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A real pinball wizard

Game technician has been going full tilt in rare niche for 31 years

May 11, 2009
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It's a rainy Monday morning and Doug Clark is making a house call--an early but otherwise average start to his week.

He parks in the circle driveway of a lookalike home in a suburban subdivision, grabs his black bag and, after a few brief raps on the door, is greeted by a middle-age housewife. She does well to maintain her composure as she leads Clark to the basement, where his patient is waiting motionlessly for him in the cold, dark game room.

With a reassuring word from Clark, the homeowner leaves the specialist to his work. He looks the patient up and down, calling on his 31 years of experience to form a diagnosis. He runs a hand along its smooth side, pressing when he encounters a small bump.

"Eight Ball Deluxe, three balls," the patient responds with an exaggerated country drawl--a fitting accent for Bally's Eight Ball Deluxe, the Southern pool-hall-themed pinball machine on which Clark will practice his particular brand of medicine.

Already informed of the unit's symptoms--startup glitches--the pinball technician has a few possible treatments in mind. Within moments, he pries off the machine's glass top and carefully props up the wood composite playfield, stirring up a small cloud of dust as 3,500 moving pieces are exposed to light for the first time in years.

"Yup, exactly what I expected," he remarks, noticing a wire hanging loose from the machine's solenoid expander, a component that regulates power. It's a specialty part designed by Bally, so the configuration is a bit unusual, but Clark knows precisely how to go about reattaching the loose wire to the pin that holds it in place.

After a quick diagnostic run, a series of bleeps and flashing lights verifies that the electronic components are now in working order, and Clark moves on to replacing two of the machine's drop targets-the plastic pieces skilled players aim for when guiding their silver balls around the field.

Clark keeps plenty of spares handy, thanks to their high failure status, so he makes a trip to his van to find the right style, retrieves a pair of pliers from his tool case, and starts the operation.

When the job is done and payment rendered-$110 is the average cost of an in-home repair-he heads back to the Ace Game Room Gallery in Fishers, where he'll work on other machines as he awaits his next call.

Fort Wayne-based Ace just opened the Fishers location in late 2008, but Clark has been one of central Indiana's pinball wizards for decades.

Drawn to the field by summers spent playing the Gottleib's Sing Along pinball machine at camp, he worked a series of jobs through high school to develop his mechanical skills, including car radio installation and television repair. When he graduated from Central Nine Vocational Technical School in Greenwood in 1977, he scored a job fixing pinball machines for what was then Indianapolis-based J&J Distributors.

Timing was everything. Not only was the industry in an upswing at the time, but the standard pinball machine had just switched over from purely mechanical components to a combination of mechanical and computerized parts. So Clark learned the intricacies of the new system as it came on line, growing along with the new technology.

"The only way to really learn the quirks of each generation [of pinball machine] is to be there," the 53-year-old said.

Over time, Clark developed his expertise along with a reputation for excellent service-enough so that he started working on pinball machines shipped in from other parts of the state by game owners and other businesses. One of his regular customers was Ace Game Room Gallery in Fort Wayne.

That's how he met Trevor Eagleson, who opened the Ace showroom in Fishers in part to capitalize on Clark's stature in the marketplace. Company leaders were looking for a new location and saw a chance to deliver quality home service-with Clark's help.

"He's a rarity," Eagleson said of Clark. "Not many people have [pinball] machines, and even less want to maintain them."

So Clark left his first employer, which was bought out by Columbus, Ohio-based Shaffer Distributing during his tenure, and set up shop at Ace.

From his workshop--a large, warehouse-style room tucked away in the back of the Ace showroom--Clark spends 40 hours a week keeping balls rolling and flippers flipping. At any given time, he's surrounded by half-assembled machines awaiting replacement parts and an array of specialty tools neatly decorating the area.

He keeps busy despite the ready availability of cheap pinball simulators and home video game systems, thanks to the die-hard old-school aficionados. It doesn't hurt that competition is scarce. Not many new graduates are interested in pinball repair, and many established technicians balk at making house calls.

Still, Clark know the days are numbered for folks like him--and those who depend on folks like him.

"Once I retire, that's it," he jokes. "Everyone's going to have to sell their [pinball] machines, because there won't be anyone around to repair them."
 

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