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Pinball Style

July 2, 2010 - August 1, 2010

Pinball Style: Drama and Design is an exhibition with commentary on clothing styles in pinball art from the 1940’s through the 2000’s. Curator Melissa Harmon looks at dramatic and historical context with a touch of fashion police humor.

How Was it Different?

Jerry Kelley used the term Contemporary Style when discussing his work for Bally and Williams, and many credit him with moving pinball styling forward from the Pop Art look. Since Christian Marche was encouraged to emulate Kelly’s visual style, we can consider them both working within the same framework for their pointy people art.

Stylized vs Realistic

In a departure from the comic book and pin-up style illustrations popular in pinball art of the 1940’s and 50’s, Kelley (and later Marche), would develop a style full of flattened, exaggerated forms. Decidedly modern, this cut-paper style expanded the vocabulary available to pinball artists, marking a new chapter in how they reached players.


Geometric Abstraction

Angular, geometric abstraction factored heavily in the Contemporary Style, bringing avant garde influence to popular culture. With roots in Cubism, Futurism, and even International Style architecture, Kelley and Marche discarded ornament and detail, distilling their subjects down to straight lines, simple curves, and geometric blocks of color.


Energy and Motion

The Contemporary Style captured energy and motion like no pinball art before it. Broken down to the simplest elements, the work suggested movement through distorted perspective fully outside the boundaries of realism. Here, artists could create scenes that defied gravity, physics, and anatomy to attract the attention of potential players.  


These 2 backglasses illustrate just how striking the Contemporary Style was in comparison to the prevailing pinball art of the time. Though both released in 1970, Marche’s artwork is stylish, modern, and energetic, making Stenholm’s work seem subdued and old fashioned by comparison.





Art Stenholm - Bio

Arthur “Art” Stenholm began working as commercial artist for Advertising Posters in March of 1964 with artists Roy Parker and George Molentin. Advertising Posters was a graphic design company that produced artworks for pinball machine manufacturers Bally and Williams. Stenholm’s boss, George Molentin, was the Art Director for Advertising Posters, and he managed the print production for all of the big pinball companies at the time.


Roy Parker's failing health may have created a situation where he and Stenholm worked together on a few projects, with Parker training Stenholm as his heir to the Gottlieb artist throne. There are many examples of Stenholm's involvement in Parker’s artworks such as World Fair, Kings and Queens, North Star, and Central Park. Regardless of whether or not he was groomed to be Parker’s replacement, Stenholm assumed the position of Gottlieb’s lead artist following Parker's death in 1966.


Stenholm’s artwork is distinct from Parker’s in the way Stenholm frequently presented women as self-assured and capable human beings, rather than helpless glamour dolls and beauty props for male amusement. Possibly influenced by the relationship with his daughters, Stenholm’s work encouraged and empowered women to play pinball by incorporating them playing the game directly into the artwork. He often depicted women as active participants in sports, music, and other facets of fun and life, a departure from the pinball art up to then.


Arthur “Art” Stenholm passed away in 2007 at the age of 90. With this exhibit, we hope his legacy in pinball art will be long remembered.



BUBBLE: Light and Curvy

BUBBLE: Light and Curvy

1939 Genco

Artist unknown. 

Wearing 30’s pageboy hairstyles, smooth as blonde syrup, these dancers carefully hold their bubbles. 

Burlesque stripper Sally Rand invented the bubble dance in the

1930’s. She said “I wanted a balloon sixty inches in diameter made of a translucent material.” Thick rubber target balloons used by the military were the biggest ones available, so Sally hired some experts and had a big pink bubble made to fit her perfectly, hiding only what was necessary.

SHOOT THE MOON: A Tranquil Future

SHOOT THE MOON: A Tranquil Future

1951 Williams

George Molentin

The blonde, brunette and redhead pay no attention to the flaming rocketships, as they languidly dream. Backless glowing gowns give them a vulnerable beauty.

Designer Jean-Louis debuted a special strapless evening gown, with a very low back, in 1946. Worn by Rita Hayworth in the film Gilda, the gown had a plastic framework with three stays under each breast.

CONTROL TOWER: Uniformly Stylish

CONTROL TOWER: Uniformly Stylish

1951 Williams

George Molentin

A pillbox is not a place to store pills, but a round building full of machine guns to hold off the enemy. That’s the origin of the name for the pillbox hat, worn by the stewardess on the right. The year is 1951, and we have just won World War II. American manufacturing is geared to produce large quantities of war clothing, and so it is natural to adapt the patterns and uniform designs to civilian wear, making for a snappy sportswear ensemble worn by the woman in red.

LOVELY LUCY: Lucy and Desi

LOVELY LUCY: Lucy and Desi

1954 Gottlieb 

Roy Parker

Lovely Lucy is a knockoff of I Love Lucy, which first aired in 1951. The CBS network did not want Lucy’s TV character to be married to a Cuban bandleader because “it would not be believable”. Lucille Ball said “What do you mean nobody’ll believe it? We are married!” The ruffled and patterned Cuban attire is influenced by Flamenco styles of Southern Spain as well as Afro Cuban and French Creole Fashion.

BIG BEN: Bespoke Tailoring

BIG BEN: Bespoke Tailoring

1954 Williams

George Molentin

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster set the scene. Tailored English suits give the companions in purple and green an air of authority. They seem to be conferring about the Angelina Jolie look-alike whose seductive attitude and relaxed clothing sets her apart from them. 

Bespoke tailoring is a precise system of British pattern making developed by the Savile Row tailors. Bespoke became the benchmark for decades of fine suit design in England.

CUE TEE: Sweater Girls

CUE TEE: Sweater Girls

1954 Williams

George Molentin

1940s and 1950s actresses such as Lana Turner and Jane Russell wore tight sweaters to emphasize the bustline. Pedal pushers worn mid-calf were a new invention.

Good times and fun are happening as the boys watch the busty

beauties. The demure player in the foreground has an impossibly narrow waist.

The patterned linoleum and the chrome and plastic dinette chair are totally fifties.

ROCKET SHIP: Immigratin’

ROCKET SHIP: Immigratin’

1958 Gottlieb

Roy Parker

If you’re going through customs on a new planet, y’all better have your best bedroll and Louis Vuitton suitcase with ya.

John Batterson Stetson was an Eastern hat maker who moved West and designed the Ten-Gallon hat in 1865. The original material for a ten gallon hat was felt, made with a high content of beaver and rabbit fur. Here in the Texas of the future, the hats, and everything else are made entirely of Wub fur.

ROCKET SHIP: Damaged Matrix

ROCKET SHIP: Damaged Matrix

1958 Gottlieb

Roy Parker

A transparent helmet and gold neckplate upgrade the funny sleeves and lavender bodice of the little astronaut’s uniform. Something has gone wrong with the space-time continuum, and people are dissolving. Fifty years of pinball play, and the paint begins to peel. 

Please donate to the Pacific Pinball Museum to restore these damaged beauties!

STARJET: Retro Future ipods

STARJET: Retro Future ipods

1963 Bally

George Molentin

Beautifully fitted bodices with faux vests and diamond shaped collars are all the rage in the Starjet set. 

Starjet is artist George Molentin’s accurate prediction of the future, with big-haired spacegirls proudly holding their ipods. It’s uncanny! How did he know there were going to be ipods?

But why aren’t we all flying around in outer space already? In really cute outfits. That’s disappointing.

CAMPUS QUEEN: Harvard or Yale?

CAMPUS QUEEN: Harvard or Yale?

1966 Bally 

Attributed to George Molentin

The upscale Ivy League students try to look casual in textured fall sweater sets. In the 60’s, Burberry clothiers introduced new knitwear designs in wool and cashmere, and it became fashionable to wear multiple patterns in the same outfit. But the young man is definitely trying too hard with his red, white and blue directional stripes. Maybe he is feeling guilty because he got a college deferment and did not have to go to war in Vietnam.

BAND WAGON: Showgirls Wear Candy

BAND WAGON: Showgirls Wear Candy

1966 Bally

Attributed to George Molentin

The characters in Band Wagon are a fantasy of candy and cake icing - yummy! Bob Mackie, the famous costumer, could have whipped up these outfits. Ultra feminine accessories such as the blue and pink lacy necklaces with chains which hold up the bodice of the gown, and the slim gloves with ruffles at the top, complete the look.

OP POP POP: Is She a Pop Artist?

OP POP POP: Is She a Pop Artist?

1968 Bally

Christian Marche

As she throws paint by the bucketful, the artist is well dressed for the occasion. The double row of buttons and hint of pleated bustle gives the skirt a bit of military tailoring and a conservative touch. Layered haircut, geometric jewelry and shoes, the pointed geometry of her legs and arms brings order to the wild scene. 

Op Art, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism and Psychedelia are all referenced in Op Pop Pop. Pop Art is considered one of the last Modern Art movements. Because of her technique, the pictured artist is an Abstract Expressionist like Jackson Pollock.

PADDOCK: The Horsey Set

PADDOCK: The Horsey Set

1969 Williams

Christian Marche

Holding her thoroughbred’s rope with long white gloves, she unsuccessfully keeps the horse from eating her friend’s hat. Their hats are very chic, especially the hexagonal one. Hats and white gloves are traditionally worn at the Kentucky Derby race held the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville,

Kentucky. The happy horse is a study in curved lines and planes.

ASTRO: Green Girl and Her Pet Robot

ASTRO: Green Girl and Her Pet Robot

1971 Gottlieb

Gordon Morison

Skin is in! Green, or whatever color you want. So is having your own pink and orange robot as a fashion accessory.

In the 70’s, the US space program took off. Designers and artists such as Paco Rabanne, Betsey Johnson, Pierre Cardin and Andy Warhol made clothes from space age materials such as these studded metals and plastic insets on artist Gordon Morison’s chubby robot.

KLONDIKE: Yahooee!!

KLONDIKE: Yahooee!!

1971 Williams

Christian Marche

Here’s Klondike Sam as a fashion icon. This ol’ bronco ridin’ prospector is dressed for success. His stash of gold nuggets is safe in the bank of Alaska, and he has come back to the mine to get some more. His western duds are suitable for leisure or settling grievances with his rivals. When he’s not being thrown by his pink patterned pony, his hand made boots fit marvelously in the stirrups.

OXO: O My Xosh!

OXO: O My Xosh!

1973 Williams

Christian Marche

Green hair and blue hair predate current punk trends. The green haired girl’s studded bell bottoms stabilize her as she reclines into the X’s. The blue haired girl wears reversed red polka dots of different sizes as she grabs the O and X.

The models are slightly amused and show no stress and strain as their bodies are bent tic-tac-toe to create the design.

STAR POOL: Drama on Green Felt

STAR POOL: Drama on Green Felt

1974 Williams

Christian Marche

As rivalry between the women unfolds, the shooter’s fabulous wide lapels and red sleeveless sweater vest dominate the scene. His hairstyle copies French movie stars like Jean Paul Belmondo. His opponent, with the Coco Chanel haircut holds a pool ball in her palm. Is she cheating? Why is she showing the ball to the brunette? What’s going on here?

BIG BEN: Mods and Rockers

BIG BEN: Mods and Rockers

1975 Williams

Christian Marche

Big Ben, the great bell of the clock in the tower at the Palace of Westminster in London has been a symbol of reliable and steady British culture. The fashionistas lounging below Big Ben, are London youth who rebelled against old boring Britain and began to dress flamboyantly. They were called Mods (for Moderns). Mod clothes had old fashioned Edwardian tailoring combined with wild patterns.

The Rockers were leather wearing motorcyclists who hated Mods.



1975 Bally

Dave Christensen

Wearing slim short cuffed bellbottoms, suspenders, a star splashed shirt, wool stevedore’s cap, and huuuge boots, the pinball wizard looks FANTASTIC in this ensemble.

American cartoonist R. Crumb drew large booted people in the well known Keep on Truckin images of 1968, which were echoed in the Yellow Submarine animation by the Beatles, and now here in Tommy, in which Elton John is the pinball wizard who loses to the “deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball”.

LASERCUE: Lorica Segmentata

LASERCUE: Lorica Segmentata

1984 Williams

Pam Erickson

Lasercue is a big bad weapon made to zap those balls around the table. The hunky guys are outrageously dressed for their game. The players wear body armor based on the fanciest Roman design called lorica segmentata, overlapping plates. The helmets combine a Meiji Era Japanese design with a brainlike accessory on top.

Birth of Pinball

Shortly after relocating to the United States in 1869, British-born inventor Montague Redgrave produced a miniature version of bagatelle - a French table game related to billiards - and established the basic play rules and appearance of the first pinball game.


Players competed by pulling and releasing Redgrave’s patented, spring-loaded plunger to shoot marbles up a chute to the top of the playfield where they fell through pins and into a variety of scoring holes. Totals were then tallied to determine the winner.


The M. Redgrave Bagatelle Company produced several versions of the games from the 1870’s through the 1890’s. Originally intended as an adult game, it was later made and sold as a children’s toy.


In the following decades, pinball (and later pachinko) would explode in popularity thanks to the innovations first established in Redgrave’s bagatelle.

birth of pinball - patent.jpg


credit: Google Patents

A Game of Skill - The Birth of the Flipper

In the pinball games of the 1930's, players had little control over the ball aside from plunger shots and/or shaking the cabinet. This kept pinball largely a game of chance, and fueled its association with gambling. It wasn't until the invention of the flipper in 1947 by Harry Mabs that a new element of skill would enter

pinball gameplay.


D. Gottlieb and Co. introduced the first flipper game with Humpty Dumpty in late 1947. The pinball industry immediately recognized the appeal of flippers, and within months every manufacturer was making them standard features on new games. The addition of a player-controlled device on the playfield dramatically influenced a game's outcome, and helped establish pinball as a game of skill.


This innovation aside, gambling was still very much at the center of many pinball games. While the flipper helped establish a new category of “novelty” pinball, many flipper games continued to offer replays that players could earn and redeem for cash.

A Game of Skill.jpg


credit: Hawkins

One Two Three

Mills Novelty 1938

Mills Novelty Company was a major manufacturer of slot machines and amusements, and One Two Three leveraged that expertise in a pinball format. Partnering with slot machine inventor Charles Fey, Mills enjoyed massive success with their Liberty Bell slot machine. As pinball gained steady popularity, Mills moved to integrate the new format with their proven earners.


A stainless steel playfield and lighted backglass dazzled players, while the tumbler reels banked on the appeal of the slot machine. Available in both payout and replay versions, this game would have originally had an additional lighted box atop the backbox displaying the number of replays earned. Alternate versions featured fruit or tobacco-themed symbols on the reels.


A one ball game, the tumbler reels were triggered by striking the color coded bumpers. Two steel-capped spinners launched the ball back up the playfield, adding even more chance to the results. Payouts (or replays) were awarded by matching the symbols on reels. This may be the first use of what became the numbered score reel on pinball machines sixteen years later first introduced in 1954 on Gottlieb's "Jumbo".

one two three flier.jpg

One Two Three

credit: / Mike Pacak

Getting Paid

While it’s maybe not surprising that players could wager on a pinball game among themselves, the way someone could collect on a win from an establishment isn’t necessarily as clear. Because the gambling side of pinball operated in a legal grey area, payouts manifested in a few different ways. Depending on the time and place some were more formal or obvious than others.   


Purely Mechanical Pinball

The early pingames before the introduction of electricity were scored manually by simply counting up the balls in scoring pockets. Generally, a card would be found on the machine indicating the payout rate for a given score. The operator of an establishment would verify the score achieved and payout according to the card.


Payout Games

A great many games were produced with an internal mechanism similar to a slot machine that would automatically dispense a prize: anything from a mint, to a token, or simply cash. Most often the non-cash prizes could be exchanged for money as well. Sometimes the payout drawer was hidden inside the machine to make the gambling aspect a bit less conspicuous to the casual observer.


Replay Games

Free games were far and away the most common way to earn a payout in pinball. Much like the early mechanical games, a player would show the venue operator their earned replays and exchange them for cash. The operator would then press a knock-off button, returning the counter to zero. Bingo machines in particular usually had 3 digit replay counters, allowing a player to accumulate far more replays than they were likely to play off.  

getting paid 1.jpg


credit: Dick Bueschel Collection

Getting paid 2.jpg


credit: / Mike Pacak


While the flipper helped introduce an element of skill to pinball, the gambling association did not immediately disappear. In 1950 Congress passed the Johnson Act, which banned interstate shipment of gambling devices (including repair parts, manuals, etc.) except to states in which the device was legal. Even still, Bally and other manufacturers found great success with bingo machines in the early 1950's. The Korpan Decision in 1957 specifically classified bingo machines as gambling devices.


Modeled after the popular chance game, players launched balls onto a playfield covered with numbered holes hoping to line up rows on an illuminated card. If a player accumulated a significant number of free game credits, they could ask the proprietor to cash out those credits. The operator would then push a “knock off” button that would count down all the credits and zero the game for use by the next player. Any credit counter with 3 digits is a fairly good indicator of a gambling machine.


Despite the Johnson Act, Korpan Decision, and many local bans, the game was simply too popular to effectively hold back. It thrived in the many states where machines were legal, and even those where they weren’t. Enforcement was uneven at best and police could not keep up with all the secret rooms and payola protecting the operators.

Bingo - Flier.jpg


Moral Panic

Over the years pinball has been described as evil, a tool from the devil, a waste of time, and a gateway to gambling. Below those descriptions lie an expression of social values and the individuals who hold them. Moral panics are often rooted in legitimate fears, but are exaggerated by sensationalized dangers. Regulation and enforcement often arise as an expression of political power or as a means of limiting behaviors considered off-limits in society.


Campaigns against pinball and gambling were bolstered by appeals to a specific view of morality. Fears around the influence of organized crime (itself a coded fear of newly arrived Italian immigrants), a public seduced into the horrors of gambling addiction, and children being tempted by forces they don’t understand all tell us something about American culture at that time, as well as the people who waged those campaigns.


The moral panic around pinball was not the first or last to grip American culture. Here are a few more examples of similar panics in 20th Century America.


Motion Picture Production Code, 1934

Also known as the Hays Code, after then MPPDA president Will H. Hays, the code laid out specific guidelines of morally acceptable portrayals and storylines in motion pictures for American Audiences.


Comics Code Authority, 1954

Formed in response to public outcry over content in comics, the CCA required comics contain no disrespect to established authority, gruesome illustrations, or the words horror or terror in the titles. The code further required that good triumph over evil in every circumstance.


Parental Advisory Sticker, 1985

Adopted by the RIAA in 1985 after pressure from the Parents Music Resource Center, the label was affixed to recordings containing material deemed unsuitable for children.  

Moral Panic 1.jpg


Moral Panic 2.jpg


Moral Panic 3.jpg


Parallel Histories

To understand the history of pinball and gambling, we need to consider several key factors simultaneously at work. In the first half of the 20th century, forces like organized crime, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and pinball are all influencing one another and having a great effect on American culture.


Prohibition solidified organized crime in America, providing a tremendous source of revenue for the mob. With the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, those profits quickly dried up, leaving organized crime to concentrate on new money makers. Gambling and coin-operated machines were cash businesses, difficult to track and regulate by authorities. The rising popularity of pinball made it a natural choice for organized crime outfits.


At that same moment, the Great Depression was gripping America. Unemployment reached 24% and cheap entertainment, especially that with the possibility of a cash payout, was a welcome respite from everyday struggles. The popularity of pinball exploded.


Organized crime was dominating headlines, and Hollywood seized the moment with the era of the gangster film. Mobsters became folk heroes and rebels operating outside of a failed system, a storyline that many struggling Americans could identify with. After nearly a decade of alcohol prohibition, the transition from speakeasy to gambling hall was an easy one.  


All of these lead us to the clash with pinball’s biggest opponent, Fiorello LaGuardia, and his campaign to rid New York of corruption, the mob, and pinball.

LaGuardia's Crusade

The most famous opponent of pinball was New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He had run on a ticket promising to “Clean up New York City,” and following his 1934 election quickly declared war on slot machines. Mafia gambling Kingpin Frank Costello reportedly had exclusive rights with the Mills Novelty Company for their gambling machines in the New York territory, and even started his own factory to supply the mints delivered in many payout games. After a successful campaign of raids and dumping thousands of confiscated devices into the Hudson from barges, LaGuardia turned his attention to pinball.


Despite his outsized personality and love of publicity, it’s fair to say LaGuardia's crusade was motivated by deep beliefs. He saw himself as a protector of a working class long abused by corrupt power brokers in New York City. In his eyes, gambling tempted desperate men, lured unsuspecting children, and encouraged widespread corruption. As New York's first Italian-American mayor, LaGuardia had a personal desire to break up organized crime and confront its widespread association with Italians.


With the entry of the United States in WWII, LaGuardia further characterized pinball as a waste of both time and precious resources. In 1942, he ordered the seizure of an estimated 12,000 pinball machines in the city. His skillful use of publicity made LaGuardia one of the most visible opponents of pinball and gave him the political leverage to enact a ban in New York that wouldn't be lifted until 1976.

LaGuardias Crusade.jpg


credit: Associated Press

Spotting a Cheater

Like most games, pinball has always had cheaters looking to beat the house. Given that gambling was a central part of early pinball, it’s not surprising that many of the innovations on those machines were there to thwart the dishonest player.


The simple addition of glass covering the playfield kept a player from moving the ball, while a copper-coated brass ball could prevent a magnet from altering its course. It was famed designer Harry Williams who, after observing players abusing his games, developed the quintessential pinball cheat detector, the tilt mechanism in 1933.


The earliest version of tilt detection involved a ball resting upon a post inside a metal cup. Too much movement and the ball rolled into the cup and completed a circuit, invalidating the player’s score. Additional mechanisms followed, including the pendulum tilt bob, slam switches and the roll tilt.


Today’s games still employ many of these devices, a testament to the clever design work of Harry Williams.   


Stool Pigeon Tilt

A steel ball sits on the retractable center post. If the ball is shaken off the post, the circuit is closed and the game ends. Depositing another coin retracts the post and resets the ball. 


Slam Switch

A blade switch with a weight on one side is attached inside the machine. With a powerful enough strike, the weight will move and close the circuit and indicate a tilt.


Roll Tilt

A captive ball rests inside an inclined switch attached to the cabinet. If the machine is lifted, the ball rolls to the end and connects the circuit that declares it tilted.


Tilt Bob

A weighted pendulum is suspended inside the machine cabinet. At the bottom a metal ring surrounds a post extending from the bottom of the tilt bob. With a significant shake or bump to the machine, the post will contact the surrounding ring and trigger a tilt. 

Spotting a Cheater 1.jpg


Spotting a Cheater 4.jpg


credit: Bally Parts Catalog

Spotting a Cheater 2.jpg


credit: Bally Parts Catalog

Spotting a Cheater 3.jpg


credit: Bally Parts Catalog

Curated, photographed, researched and written by Melissa Harmon.

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