Tilted to pinball for the long haul | News, Sports, Jobs

Submitted Photo / Richard Lawnhurst Richard Lawnhurst stands in the basement of Howard’s Clothing next to two of his wooden rail pinball machines.

WARREN – There’s a well-kept secret under Howard’s clothes in downtown Warren.

Owner Richard Lawnhurst houses an extensive collection of wooden track pinball machines in the store’s basement. Lawnhurst has assembled a collection of around 150 to 160 wooden rail pinball machines, all in working condition.

“It progressed from a hobby of playing coin-operated games to later in life buying and trading pinball machines.” he said.

Reminiscing about his childhood days when he was 12, Lawnhurst recalled the time he spent playing his favorite game, the Gottlieb “Sluggin’ Champ” at the local bowling alley. Whenever he had a few nickels left, he would play, or whenever the crowd favorite, the mechanic Roco, would come by to fix the game and allow him to play for free.

Later in life, an unusual opportunity presented itself in the mid-1970s that gave Lawnhurst his first chance at realizing his dream of collecting vintage machinery.

“A police officer came into my store needing a black suit for a funeral and asked if I would trade a suit for a 1967 Gottlieb Melody pinball machine and a slot machine he had confiscated.” Lawnhurst said.

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He still owns the machine, but it’s with his daughter in Denver, Colorado. His family is no stranger to his hobby as Lawnhurst’s children grew up with machines stored in their home.

“My kids loved it. Her friends used to come over and play her.” he said.

For Lawnhurst, buying the vintage machines is about more than just having more than the next collector but making sure they buy them in the best condition, which sometimes requires buying more than four copies of a game.

“Anyone can buy pinball machines that didn’t work. I wanted to collect top quality”, he said.

It’s part of what makes his collection so rare – while you can get the machines from just about anywhere, Lawnhurst said that getting perfect games is a challenge.

“The best areas to buy or trade weren’t those with intense heat and humidity that hurt the quality of the game. That would be the end of the Southern States.” he said.

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For the best quality, Lawnhurst said Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and all the north were the most ideal.

He has amassed his collection by buying and trading bars and recreation spaces across the country and even as far away as Canada.

“Typically, these machines were in working-class neighborhoods where people frequented bars,” he said.

“I checked newspapers in different areas to see what was available across the country. I would pick some up, but some of my friends who lived in the area would pick them up for me.”

Most of his collection dates back to the 1950s, when Lawnhust said manufacturers of the time would only make 10 or 20 of a given game a year.

“The craftsmanship evolved over the years from finless fins in the ’40s, to smaller fins with wooden rails on the sides in the ’50s, to large fins in the ’60s with metal rails on the side.” he said.

He estimates that about 70 percent of his collection is made up of Gottlieb – a 1927 company that became one of the first major manufacturers of pinball machines during the Great Depression due to the success of the Baffle Ball machine.

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The other 30 percent are Woodrail machines from WMS Industries Inc., known for their pinball innovations, including the flip mechanism.

A limiting factor when collecting pinball machines is space. Lawnhurst’s answer to this was to store them in the basement of the clothing store.

The area is dry, apart from a slight dampness there is no wetness and it is temperature controlled, almost perfect for storing machines of this quality,” he said.

What he can’t keep in store he keeps at home in a playroom, but he’s always happy for an opportunity to share his collection.

His vintage game collection has been featured in media from Japan to Australia.

“It’s fun, everyone wants to show off their working games, when you get other collectors it’s fun because it’s nice to share things that work.” he said.

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