So far as fall days go, you couldn’t ask for anything better than Friday October 16th in Illinois. The sun was shining with temps hovering in the ‘60s and it was one of those rare weekdays I was scheduled off. Best of all, it was on a day when national commercial TV horror host, Svengoolie, was making one of his Halloween season appearances! This one was about 90 minutes northwest from my place in the village of Huntley, Illinois. I was familiar with the rural town as my sister used to teach school there several years back and this had been our favorite time of year to visit her. It meant postcard perfect fall leaves and a visit to one of the numerous apple orchards and pumpkin patches found in that region. Today would be a lot different.
Svengoolie’s appearance was part of an annual open house taking place at Pinball Life, a family owned business specializing in the buying and manufacturing of pinball parts. This was their eleventh such occasion and not only would they offer free food and beverages but also a bevy of pinball games you could play for free. Now I have to confess, I didn’t realize in this electronic age that pinball games were still going strong thanks to a devout group of enthusiasts. That being said, this was a very eye-opening Svengoolie appearance!
Thanks to some road construction issues, the ride was a bit of a nightmare. When my GPS finally announced that I’d arrived, I found myself staring at a large, non-descript white building with no windows nor signage. I was just about to throw my navigation device out the window when I noticed a portable sign-stand alerting me that it was the right spot. Thankfully, I’d given myself plenty of extra traveling time and still had a full forty-five minutes before Svengoolie was slated to arrive.
The lot was full and I ended up parking at a Jewel Food Store across the street. Rather than wait in the car, I opted to go inside and see what Pinball Life was all about. As soon as I entered, it felt like I’d taken a time warp back to my teenage years and had stepped into the old arcade at my local mall; neither of which exists anymore. Other than the soft glow of the pinball games and the open front door, the room was completely dark and loaded with people having a great time. I slowly maneuvered around in an effort to get as many pictures of the games that I could which wasn’t easy, but here are a few…
Satisfied that I’d gotten a pretty good sampling, I grabbed a plate and enjoyed the free buffet. They had meatballs, mostaccioli, potato salad, hot dogs and soda. There were alcoholic beverages available too but it was a bit early in the day for me.
After enjoying my late lunch, I decided to wait for the Sven crew outside where I noticed they’d reserved a space for them.
This would end up being the most difficult part of the day. I’d quit smoking last spring and now, whenever I smell cigarettes, I get kinda nauseous. I suddenly found myself standing amid ten to twenty smokers while fighting the urge to lose my free lunch! I decided to walk a safe distance across the lot. There were a couple of other guys standing there and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One of them asked, “So how many games do you have now?” and other responded, “Well, I’ve got six in my basement and about three more in my garage.”
Outside of having fantasies of a KISS or Elvira: Mistress of the Dark Pinball machine in my living room, I couldn’t imagine owning so many. Whomever this guy was, he must of been everyone’s favorite neighbor to go visit!
I never realized that pinball machine collecting had also evolved into building. Many were making their own custom machines which I thought was truly amazing! I noticed lots of people walking around with small boxes and (when they’d get close enough for me to nonchalantly peek inside) I saw what I assume were the parts for creating them. I later learned that the folks sponsoring Sven’s appearance, Spooky Pinball LLC, specializes in doing just that! Since 2013, Charlie Emery (and family) joined forces with Ben Heck to create unique pinball machines right out of their Benton, Wisconsin shop. “We manufacture brand new pinball machines,” said Emery. “Our first game (America’s Most Haunted) sold out last year (150 games), and our 2nd game (Rob Zombie’s Spookshow International) will be released very soon, with 300 games being sold. These are full arcade quality commercial machines made in Benton!”
Svengoolie and his producer, Jim Roche, arrived and were nice enough to let me join them. They settled at a table near the entrance (along a row of pinball games) and his line of fans quickly formed and remained consistent for the duration of his visit.
After an hour, Sven had to leave his signing table to facilitate some important business. He would act as auctioneer during a LIVE sell-off of Spooky Pinball’s FINAL “America’s Most Haunted” pinball machine (#150 out of 150)!
The money raised would be donated for diabetes research and the opening bid was $500. By the time it was over, it would garner a whopping $16,000; and the money all to be donated for juvenile diabetes! Clearly I had underestimated the power of pinball! After the crowd dispersed, Sven wasted no time returning to his fans.
There were a lot of happy children at this event which made for one amusing moment. While I was observing the signing, some guy comes up to me and says, “I’m only in my ’20s so I have no idea who this guy is. What’s his name?” Before I could answer, a little girl (who couldn’t have been more than ten) turns around and says, “That’s Svengoolie!”
I stuck around a while longer before embarking on the long drive home. The event had been well worth the trip as it not only provided a new locale for a semi-professional Svengoolie-stalker like me to enjoy, but also provided a glimpse into a world I never knew existed. Clearly pinball machines were not only alive and well but inspiring creativity and camaraderie amongst its fans. Indeed, horror hosts and pinball machines weren’t so different after all!