Orange County Pinballs scores with coin-op game nostalgia

AT: Dean Lamanna

FULLERTON, Calif. — It’s been more than 40 years since pinball ruled the arcade scene. But thanks to enterprising enthusiasts such as Southern California resident Evan Zelien, the game is resurgent.

As co-owner with his wife of Orange County Pinballs, Zelien, 31, buys, rehabs and sells vintage machines and retails brand-new ones. His company serves as the regional distributor for Stern Pinball — the largest current manufacturer — and Chicago Gaming Co., both headquartered in the Windy City metro area.

It takes a special kind of millennial to be trading in a pastime that’s been around in one form or another since the late 18th century. Zelien, who grew up in Orange County, developed his love of pinball in the 1990s at the Balboa Fun Zone in Newport Beach.

“It was our tiny Coney Island, with lineups of pinballs,” said Zelien of the local amusement spot, where he pounced on games like Tales from the Crypt and The Addams Family. “I was part of the last generation to see these machines in arcades.”

Landing successfully in the automobile detailing business, Zelien found his fortunes waning as the recession started to manifest in 2006. Working out of his garage, he began acquiring and cleaning up old pinball machines — finding that their collector resale value, fueled largely by nostalgic baby boomers, continued to increase even during the downturn years. He was restoring upwards of 20 or 30 vintage units at a time.

Now operating from a warehouse in Fullerton, Zelien has a seasoned independent technician on call and an additional assistant helping him return the machines to playing shape. Visiting his tidy workshop is a true nostalgia trip, or at least an arcade history lesson — as units dating to the mid-1900s from long-defunct manufacturers including Bally, Gottlieb and Williams fill the space.

The smaller showroom area of Orange County Pinballs is devoted mostly to the latest machines by Stern. Powered by solid-state components and incorporating animations as well as the best light-and-sound elements of jukeboxes and video games, many of them sport themes licensed from hot film and TV franchises such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars and The Walking Dead.

While reconditioned vintage pinballs can be had for well under $4,000, the Stern premium models can start at twice that and go considerably higher. Secondary markets can be more profitable than initial releases for some machines if production is limited and they develop strong online word of mouth — like Stern’s AC/DC rock group model, which originally debuted five years ago at about $8,200 but now can command $13-15,000 used.

Catering primarily to a high-end clientele — he will scour his network to fulfill specific pinball title requests — Zelien prides his operation on mobile servicing, national and worldwide delivery, and special event rentals (he has supplied machines for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and tournaments at the Museum of Pinball in Banning, Calif., among others).

“Pinball has always held a place in people’s hearts,” he said. “It’s fun to see it becoming popular again.”

This article appears in the March 2018 issue of Amusement Today.

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