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This week's Chicagoan: Gary Stern, founder and CEO, Stern Pinball

"Detroit was once the capital of automobiles, and Chicago is and will remain the capital of pinball."



A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"Except for a short stint of practicing law, I've been in the business of pinball my entire life. My father started as a pinball manufacturer when I was two. I'd go with my father on weekends to his factory at 4242 W. Fillmore. He knew pinball. He could walk by your desk, and you'd be working on something, and he'd say, 'That number is wrong.'

"When I was 16, I started working summers, first in the stockroom, then as a personnel manager. It's a wonderful thing, to work in a family business. I proved they shouldn't let me hold tools, 'cause I destroyed some games trying to put them together. Every morning my father got up at six to think of something he could call me about at seven. Ultimately, he worked for me.

"Pinball is a Chicago product. The people who know pinball are here. Detroit was once the capital of automobiles, and Chicago is and will remain the capital of pinball. Most of our parts are made in the Chicago area, either by ourselves or our suppliers. In 1986, we made a game that had a little map of America with a flag coming out of Chicago, and it said on this map, 'Made in Chicago, Illinois, Pinball Capital of the World.' We spelled "capital" wrong, but we didn't realize that till we'd made the third game.

"There's about 3,500 parts in a pinball machine. Over half a mile of wire. About three and a half to four man-days of labor. That's more, I read, than the Ford Taurus. So yeah, it's complex. Before the 70s, there were no microchips, no transistors. It was done with step-up units and relays, like one of those old telephone switchboards with the wires you plug in.

"Part of the job here is that everyone must play pinball for 15 minutes a day. We want to see if the computer inside the game is keeping track—are there shots being made, is the game playing too long or too short. So I play my 15 minutes a day, usually late at night when nobody's around. At 67, with my eye-hand coordination, I represent the player in a pub who's had four or five beers. Sober, I play like I'm a little tipsy.

"We are the only manufacturer of pinball machines in the world. One of our former distributors decided he should make pinball machines. He's made some samples; it's taken him two and a half years. I'm not gonna tell you my opinion. He says he's gonna ship one day. He has taken payment for a number of the games as much as two years ago, and he has yet to fill more than half a dozen orders. Is that a competitor? In order to be a competitor, you have to manufacture pinball machines.

"We don't hire just anybody. They have to grow up in it and want it and know it. One guy was in architect school, and he designed a parking lot that simulated a pinball machine, with ramps that you drive up. His architecture professor said he might be happier in a different profession. So we hired him."

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