Two Turtles releases the spring-loaded plunger, and a small steel ball rockets up the chute and begins its arcing trajectory across the candy-colored table. Wearing a beard and T-shirt that reads “I’m kind of a big deal,” Turtles’ focus is locked on the dazzling array of lights glowing from a 40-year-old pinball machine called “Wizard!”
Turtles is a regular here, a fixture on Wednesday nights when Blairally hosts Pinball Knights, its weekly double-elimination pinball tournament. And he’s destroying me.
Usually a dozen or so contestants buy in. They pay $5 to add their names to the bracket. Prizes are whatever Pinball Knights organizers can scrape together. In the past, champion ’ballers have taken home Sandwich League sandwiches, bottles of 2 Towns cider or Whiteaker Tattoo Collective vouchers.
Turtles promises to tattoo my first name across his right bicep if he wins the tattoo package.
Despite holding a commanding lead, Turtles generously pretends it’s still anyone’s game. He keeps the ball alive for what feels like an eternity and, when it’s finally slungshot down an “out lane,” he steps away from the Wizard! and says: “Everyone knows your first two balls don’t mean shit.”
Built in 1975 to coincide with the release of Ken Russell’s film Tommy, Wizard!’s colorful backglass depicts a defiant Roger Daltrey, wearing black sunglasses and white muscle shirt, cuddling a seminude Ann Margret. Chesty vixens flank Daltrey and Margret; flames engulf the world around them.
Wizard! is one of Blairally’s more than 15 electromechanical (EM) pinball machines. EM machines are gorgeous relics from the bygone analog era that ended shortly after video games conquered America’s arcades.
Aesthetic charm aside, the beauty of an EM cabinet is that it has no computerized brain, Turtles says, adding: “If a nuclear bomb went off in Eugene, you could start this thing up and play it the next day.”
Machines manufactured since the mid-1970s tend to be digital at heart; circuit boards all but retired electromechanical relay systems and the rolling scoring reel gave way to flashy dot matrix displays.
Pinball Knights emcee Clark Davis says no other bar on the west coast owns as many working EM pinball machines as Blairally, located right in the heart of Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood.
Pinball runs deep in Blairally’s genes, says owner Chad Boutin. For two years leading up to its grand opening in 2012, Boutin operated a small speakeasy-arcade out of the warehouse at 245 Blair Blvd. called The Location. Insiders who knew about Boutin’s illicit night club brought six packs, crowded around a laptop streaming stolen Blazers games, smoked cigarettes and played pinball till sunrise.
|Photos by Trask Bedortha|
Boutin’s pinball love stems mostly from nostalgia. His parents split when he was a kid. The lanky Oregonian remembers visiting his old man on weekends in Coos Bay. Father and son bonded over a Williams-made pinball cabinet called “Black Knight” in the early ’80s.
Boutin says he’d love to get his hands on that machine again. “That stupid Black Knight! It’s my grail,” he howls.
“Defining moments in my life happened around pinball,” he adds.
Turtles shares a similar story. He fondly remembers playing Capt. Fantastic with his dad back in ’79.
With no concrete understanding of how pinball is scored, I’m dumbfounded to find I’ve somehow managed to shrink the point-gap between Turtles and me.
But as the tension mounts, I crack under the pressure and freeze for a split second as my third and final ball comes screaming down the center lane. It slips neatly between the stalled flippers and disappears down the drain into the guts of the Wizard!
“Everybody knows your third ball doesn’t mean shit,” Turtles says.
Pinball Knights, a weekly pinball tournament, takes place every Wednesday at 8 pm; $5 buy-in, no minors after 9 pm. More info at the Blairally Vintage Arcade page on Facebook.