According to Michael Huntsman, a third-generation Renoite, skateboarder, photographer and pinball machine collector, the “golden age” of pinball was 1977 to 1983. This was especially true in Reno where, thanks partly to the presence of casino arcades, the city was often a testing ground for new pinball machines.
“As a kid here in Reno, Nevada—I was born in ’72, so in 1980 and ’82, the really hot years—I was 10, 11, 12 years old with a roll of quarters on my BMX bike,” Huntsman said during a recent interview.
In Reno, like many American cities at the time, there were pinball machines and other arcade games in “every bowling alley, convenience store … pizza place and laundromat,” according to Huntsman. “But all of the casinos were competing to have the best arcade.” So, it was the right time and place to develop a lifetime love for pinball.
For Huntsman, pinball machines had a distinct advantage over other games: the opportunity to earn a credit for another game.
“As a 10, 11, 12 year old kid who only has a roll of quarters for that day, I’m going to probably play more pinball than video games because there’s a chance that I can actually sit there and jam that machine for a good hour on a quarter or 50 cents,” he said. “You know, the quarter muncher machines did just that—they munched them, and now they’re gone. But if you had a really good game—by chance or by skill—you could play again. So, I got hooked.”
Some key machines from Huntsman’s collection will be on display this month at the Holland Project, 140 Vesta St., in an exhibition titled Silver Ball: Pinball Machines + Photos by Michael Huntsman. The exhibition will feature eight of his machines and dozens of his pinball-related photographs. There will also be a limited edition zine commemorating the show.
The machines in the exhibition range from 1971 to 2017, and the focus is on games with a horror or science fiction theme. The oldest game, Four Million B.C., features outrageous art of dinosaurs and cavemen living together. Mars Trek is a 1977 Spanish game with psychedelic illustrations. Af-Tor is a 1984 game with very limited production, and the 1981 machine Devil’s Dare is so hard to find that it has the nickname “Devil’s Rare.”
Huntsman takes pinball very seriously. He has pinball tattoos and Reno tattoos, including the highway signs for I-80 and US 395 tattooed on his hands.
“Anybody who’s in this industry as deep as I am—most of us don’t actually appreciate the whole ’Pinball Wizard’ thing,” he said, before requesting that—unlike nearly every other story about pinball written in the last 40 years—this story not reference that song its in headline.
“Pinball is not a game of luck,” Huntsman said. “Just like poker, there’s an element of luck, but it’s more about the skill. It’s more about the decision-making.”
Hunstman’s goal is “to get Reno back to being a pinball town.”
“Nothing is more exciting for me than to see a kid play his very first pinball machine ever,” he said.
And even though one of Huntsman’s pinball tattoos depicts a hand holding a quarter accompanied by the words “death to free play,” for this show—a gallery exhibition hosted by a nonprofit organization—he agreed to make an exception. So, all the pinball machines will be free to play.