On May 18, 2023

Having a ball


I had an inkling that something big was happening, so when the truck pulled up and the guys got out, I ran outside to investigate.

It was Christmastime circa 1980 and my father had been working with one of his buddies to secure a used pinball machine to house in our basement playroom. And while I don’t specifically remember asking for a pinball machine, I certainly wasn’t against the idea. 

When they raised open the back door of the truck, I caught my first sight of Jungle Queen, a Gottlieb pinball machine originally released in 1977. (Google the name and you’ll see plenty of pictures since it was a popular game during that era.)

The two brutish movers carefully lowered the machine out of the truck and then carried it around the back of our house, placing it in a predefined space behind our basement couch. Once they wiped it down and plugged it in, they then made sure it was operational. And when it was determined that everything checked out, they handed my father the keys and headed out.

My father was all smiles as he showed me how they had jury-rigged the payment system so no quarters were needed to play. He then punched up a ball and tried to play. 

My father was no pinball aficionado and it showed. And since he was never a fan of engaging in activities he wasn’t good at, that was likely the last time he ever attempted to play. 

Jungle Queen was from the pre-digital era, which is why it was easy for my father to procure. Classic machines were on the way out since “high tech” games like Space Invaders were beginning to overwhelm the market.

I don’t remember exactly what my father paid for Jungle Queen, but it wasn’t much. I do know the bulky machine was taking up space in his buddy’s warehouse, so he was more than happy to unload it at a reasonable price.

Admittedly, I wasn’t initially thrilled since Jungle Queen looked a bit weathered. It was also one of the older generation of games where the scoring was calculated on rotating analog number spindles. Any game worth its salt at least had a digital scoring readout.

Nevertheless, I was anxious to play. 

Jungle Queen had four flippers, three pop bumpers, two five-bank pop targets, and two kick-out holes. These are standard components in most pinball machines, even to this day (albeit, most of the analog elements have now been digitized). 

I played Jungle Queen daily, much to the chagrin of my mother since the machine was far from quiet. Eventually, she had to institute rules regarding play, which meant I was only allowed to engage during daylight hours. 

Jungle Queen turned out to be a social bonus for me since not many kids had a real pinball machine in their house. It didn’t matter that it was old school, everyone thought it was cool to play endless pinball for free. 

Before long, I knew every nuance of that machine. I had al 10 of the highest scores and no one came within thousands of points of beating me. There wasn’t one aspect of that game that I didn’t understand.

But like all great endeavors, eventually I got bored with Jungle Queen. Kids would come over and want to play and I’d either shrug them off or begrudgingly engage, knowing I could win without even trying. 

Years went by where Jungle Queen wasn’t even turned on. Occasionally, I would check to see if the electronics were still functional by playing a ball or two, but then I’d bore quickly and turn it off.

And then the day came where it was time to say goodbye. My father had died and my mother was moving away. My older brother was moving into the family house and had no affiliation to Jungle Queen. He told me to take it if I wanted it, but since I was a recent college graduate and lived in a small apartment, the option was untenable. 

I have no idea where Jungle Queen ended up – maybe in a pinball museum or some wealthy guy’s basement. I just hope it’s actually getting played.

This week’s film, “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game,” is the story of how one New York writer in the 1970s used his passion for playing pinball to completely upend a decades long ban on the activity.

Based on a true story, “Pinball” follows the unlikely heroic activities of Roger Sharpe as he balances his love for the woman of his dreams against a city intent on crushing his favorite pastime. 

Check this one out if you loved playing pinball back in the day. It’s a story that you likely never knew about, but that had lasting repercussions on the video game world of today. 

A bumpy “B-” for “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game,” now available for rent on multiple platforms.

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at moviediary@att.net.

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