The clicks, dings, chimes and buzzers from old pinball machines are music to Paul Hodges’ ears — not only because they were the soundtrack to his childhood in Skowhegan, but also because for the past 17 years, he’s made a second living restoring them.
Paul’s Pinball Palace on Water Street in Newport isn’t an arcade, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. It’s the place where Hodges, 53, has restored hundreds of pinball machines for clients from all over the world — specifically, the electromechanical ones made before 1979.
As a kid in Skowhegan, he’d go to Norm’s Three-in-One, a convenience store with an arcade and pool hall, and park himself in front of his favorite pinball machine: Future Spa, made by Bally, a machine that now is one of the more than 20 machines he personally owns as an adult.
“I loved pinball as soon as I started playing it. I could play for hours on one quarter. So as soon the old machines started disappearing, I knew I had to own one,” said Hodges, who operates a property development company with his wife, Donna, as his day job. “And then one became 20. When we go on vacation, if I find a cool pinball machine, Donna knows I’m going to disappear for a couple hours.”
Though Hodges was always a mechanically minded person and learned basic electrical skills from his electrician grandfather, he didn’t start learning to repair pinball machines until 2005. He’s mostly self-taught, though he’s also learned from other vintage pinball repair specialists — a dying breed, as electromechanical machines haven’t been made for more than 40 years.
Though pinball in its essence was invented in the U.S. in the 1870s, electromechanical machines with flippers were first introduced in the 1940s. By the mid-1980s, however, most of those machines had been switched out for new solid-state machines with microprocessors. Simultaneously, pinball began to drop in popularity in arcades in favor of video game cabinets like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.
The old-fashioned pinball games began to languish in storage, deteriorating as the years went by. It’s mostly those machines that Hodges repairs, and he’s one of the only people in New England who can do so. That’s why his waiting list is months long — and because, aside from a handful of part-time apprentice mechanics, he’s usually the only one working on them.
Donna helps out with managing clients and bookkeeping, but otherwise, Paul’s Pinball Palace is a one-man show. The old machines contain thousands of wires, connections and other elements, and it can take days or even weeks of work to repair one machine.
“It’s extremely tedious work,” he said. “If one thing goes wrong, it can mess up the entire machine. It can take hours to fix one thing. You definitely have to have a personality for this kind of work.”
Hodges has shipped his restored machines to buyers from all over the world, as far away as California and even Australia. He says that much of the renewed interest in old machines stems from the nostalgia of people who grew up in the 1960s and 70s.
“The people that grew up playing these, they’re in their 60s and 70s now,” he said. “They have some disposable income and they want to buy something they loved when they were kids. They want them in their homes.”
Though the complex innards of old machines continue to challenge him, it’s the vibrant, eye-catching exteriors that many people are drawn to. The artwork on old machines comes in a dizzying array of colors and aesthetics, from the ornate style of Bally machines, to the retro-futuristic designs of Williams, to the ultra-1960s vibe of many Gottlieb machines.
Vintage games are more likely to be themed to an idea or a genre, like pirates, the wild west or outer space, and have their own unique storyline that unfolds in the gameplay. Machines made in the past 20 years are more likely to be branded with characters from pop culture franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, or bands like Metallica and AC/DC, and some even have built-in screens to show clips from movies or TV shows.
While his first love will always be vintage games, Hodges is happy to see pinball undergo something of a renaissance with a younger generation. That renaissance is happening at popular “arcade bars” like Queen City Cinema Club in Bangor and Arcadia in Portland, both of which offer multiple pinball machines in addition to video games.
“Pinball is something that’s meant to be done with other people,” Hodges said. “If you get a good run, people will come over to watch you play. It brings people together.”
Paul’s Pinball Palace in Newport is open by appointment only.