Two classic American pastimes — playing pinball and grooving to rock music — join forces in Cleveland, Ohio at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s new exhibit opening Wednesday, featuring both vintage and new rock-themed pinball machines that visitors are welcome to play.
In addition to the “Wizard” and “Tommy” pinball machines that pay tribute to The Who’s 1969 rock opera “Tommy,” which tells the story of a “deaf, dumb and blind boy” who is a pinball wizard, the machines in “Part of the Machine: Rock and Pinball” celebrate rock icons ranging from Elvis, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Ted Nugent to Metallica, KISS, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Alice Cooper and Dolly Parton.
“Rock and pinball have a lot in common,” said Karen Herman, the Rock Hall’s Vice President of Collections and Curatorial Affairs, “Both are loud, colorful and rebellious. And both were once considered corrupters of youth.”
Pinball was banned in many cities until the mid-1970s because it was considered gambling. But once those prohibitions were lifted, the images of scantily clad women, baseball and cars that adorned the earlier machines gave way to licensed images from popular culture — including rock and roll stars.
“The images on the machines are works of art,” said Herman. “They’re like album covers and they tell a story.”
Many of the playing fields on the machines are works of art as well.
“They’re some of the first interactive, immersive experiences,” said Herman, citing the circa-2004 Elvis pinball machine that has as its soundtrack Elvis recordings from both the iconic ’68 Comeback Special and the 1973 Aloha from Hawaii broadcast.
In the KISS-themed machine, songs pop up thematically. Others allow players to choose which of a band’s songs they’d like to hear in the background.
The Aerosmith machine from 2017 features nine of the band’s hits and an interactive “Jacky in the Box” mechanical feature, while the brand-new Alice Cooper-themed machine not only plays 10 Cooper hits, but features Cooper’s voice, gives instructions to players on a video screen and includes a small working version of a guillotine, one of the singer’s iconic props.
“Rock ‘n’ roll-themed pinball machines feel like they represent the genre’s original energy and excitement: Lots of sound and fury, flashing lights and clanging bells,” said Jasen Emmons, artistic director of Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, which has a disco-themed pinball machine in its collection. “For KISS or Guns N’ Roses, having your own pinball machine meant you'd arrived. And like rock ‘n’ roll, pinball machines can adapt to every skill level, so whether you play like a punk or guitar god, it's still fun.”
Artifacts related to the rock and roll stars featured on the pinball machines are on display in the Rock Hall’s “Part of the Machine: Rock & Pinball” exhibit as well.
The 1968 Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar The Who’s Pete Townshend used to compose “Pinball Wizard” and several other songs from “Tommy” is here, as is the circa 2000 drum kit that original KISS drummer Peter Criss played on the band’s 2000-2001 Farewell tour. The exhibit also includes a vest Dizzy Reed of Guns N’ Roses wore on a tour, the electric chair stage prop Alice Cooper used in his 1971 tour and the yellow dress that inspired the illustration on the back glass of the Dolly Parton pinball machine.
Visitors to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will get unlimited pinball machine play July 11-15, with paid admission. Starting July 17, four game tokens will be included with each paid admission and additional tokens will be available for 25 cents each.