Times When Lit
By Richard Carreno
Millions of Frenchman flip regularly -- on more than 100,000
pinball machines. Les flippers are everywhere. A cafe without
one is about as popular as a bakery without croissants.
-- New York International Tribune, Paris
Since the war, my company D. Gottlieb and Co., Chicago, USA, has been big in France. We make pinball machines. The French really like pinball machines.
I was on an annual dealers' tour in Paris last winter when, one drizzly afternoon, I had some time to kill before meeting our distributor, there in the City of Light. That would be Max Buccio.
I decided to have a drink, a Scotch -- they call it a 'whiskey' over there -- and a short game, or two, at a cafe in the Place de Oprah, near Max's office. The folks over there call my pinballers 'flippers.' I told Max that I just flip over that every time I hear it. He's French. He doesn't get it.
I've been playing pinball since I was a kid, growing in God's country, on the South Side. That was more than 40 years ago, when my dad, D. Gottlieb, Sr., was still alive. I'm D. "Dan the Man' Gottlieb Jr. I still like to play, and I have three machines in my finished basement to work out on.
Everyone in Chicago thinks I'm sort of nutty since I like to flip so much. Except my R&D guys. You know that Gaucho machine that you see around alot? I named that beauty. I've also designed a few playing boards in my time. Roto*value scoring? That was my baby, too.
Here in the States, people think of pinball as a kids' game, or something that sailors play when they get tanked up in a Loop bar. But people used to also knock pool, too, before it got respectable when they opened that Golden Cue chain. That idea made big money for pool. In this business, you got to be on toes. I know. I'm an idea guy.
In France, folks there understand the game's action-packed thrill -- to the tune of $5-million in sales each and every year. Even those French movie peep-show gizmos, you know, the Scopitones, don't do that kind of business.
There are more than 100,000 machines in that garlic-loving country, and, if you're looking for someone to thank for at least half of those units, that would be me.
A couple of games later, I was warming up to the machine. Still, I thought better, and decided to call Max. I hated leaving the machine. It was an Ice Revue job, a real beaut.
I had racked up five free games, gratis. Christ! I could have played for hours on a single 20-centime coin. It doesn't matter where I am -- in the USA, or out there in France -- when I hear 'tock,' telling me that I've won a free game, it's music to my ears.
I put the call through to Max.
'Ah, Dan, my friend' he answered, in a sing-song kind of voice.
Max is always good for a few games before we get down to business. He gets to win. It gives me an opportunity to play a 'fresh' machine. My machines don't last very long in Paris -- before they get recycled to the sticks. Parisians bang them up pretty bad.
Max's company, France-Flipper, SA, has its office on Avenue Victor Yugo. I grabbed a cab, and shot over there.
Max has a whole floor, and decked out real nice. The decor is Louis. Not Louis, the valise guy. The other one. From the beginning, I always knew that Max meant business. On the wall behind his desk, he has a map of Paris. A red pin means a location where he's leased a line of machines. A blue pin means a location yet to conquer.
When I showed up, Max was playing a game in a small den -- he calls it a 'salon' -- next to his office. His arms were outstretched on the sides of the machine, and he juggled the playing board with just the right amount of slick English. He had no need to reballast his personal stock. As a player, he owned his game.
I guess you can call Max and me 'pinball tycoons.' He's one of the biggest men in the business this side, of course, of yours truly, 'Dan the Man' Gottlieb.
'I like this one,' Max said, as I settled in next him, jingling, in my hand, a few playing tokens I had picked up from a tray. It was my latest model, the Masquerade. Max patted the machine.
'It's good seeing you again, Dan, my friend,' Max said. Instead of shaking hands, Max reached out to bear-hug me. But it turned into something more like a panda hug. Max is shorter and fatter than me, and his head was sort of tucked under my chin. 'Dan, my friend, Dan,' he said.
He released me, and stood back, giving me the once-over.
'How long have known each other?' Max went on. 'Many, many years,' he said vaguely.
Since 1952, I thought. 'Since January, 1952, my friend,' I said.
I remembered the exact date because that was also the year that D. Gottlieb and Co. introduced steel cabinets to its world-wide market in France and Montreal. We were the first to do away with wood cabinets. We beat out Williams Electronics by five, maybe, six months.
'Do you mind, my friend, if I play one more game?'
'Let me see our cock-and-fire specialitie,' I said, making it sound a little Frenchie. 'Play the Gaucho,' I added. 'You know I named that one.'
'I know, my friend. It is a good name.'
Max inserted a token in the machine. Bells rang. Lights flashed, and five steel balls popped into the firing alley. The picture of the Gaucho swinging bolas (that was my idea, too), featured on the headstand, quivered. The previous number score whirled by, like the lemons and bells in a slot machine, until '0000' registered.
Max judged his shot like a chess player, who reckoned where a ball might ricochet after careening off, in this case, a plastic pin. With a deft-handed banging, with effortless lifting, and with languid shifting of weight, Max steered the ball to any direction of his choosing. Down extra-point chutes, for example. Big time.
After a shot of two, Max easily guaged the strength of the spring plunger of the particular machine he was playing. When he released a ball, he intuitively knew the ball's velocity. His wrists twisted, his forefingers fluttered, triggering the levers, and almost always returning the game ball back into play. It could have been a fencing move. A flick here. A flick there. Despite this vigourous massage, by the end of play, Max's machines would rarely -- to use the most reviled word in pinball's vocabulary -- tilt.
'Tock!' Another free game.
'I'm calling it quits. For now,' Max said, a bead of sweat, trickling down the right side of his nose.
'You know, Dan,' Max went on, 'the flipper is becoming the national sport of the Republic. Sales are good, Very good, indeed, my friend.'
He took my arm, and led me to a large, stuffed sofa. He poured two drinks, whiskies, and took a seat nearby.
'As a matter of fact, Dan, I'm about to sponsor a national flipper competition, Le Tour de Flipper.
'I've already opened 10 flip parlours in in Paris alone, and I'm branching to Marseilles and Lyon. I've just opened a parlour in Pigalle called 'Flip a Go Go.' I've got 24 machines there. Two Ship-Mates, a Swing-Along, a couple of Big Days, three Sea Shores and, of course, the Gauchos.... At the opening, I had Johnny Halliday there for the guys, and Sylvie Vartan, for the girls. You see, le flipper is now for everyone.
'Incidentally, the name of my chain is also Flip a Go Go.'
'My friend,' Max went on, 'it will be like the Golden Cue syndicate in your country....'
I could think of only one word. Tilt!
(This article, in slightly different form, was written in 1965 as a submission to a creative writing course at Wilbraham Academy. It is being published for the first time in this edition of Junto).