Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Trip to the Game Doctor

Now that we had the theme of "Whoa Nellie!" firmly established we began to think in terms of getting the Continental Cafe game checked out by a local electro-mechanical (EM) expert to make sure the plans we had for the game made sense. We didn't want to get too far ahead of ourselves and find out that using this game was going to be problematic in any way.

As we mentioned previously, Dennis bought the game in 2006 after seeing it at the art museum show in downstate Mt. Vernon, Illinois from local collectors Marvin and Jeff Giesting. Cosmetically the game was in great shape, including the backglass, but the game needed some work to get it back in playable condition. Unfortunately, when the game was delivered to Dennis, a mishap occurred in transit and the near mint condition backglass arrived broken into two pieces. Both Marvin and Jeff felt horrible about the glass and offered Dennis a discounted price for the game - a great example of the type of folks involved in the hobby of collecting pinball games. Dennis appreciated the generous offer and hoped he could find another backglass of similar quality. But who would have guessed that a few years later, the original backglass would no longer be needed.

After having stored the game since 2006, and never having spent any time with electro-mechanical games previous to this purchase, Dennis contacted Team EM, a group of pinball enthusiasts that specialize in EM games for some serious help. The closest team member geographically was Ken Walker so Dennis gave him a call to find out if he was interested in helping us look into the viability of the game. Ken agreed and we made a trip to his house with the CC game in the back of Dennis' pick-up.

Ken spent a good two hours with the game on a beautiful late summer afternoon on the patio in his backyard. After a brief overview of the game to help familiarize himself with the general condition, the game refused to start after we plugged it in so Ken started to diagnose the system to find the problem. As he moved through the game Ken explained to us the finer points of how an EM game works as he poked and prodded at different parts of the aging inner workings.

Dennis and I absorbed what we could from Ken's session, like a couple of dogs listening to human speech we were only understanding every fifth word or so, and soon realized that in the long run this step in the process was best left to the experts. I had never felt more comfortable or useful in my role as dedicated photographer.

One of the most interesting things we learned about these old games was the unusual method for turning them off. We found this label inside the cabinet and asked Ken to explain. Instead of an "off" switch all you have to do is kick the underside of the game and it will turn off. Apparently the fiction of the way Arthur Fonzarelli turned on or off the jukebox on Happy Days was based on some fact.

In a short period of time, Ken found the first suspect switch, adjusted it, and the game came to life for the first time since 2006. The lights were on, the flippers clacked and the bells dinged. He continued to inspect all apects of the game and in no time we were able to start playing.

I'm always amazed by mechanical aptitude because I believe I have a genetic flaw that prevents me from understanding how things work. Many people say, when it comes to art, they can't even draw a stick figure but put me in front of anything mechanical or electrical and what good is my stick figure? "Hey Stick, my car won't any ideas?" I've spent many years around pinball machines but unfortunately I still have to call someone for almost any repairs.

After Ken finished his work, we packed the game back in the truck, thanked him for his guidance and expertise, and asked if he'd be available for future repair or diagnostics on an as-needed basis. Again he agreed to help us with any and all aspects of our project (he must have seen the lost look on our face during his diagnostic session). To show Ken the respect he deserves, here's a stick figure version of a new character I call..."Dr. Ken Walker, E-MD." Thanks again Ken!

In the next episode, Dennis begins the deconstruction and reconstruction process of Continental Cafe - the first step toward its new life as "Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons".

All Photos on this post by G.Freres
Continental Cafe - Artwork by Roy Parker, Game Design by Wayne Neyens

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Crates, Cantaloupes, and Cool Old Trucks

When the idea blender finished, Dennis poured it on the table and said, "It's going to be 'Ripe Juicy Melons' and I'm completely changing the cabinet to look like a stack of old beat-up fruit crates!" Needless to say we sat down and started brainstorming further ideas to enhance the theme. In under an hour we had a list of visual ideas for me to go back home and start working up some sketches.

Some of the "must haves" from the idea list were: A pin-up style girl (holding her award winning cantaloupes) as the focal point of the scene that would resemble a Fruit Crate Label and yet carry the tone of the Roy Parker style of pinball art. All around her are the farm workers completely distracted by her melons but still enjoying their work. A cool old truck. Some fruit crates. A dog. And a guy getting thrown from his horse because even the horse is distracted. Whoa! Hang on a minute.

At this point we started discussing the name a bit further and thought "Sweet" seemed to be the right word choice over Ripe. So for a while it was "Sweet Juicy Melons". (We'd eventually revise that all important first word to "Big" because in cantaloupe sales, size probably matters). But it was when the horse came up in the brainstorm session that I immediately suggested, "These melons, this label needs a company name. All fruit crate labels have some kind of catchy or not-so-catchy name to go with the produce they ship. So with this guy getting thrown from his horse, the new name of this melon company is 'Whoa Nellie!'" And Dennis chimed in with "Whoa Nellie Brand...Sweet Juicy Melons!"

Suddenly it felt like no time had passed since Dennis and I worked together back at Bally and Williams. The time and place were different but the feeling was exactly the same. We knew we arrived at the right starting point for this project and that it was a great theme that fit our combined sense of direction and warped sense of humor.

Dennis emailed me within a couple days with his first "concept" sketch of his cabinet idea, and it was stunning. The cabinet has a completely unique profile without the standard legs attached. He used old fruit crate art for the mock-up to help sell the idea better. The sketch further solidified our direction and we were on a roll.

As a footnote, it's a bit ironic to think that one of the biggest features on the pinball game Scared Stiff was "The Crate". Even the cabinet art looked like the crate. I guess Dennis just can't get away from designing cool crates. As Dennis might say, "He's a crate guy."

Below is what is left of the original mock-up crate for Scared Stiff, made from styrene, and behind it the vacuum-formed production version. Note that on the original mock-up, the "UP" pointers for the crate are pointing in all directions but on the production version we felt the need to be clear for assembly reasons.

Below, "The Crate" on the Scared Stiff playfield.

Next time we'll start showing some of the progress of the now named "Whoa Nellie" project.

All art, sketches, or photos related directly to "Whizbang Pinball" or "Whoa Nellie (Brand) Big Juicy Melons" are TM and Copyright 2009 WhizBang Pinball, Greg Freres, and Dennis Nordman.

All other photos credit the photographer or source whenever possible.

"Red '56 Stakebed" photo by G. Freres (Courtesy of Mike E. in Delavan)
Scared Stiff Crate and Playfield Photos by G. Freres

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Inspiration and The Idea Blender

After sifting through all the possibilities of what could be the theme of our first project, the idea blender started its thing and I got a call from Dennis inviting me to come out to his place to unveil a seed for the project.

Our first goal was to find a theme that best fit the vintage of the Continental Cafe game. Since we are industry guys first, we looked at this as an opportunity to make a game with a theme that we could never do in a commercial environment (even though some would say that some of our themes that we developed in-house we're a bit obtuse for the general public). We also wanted the theme to visually fit with a game from 1957. Of all the artists working in pinball back in the early years, Roy Parker is a big favorite among collectors and was an amazingly prolific artist. As Dennis points out, all of the people on Parker's backglasses are having as much fun as the person playing the game. So the mood of our project was definitely inspired by Mr. Parker's vast portfolio of happy people enjoying life in some decidedly American way.

Our second point of inspiration came from Dennis' appreciation for the lost art of Fruit Crate Labels. We actually worked together on a side project in the early '80's when Dennis thought we could tie into the Cabbage Patch Kid phenom by creating hand-built Fruit Crates that act as cribs for for the dolls. I did label art and Dennis built some prototypes...and I think we ended up giving them away to friends and family. But the point is Fruit Crate art is a unique and forgotten part of our culture that makes for good eye-candy.

And thirdly, we felt that you can't go wrong with Pin-Up art. The history of Pinball art has always been influenced by the great Pin-Up masters with many machines using the female form as a way to lure the customer over to the machine in the tavern or arcade. And again, since the base game of our project is from 1957, it makes sense to work in some influence from the haydays of pin-up art. And obviously, Fruit Crate art was also inspired by Pin-Up art. As a sidebar thought for the blender, we have also had success as a design team by employing the use of the double-entendre, so we thought it would be a great starting point to return to what's worked for us before on our first custom game.

So those are the broad influences that we used to get started. Then we hit the drawing board.

G & D

Credits: Daisy May Backglass by Roy Parker (photo courtesy of IPDB), source of "Foot High" crate label unknown, "Smoke Screen", 1958 by Gil Elvgren.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Project - Not Just a Facelift

After we brainstormed over 100 ideas on the plane trip home from Seattle it took about a week to think it all through to come up with what could be our first Project. We basically skimmed over the logistics of not only re-skinning a classic game from the glory days of pinball, but taking it one-step-beyond a simple facelift. In hindsight, we could have chosen a better playing "classic" game to build our custom work upon but sometimes things happen for a reason.
Rewind briefly, previous to the Seattle show, back in 2006 Dennis and I were part of an exhibit at the Cedarhurst Museum in downstate Mt. Vernon, Illinois called "Tilt: The Art of Pinball". At that show Dennis had seen an old Gottlieb woodrail game from 1957 called "Continental Cafe", found out is was for sale, and ended up purchasing it because he liked the retro look and feel of the old electro-mechanical games from the '50's and '60's. He had no previous experience collecting, playing, or fiddling with EM games before this purchase. Merely a casual admirerer.

So here we are, using the Continental Cafe game that Dennis bought for no other reason than to enjoy its vintage-ness, and using it as our first "platform" for the wild-hair idea that was born in the Land of Hendrix. Eventually we'll get our posts caught up with where we are at today, but for now we'll continue with some catch-up posts to show the steps we've taken so far.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Blame It On Seattle

Welcome to Whizbang Pinball. We are a two-man tag-team of art and design with years of pinball industry experience. Our "inside" work has produced over 30 Pinball and arcade games, seven of which we collaborated together. If you're not familiar with our combined work a few highlights would include Elvira and the Party Monsters, Dr. Dude, and Scared Stiff. Check out the Internet Pinball Database for more information on our games and even more about Pinball in general. It's a great resource.

After both of us experienced a personal brush with the "biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression" at the end of 2008, we had a bit of a reunion in June of this year when we were both asked to speak about our experience in the pinball industry at the Northwest Pinball and Gameroom Show in Seattle Washington. We had not worked together since a bleak Thursday in 1996 and we had only really seen each other a few times at pinball collector events.

So call it fate, the alignment of the stars, or simply a random act of randomness, but by the end of the Seattle weekend we headed back to Chicago with a bunch of ideas that could hopefully re-ignite our design skills in Pinball and combine our vision for more unique and entertaining games. We are in the very early stages of our first design and thought we'd share this new design experience with friends and fans, players and collectors, artists and designers, or anyone else that might stumble upon this blog with a vague interest in something unusual.

Stop by often for updates as we attempt to keep you posted on our progress. We want this to feel like you're walking into our studio to see what's been happening (without the ability to offer a cup-a-coffee, sody-pop, or an adult beverage). And feel free to throw us an opinion - it's just part of the process.

Thanks for stoppin' by!

G & D