BENTON – Three companies in the U.S. make pinball machines.
The largest and oldest is Stern Pinball in Chicago that traces its roots to the 1930s while Jersey Jack Pinball was founded in 2013 in New Jersey and has shipped 1,300 machines worldwide, according to its website.
The third company consists of four people based in a former lead mining town in southwest Wisconsin and is housed in 1,800 square feet of business incubator space. The 12,800-square-foot building includes a hair salon, insurance agency and government offices for Benton, a Lafayette County community of 975.
Spooky Pinball is in its infancy and has orders for 50 of its “America’s Most Haunted” pinball machines that were designed and programmed by Ben Heck, a pinball enthusiast, inventor and filmmaker from Madison. So far, Spooky Pinball has shipped 15 of the $6,000 machines but Charlie Emery, Spooky’s founder, president and CEO, has his sights on eventually making up to 500 pinball machines a year, hiring more employees, designing and making his own line of pinball machines (“Pinball Zombies from Beyond the Grave”), and building his own manufacturing facility in the Benton Business Park.
Emery’s plans come at a time when video games can be played at home or on a smart phone and where video poker machines, electronic dart boards and pool tables have left little room for pinball machines in bars and restaurants. The majority of the pinball machines built at Spooky Pinball are sold to enthusiasts who install the stand-up machines in their homes.
“Being a pinball guy and a collector, I just felt that we could make it work,” said Emery, 46.
“I knew what Ben was working on, I had an idea for my game to follow Ben’s game, and I thought it was something unique and cool. It’s just something I wanted to do,” Emery said.
Pinball goes back decades and peaked in the early 1990s before most companies closed or changed their focus to more profitable and prolific games like video poker and video slot machines. Collectors and niche pinball leagues have helped keep pinball alive but those involved have primarily purchased and refurbished old games.
However, a market exists for new games, said Jonathan Joosten, editor of Netherlands-based Pinball Magazine.
Joosten tracks pinball manufacturing and said most of the 19 companies he is aware of are designing pinball machines but don’t have manufacturing capabilities. Spooky Pinball is one of the few companies in the world that has transitioned into production.
“In terms of technical innovation, they’re probably ahead of the biggest manufacturer as I understood their hardware requires a lot less cables, wires and manual labor to build a game,” Joosten said in an e-mail interview. “Some of the other startups … are innovative in their own way, so these are very exciting times for pinball.”
Benton would seem an unlikely location for a pinball company but Emery and his wife, Kayte, 42, moved to the community in 1998 when she was pregnant with their first child. The couple wanted a small community in which to raise a family and it was close enough to Galena, Illinois, where Charlie worked at SSI Decals, a printing company that does work for John Deere and the motorsports industry.
Emery, an East Dubuque, Illinois, native, bought his first pinball machine in 1999 for $700 and now has a collection of more than 30 games. Some are in his shop, but most are displayed in his home, a 51-second drive from Spooky headquarters.
Emery enjoyed working for his former employer, where he experimented with digital printing on a variety of formats. But in 2012, he took $35,000 in savings, quit his job and started his own company.
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“Petrified,” Emery said, when asked about what it felt like to go out on his own. “I’m still scared, but I love what I do.”
Kayte does the books while Josh Hocking and Lucas Kastner build the pinball machines. Hocking, 29, of Shullsburg, had been working third shift at a company that made tractor parts for John Deere. Kastner, 18, graduated this year from Cuba City High School and thought he’d be working in construction, not building pinball machines.
On Tuesday, Hocking and Kastner spent much of their day installing ramps, ball guides and pieces to the playing fields of two pinball machines. The 20-by-48-inch playing fields were mounted on a special rotisserie that allowed the pair to easily turn the board over to work on electronic wiring and other attachments on the underside of the play field. In a good week, Hocking and Kastner can assemble three games.
“These guys are really good at what they do, and they knew nothing about pinball when they came in here,” Emery said.
Emery is taking a small paycheck and pumping as much as he can back into the business. Flippers, bumpers and other standard parts are purchased from Pinball Life in Chicago but two dozen other parts-makers are used. Wood cabinets for the machines are custom built in-house and the artwork on the surface of the play field is digitally printed, which allows for greater detail. Some plastic parts are made with a 3-D printer next to Emery’s desk while the circuit board for the machine is a fraction of the size of those used in a pinball machine built in the early 1990s.
Emery’s business model calls for making pinball machines for other developers, in addition to those designed by himself and Heck.
“He is the first and only guy that I know of that has designed a game, programmed it and done most of the art himself,” Emery said of Heck. “We’re very, very lucky to even know the guy. We don’t exist without him.”
It also would be a tougher climb without the assistance from the community.
The Benton Business Incubator was built by the village in 2004 for $1.19 million and is filled with startup businesses.
The hope for village officials is that a business uses space and then graduates to a larger facility somewhere else in the village.
Spooky Pinball stands out, not only with its products but its signage on the front doors that feature a ghost and slogans like “We put the boo in bootique pinball” and “We weren’t cut out for real jobs.”
“Everyone that comes in wants to know what Spooky Pinball is,” said Elizabeth Schoenmann, assistant village clerk and president of the Benton Business Incubator board of directors. “It’s unique, and Chuck is a lot of fun to have in the building.”
The community is also helping to test the product. The first machine ever made was purchased in advance by the State Bank of Benton as a way to help infuse the company with cash.
The machine was installed in February at Lawrence’s Pub & Eatery in the village’s downtown. Those who play the game can leave notes about their experience and suggestions on how to improve the game, located next to an electronic dartboard and in a room filled with heads and racks of trophy whitetail deer.
“It’s just helping us make the game better,” Emery said. “Just seeing a game on location just makes it feel real, like we’re really doing this.”