic City and Disney’s Magic Kingdom). Above Denise’s 1950s original family kitchen set from Allentown—in pink—there’s even a Magic City Diner neon sign made by, and purchased from, a fellow pinball collector.

Through a separately-labeled “Arcade” entrance, Brian professes that it’s okay to own 10 or more pinball machines—though he cautions against buying the second one. “It’s an addicting hobby,” he says. The Heins’ first was Buckaroo because Brian played it as a 15 year old. Their second was Aladdin’s Castle.

Beginning in 1994, and for 17 years, the Heins called their local pinball extravaganza Pinball Wizards before giving way to promoter Ivan Lysykanycz. The show and sale’s new name is Pinfest, which continues Allentown’s notable pinball tradition. For what will be Lysykanycz’s second Pinfest on May 4-5, the event is expanding out of the 15,000-square-foot annex and into the 40,000 square-foot Agri-plex Expo Center next door at the Allentown Fairgrounds. As many as 250 machines and 2,000 attendees are expected. The popular theme-flea market now moves indoors, sparing concern for bad weather and overnight security costs.

A tournament—and playing—is part of the festival. An incentive to collectors: If they bring a machine and set it up (and maintain it) for free play, their admission is free. Those machines are also usually for sale, so it’s a win-win for everyone.

“You can have a great game, and then a poor game,” says Lysykanycz, who bought his first machine in 2000 on eBay, an Apollo 13. “The game can make you humble, but that also makes you want to play again. It plays on your psyche.”

“The Lehigh Valley is a hotbed of pinball enthusiasts,” says Lysykanycz, an Allentown native. “Our show is almost like a pilgrimage. People come out to conserve and preserve what’s been a dying art.”

Back in 1994, the Heins rented Trexlertown Fire Co. for an invitation-only event.  Tickets went to 60 enthusiasts, but 297 attended in a hall capped at 200. “I was told I had to ask 97 people to leave,” Brian recalls. “I replied, ‘No, you ask.’”

The Heins’ ran the event like a car show. There were 30 to 40 machines and three vendors, including Steve Young, a Lehigh University graduate who operates Pinball Resource, a premier parts warehouse in New York. Bill Lewis of Cricket Amusements in Wescosville was another early vendor.

The second show moved to the firehouse in Fullerton for three years, then later for a seven-year run at Merchant Square Mall in Allentown and six years at the Fairgrounds.

For the Heins, Denise was the self-proclaimed “instigator” who grew tired of the monotony of two or three machines. Brian began repairing and selling them so they could buy more, even some for parts so no machine would “go down in vain.” “It became seven, then 20 and then we designed the house in 2000 to accommodate them,” he confesses.

The Heins had 52 when they moved in, and 35 now.  Brian has restored all but five. Over the years, they’ve bought, traded, swapped or sold 340 pinball machines, meticulously keeping track in a database.

Harry Irvin, a prominent Macungie collector who grew up in Delaware County outside Philadelphia, says you couldn’t go 15 feet without finding a machine in his day. Once, his father found him spending his tips when he should have been finishing his newspaper route.

Irvin, a retired teacher like Brian Hein, is known as the “swap king.” He bought his first in 1978, but it was his only machine for 17 years. He bought his second in 1995–and 136 more since. Irvin has 19 now, but he’s handled 138 over the years.

Lysykanycz, a Lincoln Technical Institute graduate with an associate’s degree in electronic engineering, actually enjoys repairing and restoring pinball machines for himself and others as much as playing them, which he did plenty of at what was then Space-Port in the Lehigh Valley Mall. “Now you can’t live it unless you recreate it,” he says.

He’s building his collection to fill in what others are missing, and clearly defines himself as a collector, not a hoarder, though his stash is starting to squeeze him out of his home. “I want them out there for all to enjoy,” says Lysykanycz, emphasizing the thrust of the festival. “Many private collectors keep them and hide them.”

For more information, visit pinfestival.com.

SOURCES:
Mid Atlantic Replay, LLC
847 E. Juniata St.
Allentown, Pa. 18103

Ivan Lysykanycz
610-730-4455
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]

Brian Hein, [email protected]

Harry Irvin, [email protected]

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