Bingo-style arcade pinball machines in neighborhood joints
provided entertainment and gambling activities for local clientele.
If you grew up in an urban, ethnic community in or the
around the 1940s-1980s, it was a good bet that there was at least one local
pinball joint nearby.
Local Pinball Joints
The joints were patronized by many neighborhood locals,
mostly teen boys and retired gentlemen. Some of the clientele were young or
middle-aged adult men too. Some teen girls played the machines. But, adult
women never attended a joint, unless it was part of a steakhouse or
luncheonette. The joint clientele was composed of all walks of life and
occupations in the neighborhood. We'll leave it at that for discretion and
anonymity purposes. From personal experience, I am using an Italian,
central New Jersey urban neighborhood as my model.
Oftentimes, the pinball joint was located in the front part
of a local "club", where many older gents played cards and solved
all the world's problems. More often than not, the pinball clientele and
the card players did not associate with each other.
Well, not unless the gents ran out of cigars and asked one
of the local teen punks to run to the tobacco-magazine-newsstand "down
the street" to get some two-packs of DiNoboli Toscani anisette-flavored
stogies and the Racing Form, which was purly for equine research.
This was back when kids of any age could purchase tobacco products.
Reportedly, some places sold other items, such as lottery tickets, to
underage kids too.
The pinball joint was usually a safe place for kids to hang
out, unless some jerky kids came around to roll the younger kids of their
loot. Kids had paper route or allowance money to spend, which meant a lot
of business for the pinball joint management.
Pinball Machine Selection at the Joints
You gotta remember, many of these joints were established
years or decades before any video game was ever conceived. The primary
amusement machines were "bingo"-style games that were made in the
1940s-1960s(?). Some people called them "hole" machines, due to
the pocket-only feature. Some joints had flipper machines and sometimes,
novelty machines, such as "love meters" or "crane"
The bingo machines were very simple in concept and design,
but would take a lifetime to master, that is if you could master any
game of chance, which is unlikely.
The play field was full of twenty-five sequential or
randomly numbered pockets, surrounded by many bumpers. Twenty-five pockets
allowed for a 5x5 bingo card matrix. There were no flippers on the
The back light field usually contained cartoon girls in
bikinis or short skirts along with many randomized number "bingo"
cards. The player inserted a nickel into the machine to start the game.
Buttons on the machine allowed the player to select a bingo card for that
particular game. Additional nickels could be inserted to increase the
payout odds and getting more free games if "bingo" or
"hitting" was achieved.
Each game consisted of five (5) balls. The balls could be shot
in rapid sequence to have a completely random game. "Skilled"
players always shot one (1) ball at a time. The player would grasp the side
rails of the machine and nudge the the unit ("humping") to try to
direct the the ball into the desired pocket. It was really difficult to do.
If the played nudged the machine too hard, it would "tilt" and
any remaining balls would be forfeited.
Gambling on the Down Low, QT, and Hush-Hush
So, what do pinball machines have to do with gambling? In
most cases, not much. But, in the local neighborhood pinball joints, a lot!
Most players would invest $2 for a roll of nickels. If the player only used
one nickel per game, that is twenty pinball games for two dollars!. None of
the flipper machines offered that kind of value. It would take about two
hours to play twenty bingo games.
Incidentally, "down low", "Q.T."
(quiet), and "hush-hush" are old slang. They all have basically
the same meaning - where questionable activities are occurring, no one
talks about them, or they are overlooked by authority figures.
It was reported that pinball joints were places where the
clubs would recruit new, younger members. The new members would serve as
couriers or messengers for the club members and management
But, of course, all of those rumors and reported activities
were on the down low, Q.T., and hush-hush.
If a player was lucky or skilled enough to get
"bingo", the manager or attendant would reward the player with a
cash prize. The amount of the prize depended on how many nickels were inserted
and how many "free" plays were won in that particular game, and
of course house rules determined the prize amounts for the games. The
player was not obligated to take the cash prize. The player had the option
to play the games that were won.
Bingo-style games were a good way for a teen to make a few
extra bucks for a couple hours of work. But, more often than not, all the
patrons donated their hard earned money or allowance to the house.
Bingo-style pinball games have pretty much fallen by the wayside,
unless you have access to an very old local neighborhood pinball joint or
vintage arcade. The bingo games would probably be considered lame and
boring by the instant-gratification and video and iphone-era generation.
Bingo machines, whether used for entertainment or gambling are a nostalgic
testament to arcade history.
If you never saw a bingo machine, here is a video
demo. This particular machine in the video has many more
additional features than a basic unit.
Bally 1959 "Sea Island" Bingo Pinball Machine at
The York Show 2008. youtube.com. pingeek777. Accessed 16 MAY 2011.
Brandolino, Mike. Personal Experiences and Local
Sidlow, Dan. Victorian Casino Antiques. Photo credit /
permission. Las Vegas, NV. 16 MAY 2011