Pinball Wizards: Friends find common ground and fun over familiar gaming classic

Published 7:01 am Monday, January 2, 2017

When the phrase ‘pinball craze’ comes to mind, one’s mind may wander to an image of the 1975 Rock Opera entitled “Tommy.”

The film featured a bell-bottomed boy named Tommy, who couldn’t talk, speak or hear, but  was a master at the pinball table.

In Austin there is a modern pinball craze taking place, but there are no bell bottoms involved — just a handful of strangers who have evolved into close friends over the past few years.

Duane Felt plays the Black Knight 2000. Eric Johnson

Duane Felt plays the Black Knight 2000. Eric Johnson

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Thanks to their love of acquiring and restoring old pinball machines, Matt Merfeld, a doctor, Dave Brennan, a packaging engineer, Dean Darnell, a farmer, and Duane Felt, a county worker, have teamed up and shared a hobby that has played a big role in their lives.

“If you didn’t have friends in the hobby, you’d get bored pretty quick because family doesn’t care about it,” Merfeld said. “I ask a lot of people about pinball, just in case they have a machine in the basement and that way I can buy it and sell it. The best news you can here is someone who has a broken machine in the basement and they think it isn’t worth anything.”

The four men picked up their hobbies individually, but they eventually crossed paths on the forum of the website a few years ago. Since then, they’ve met up consistently to trade advice and machines. Between the four of them, they’ve restored a total of close to 100 machines.

Felt said that the friendship he has with his pinball buddies is unlike any other.

“A lot of us have social anxiety, but this is something we can bond over,” Felt said. “I think for the most part, our pinball friends are our best friends. We share everything.”

This and other great stories can be found in the January-February edition of Austin Living Magazine — NOW OUT!

This and other great stories can be found in the January-February edition of Austin Living Magazine — NOW OUT!

Brennan used to restore classic motorcycles, but he made the switch to pinball machines a few years ago when he bought a used machine and it didn’t function correctly. Since then, Brennan has quickly picked up the complex process of restoring the machines, which involves touching up the playing field, replacing the circuit board, and fixing the parts inside the machine. pinball machines and parts can be purchased on craigslist or acquired through word of mouth.

“We help each other out and we trouble shoot with different things,” Brennan said. “My best friends are the ones I met through pinball.”

Brennan has fallen hard into the pinball scene as his home and garage are filled with games. His collection includes The Black Night, Flash Gordon and The Black Hole. He’s even taken on the task of building his own game from scratch by using parts of other ‘donor’ games.

When he’s on the road, Brennan will often visit and visit other pinball enthusiasts.

“ There’s really no place to play anymore, so I’ll find people who have machines and ask them if they want to play,”  Brennan said. “ I’ll come over and be like ‘I’m that weird guy.’ We play some games and talk pinball. It’s awesome.”

Lights of pinball machines fill up a dark room. Eric Johnson

Lights of pinball machines fill up a dark room. Eric Johnson

The number of pinball machines on the market varies from one that were made in the 70s, to ones that were made in recent years. Since most machines were built to only last about five years before thrown away, there is often a lot of work that comes with a new purchase. Some collectors will pursue any machine they can find and rebuild, while others are after the more rare finds.

“ It’s cool to have a rare machine,”  Darnell said. “ I’m probably the only pinhead farmer that you’ll meet.”

Merfeld, Brennan, Darnell and Felt will sometimes host or attend pinball parties in Austin, where people from all over will come over to talk shop and play games. They’ve also attended conventions in Chicago and Milwaukee, where they meet the people who design the games.

“ We’re a little crazy with just inviting complete strangers over to your house. It’s a growing hobby and the community is going,”  Felt said. “ It’s like classic cars. Condition and model. Every pin has a title and it’s unique. People restore Mustangs and Camaro’s. They don’t restore Pintos.”