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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Milwaukee’s Pinball Wizards

A retro game that found new fans

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Ping! Ping! Ping ping ping! Flip flip!

The back corner of the Uptowner is crowded with a group of about a dozen people gathered around the bar’s three pinball machines. The clicking of flippers and exclamations of triumph and despair are buzzing as the pinball wizards try to cast a spell on the multi-balls and bonus shots. In front of them are a plethora of flashing red lights, spinning time warps and a mocking ventriloquist dummy trying to deter the ricocheting silver balls from racking up millions of points. A nearby table holds half a roll of quarters and several empty cans of Pabst.

Michelle Badura is observing the line-up and double-checking a bracket app on scorekeeper Jon Polfer’s iPad. She calls up the next round of competitors.

“Christine and Mike, ‘Austin Powers!’ BJ and Harmony, ‘Medieval Madness!’ Ally and Paul, ‘Funhouse!’” Under the banner Skill Shot MKE, Badura and other pinball fans have joined forces and organized monthly tournaments at a few pinball hotspots around town.

“The Uptowner is every third Wednesday, Finks is every second Monday and Blackbird is every first Sunday,” Badura rattles off, as three pinball fans slap the sides of the Uptowner’s machines. One player even has his kid strapped to his side, a sippy cup in his back pocket, as he tries to grab high score.

Badura has been a long-time pinball fan and fondly remembers first encountering the game when she played a Beatles-themed “Yellow Submarine” machine as a child in her friend’s garage. As she got older she found feeding quarters into the machines provided a peaceful moment of escapism. “I find it’s a nice way to escape certain social situations. It’s like being there but not being there at the same time. But I also just really like the game itself, the artwork, the design.”

“I like video games, too, but I get more of that feeling of me versus the machine with pinball,” says tournament player Ken Kulig. “It’s that steel ball bearing crashing around and trying to control that randomness. It’s about trying to limit the luck factor and raising the skill factor.” Kulig also started playing the game as a kid, fell out of it for a while and began collecting machines as an adult. When he found out about the Skill Shot MKE tournaments he knew he had found the right crowd to hang out with.

“Great group of people, a lot of fun,” Kulig says, gesturing to the room. “I found the competitive side of it. It was always casual for me before, but the competitive side of it is very adrenaline filled.” Kulig even talked his son into attending the tournaments with him to pass down his pinball legacy.

“He’s OK,” Kulig kids, pointing to his son. “He’s not as good as the old man yet, but give him awhile and he’ll pass me right up.”

Sister Cities

Badura’s inspiration to start Skill Shot MKE came when she visited a friend who had moved to Seattle. Her friend introduced her to some guys who were the creative forces behind a group called Skill Shot that hosted tournaments and produced a photocopied zine of the same name. The zine featured pinball news and a fold-out map of all the pinball locations in Seattle. Michelle asked if she could start a Milwaukee branch of the concept and set to work organizing a night at the Uptowner and publishing issue one of Skill Shot MKE.

The league quickly developed a small but devoted following, with 15-25 players showing up to play, mainly for bragging rights and small prizes donated by local businesses and breweries. Tournament results are sent to the International Flipper Pinball Association and the players can see how they rank worldwide.

Badura would like to see the pinball activities expand and has recently started a ladies-only pinball night that will meet the first Thursday monthly at Veggas Pub. She’d also like to see an annual pinball pub crawl, and an all-ages event so that younger fans can also participate. Kulig reflects that he is simply happy to see the game alive and thriving.

“If you would have asked me two, three years ago I would have said it’s dying but it’s definitely going through a rebirth now,” Kulig says.

Learn more about Skill Shot MKE at facebook.com/skillshotmke.