Report: Texas Pinball Festival 2017
Posted on April 10th, 2017
For over 10 years the Texas Pinball Festival is being organized in March. Once again the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference center in Frisco, Texas, was the stage for one of the biggest and best pinball shows in the world. This year’s show looked very promising upfront as several new games were to be revealed or shown for the first time in public, there were special guests announced and much more.
I arrived Thursday evening and by then the show floor had already been filled up with games. Games were also still being brought in and vendors were setting up their stands. Based on the amount of people already in the hotel and on the show floor one could get the impression this is a 4-day show, but technically it’s not.
As Martin Ayub of Pinball News and myself were starting of the event with the opening seminar, a trivia quiz, I had spent my Friday morning and afternoon mostly preparing a powerpoint presentation with questions as well as collecting prizes from various manufacturers and vendors. Prizes were donated by Stern Pinball, Jersey Jack Pinball, Dutch Pinball, ColorDMD, Marco Specialties, PinSound, Pinball News and Pinball Magazine. With so many prizes being available there were almost more prizes than questions.
Martin suggested to give each prize a number and whoever won a prize would draw a ticket from a small box and win the corresponding prize. The concept of the quiz was the same as last year: Martin asks a question, two possible answers are given, if you think it’s answer A you move to one side of the room, if you think it’s answer B you move to the other side of the room. If you picked the incorrect answer you’re done playing for that round, those who answered correctly continue to play. By the time we got down to four contestants that had answered all questions in that round correctly they all were allowed to draw a prize ticket. Else it would have taken forever to give away everything and I had only prepared about 70 questions.
Contrary to last year we chose to do the quiz in the bar area of the hotel as happy hour was going on at the same time. So we instantly had a bigger crowd. The technicians of the festival kindly set up a small speaker so the quiz was amplified, but it was instantly agreed on that we’d need a larger speaker for next year. The quiz in itself was a lot of fun and several contestants mentioned during the weekend they enjoyed playing (and winning) a lot.
Following the quiz the first real seminar was scheduled: Another homerun by Dennis Nordman. In this seminar Dennis revealed he had been working on a new pitch and bat game for several years with Paul Reno and later also artist ZombieYeti. The first iteration of the game I had actually already seen prior to Pinball Expo 2014 when I visited Dennis Nordman’s house together with Martin Ayub. I actually played the game a year later, prior to Pinball Expo 2015, as the game was set up on test at a Dave & Busters location in the Chicago area. Back then the game already turned out to be very popular and earning very well. It has a traditional mechanical man-run unit in the backbox, which was a common feature on pitch and bat games from the ‘50s and ‘60s. At Dennis’ request I did not report on the game so far as it could undermine their negotiations with potential licensors. As I wasn’t familiar with pitch & bat games it took me a few games to understand how these are supposed to be played, but once I got it I had a blast playing it. Lots of fun.
So it took some time for Dennis and his team to polish the game and get new artwork done for the backglass. Earlier in the afternoon I got a sneak peak of the new game was slightly disappointed to see ZombieYeti had only done a new backglass for the game. The cabinet sides were still a basic red/white/blue print, not any ZombieYeti artwork. Then Paul Reno revealed a second game with an alternative ZombieYeti art package on cabinet, playfield and backglass. After I picked my jaw up from the floor I played a game and learned that the game has a completely different sound package. The man-run unit is equipped with zombies running around, so the theme is really tied in in every aspect of the game. With the regular version already earning very well on location, the zombie version is likely to earn even better. So congratulations to Dennis and his team for such a fun game.
The seminar following Dennis Nordman was by American Pinball. Most of the team that had been working on Houdini was present on stage, including owner Dhaval Vasani, PR manager Scott Goldberg, designer Joe Balcer, artist Jeff Busch, programmer Josh Kugler and newly hired director of sales Jolly Backer. In the seminar Joe expressed that the current game was a real team effort and they started over from scratch only keeping the theme of the game (and the curved plastic ramp). Once the audience got to play the game I was actually the first to play it, which was filmed by Chris Kooluris and shared on his Youtube channel. I have to say the playfield is very interesting and definitely not your standard fan layout. The current rules are still very basic, but the ideas are there.
At the seminar was expressed that American Pinball is open to suggestions to further improve the game. They wouldn’t promise they would implement everything suggested, but they would certainly listen to everything.
The next seminar was a Q&A session with Flash Gordon actor Sam J. Jones, who was present at the show all three days. He had a booth of his own where he was selling photos and autographs. I didn’t stay for this seminar as I still had to hang up posters for Pinball Magazine, which I hadn’t gotten to due to the preparations of the quiz. I did run in to Mr. Jones later during the show and he was very nice to talk to.
Saturday morning was a early rise as the swap meet started at eight o’clock. When I got there a few minutes to eight it turned out it had already started earlier. There was an interesting range of games, video game backglasses and lots of other stuff. One of the indoor vendors was selling pinball flyers from a truck and the flyers he offered were ranging from the mid ’60 to recent Stern games. What initially caught my eye were several packs of Monster Bash flyers. These flyers were originally sealed in plastic, each pack containing 100 copies. He had several of them. Same goes for Medieval Madness. Not something you see every day. When I took a closer look a couple of guys were going through a huge bin of alphabetically sorted flyers at the back of a van. For most of the games several copies were available. Working their way through the bin they called out the title of a game and whoever was interested said so. Only in a few occasions there wasn’t a flyer for everyone, but who got it was settled without much discussion. I got a bit carried away and ended up picking 115 flyers, but was able to make a good deal on them 🙂
I missed most of the seminars of Saturday morning as I was out in the hallway talking to several people. In the mean time a huge line was forming for the Cassandra Peterson autograph session. Miss Peterson is mostly known for her Elvira character, and to pinball enthusiasts also for the two pinball machines themed after that character. Originally the plan was to have the autograph session in the seminar room, but Miss Peterson requested it would be moved to the show floor. Rumor has it she would also only appear if there was a line of people waiting for her to show up, but as there was a line that was not an issue.
Once Cassandra had arrived and was having her picture taken and signing all sorts of merchandise I tried to talk to her manager Scott. Ever since I was working on Pinball Magazine No. 2, which featured the games of pinball designer Dennis Nordman and artist Greg Freres – who did both Elvira-themed pinball machines – I have been trying to get an interview with Miss Peterson about her games and how she played pinball as a kid. Unfortunately her manager Scott would never OK such an interview and over the years I got denied over and over again with the lamest excuses. As I was again. This time the excuse was that Stern Pinball wouldn’t want her doing interviews. Right. With Stern pretty heavily represented at the show I was quickly able to get an OK from them to do an interview about the first two games. Scott didn’t give in however and simply said he couldn’t explain why but she could not do an interview and wouldn’t make any promises for the future either . . .
Anyway, after two hours of selling signatures, photos and merchandise the seminar with Greg Freres, Dennis Nordman and Cassandra Peterson started. Full house in the seminar room. Note that this was the first time these three appeared together at a pinball convention. They had appeared at industry tradeshows in the past, but this was the first pinball enthusiast event where Elvira made an appearance. Greg had prepared a slideshow with photos from the development of the first two Elvira-themed games. Greg and Dennis commented on the photos and Cassandra occasionally stepped in as well, but not that much.
After the slideshow Greg showed some video footage of Elvira arriving at the AMOA tradeshow in 1989 where her first game was presented. Following that it was time for questions from the audience. I was told later they had upfront discussed whether or not they would be talking about the upcoming third game, which so far has been rumored but not confirmed officially. They all agreed they would not reveal anything yet. So several questions come from the audience and nobody asks about a third game. Guess what happens? Scott, Elvira’s manager makes it appear as if he walks from the audience to the microphone to ask a question and asks whether they are doing a third game? From the looks on their faces this took Dennis and Greg completely by surprise. Instead of a well-directed announcement, the game gets confirmed in a very amateurish way. Well done Scott! Afterwards I heard that Scott apparently had received a text message that OK’d to announce the game, but as nobody else knew it took them by surprise.
Following this seminar Cassandra went back to sell more autographs. You’d think the line would have reduced by now, but no. Many people even stayed in line during the seminar. About an hour later the line was finally reduced to a size I knew wouldn’t take long and stepped in. Got my autographs within 10 minutes 🙂 I put them away in my room and went back to the seminar room where Jaap Naua of Dutch Pinball was explaining the current situation. Basically, according to Jaap, their contract manufacturer breached contract at least three times demanding more money from Dutch Pinball to compensate for miscalculations, overpaying for parts and poor planning of the assembly process on their end. While Dutch Pinball gave in a few times, at some point they said, “No more.” As a result the companies were in a standoff with lawyers talking to each other. (Note that since then progress has been made and the parties are talking to each other again. See Pinball Magazine’s March 2017 recap newsletter.)
Jaap explained their reasoning and the options the company was facing. As they currently can’t move forward with The Big Lebowski, and giving up is not an option, they decided to move forward with their second game with a new contract manufacturer. That second game will be a rerun of The Machine: Bride of Pin-Bot, a super limited 25th anniversary edition of 150 units priced at $12.500. The software will be the same as their Bride of Pin-Bot upgrade kit with some updates. Personally I had been hoping their second game would be a completely new game, but this may be the easiest option for Dutch Pinball to at least move forward and test the waters with a new contract manufacturer, which was revealed as well.
I didn’t stay for the rest of the seminars as I figured I could watch them later via Pinball News, or at least whether I missed anything. As there was an autograph session later that night I went through the flyers I bought earlier to see whether I could have any of them signed. Sorted these by designer and headed to the autograph session. Here I met artist Christopher Franchi for the first time in person. We had done an interview on his work for Batman over the phone, which is published as a free download on the Pinball Magazine website as well as in the TPF program guide. Very nice guy and I’m happy that he’s working on other projects for Stern as well. As I arrived late I didn’t get everything signed as George Gomez already left to do the Stern seminar. I took a quick look and it appeared as he was doing Gary Stern’s usual talk, so I didn’t stay for that.
At 8PM Things that go bump in the night, a documentary on Spooky Pinball, premiered. I have to admit I had no idea what to expect and I was very impressed. Both with the quality of the documentary, but also with the story it told. The Emery family went through a lot to get where they are today, yet they’re still very modest about it. The documentary got a standing ovation at the end and rightfully so. After a Q&A session with the Emerys and the makers of the documentary a clip was shown that revealed Spooky Pinball’s next title: Alice Cooper Nightmare Castle. Charlie briefly explained that the game will not be another music pin and certainly not a greatest hits package.
After the documentary I went outside and got some sliders in the foodtruck court. The rest of the evening I was on the show floor. After midnight the showfloor was only open for exhibitors, which I hoped would result in less lines for popular games like Houdini and Dialed In. I was wrong, or more people had the same idea as there were lines up to 2AM. I did get to play these games, as well as the homebrew version of Wizard Blocks. I didn’t get to play Scott Danesi’s Total Annihilation as there still was a line when I decided to call it a day.
On my way out I did stop for two games on Safe Cracker as only two people were playing it. Just like last year the game was dispensing special TPF tokens if you would crack the bank on the boardgame in the backbox. The first game I didn’t get close, the second game I was two steps away from entering the vault. I had played three quarter of the board game with the guard chasing me a few steps in front of me. Then I hit a question mark for a random prize, hit the flipper buttons and the award is the guard to move back 4 spots. Then the guard rolls the dice and instead of staying on the main course he takes a left turn and captured me. That sucked. I was too tired to play more and went to bed.
Sunday morning I joined Dutch Pinball’s Jaap Nauta for breakfast at his hotel across the street. As I was overweight on my luggage and Jaap offered to take some items (an Elvira book and 5 bags of mint flavored M&Ms) home for me. In return I would pick up the face plates of the new Bride of Pin-Bot that were on display at the CoinTaker booth.
When I arrived back at my hotel I joined Christopher Franchi for breakfast. Great guy with great stories. As it turns out he had a meeting with Elvira’s manager after that. I walked up with him finishing our conversation. Christopher introduced me to Scott and mentioned that I did a great interview with him and we should do something with Elvira. Hopefully it helps getting there one day and I certainly appreciate Chris’ gesture.
With Scott being in a meeting I figured I might as well try my luck with Miss Peterson myself. I had found out in what room she was staying as well as that she had a flight early in the afternoon. So around noon I walked up there with a copy of Pinball Magazine No. 3. At that point I figured she would be up anyway to catch her plane, so I felt I could ignore the “Do not disturb” sign on the door. Her personal assistant opened the door. I explained who I was and that I was interested in a future interview with Miss Peterson. To get a better idea of the magazine I gave her a copy of Pinball Magazine to hand to Miss Peterson. Hopefully when she sees the quality of the production it will become easier to get that interview after all. After that I emptied my room as I would be staying at a different hotel that night.
Once I had packed my car and cleared my room I went down to the show floor. I had a lengthy interesting chat with Greg Freres’ wife Andy and daughter Lauren about Lauren’s career in fashion design and her work for Weight Watchers. Very talented girl!
After the show closed and everything was broke down I was invited to join a group of people to In N Out Burger. This would actually be my debut of eating at an In N Out Burger. Although it was rather early to have dinner it was a fun experience. Once I returned to the Embassy hotel I helped Rob Anthony of Pinball Classics pack his car. Once that was done he invited me to join him for dinner at Hard Eight, a barbeque restaurant. I took the liberty of inviting a few other people as well and we ended up with a group of about ten people at the restaurant, which was like a ten minute drive away. Never seen a restaurant like this. Very interesting formula. I was advised to take the briskets, which I did. Excellent choice! This place I’ll have to remember for next year as I love to go back there.
And that concludes my report for Texas Pinball Festival 2017. Huge thanks to organizers Ed and Kim for their hospitality and setting up such a great show. I’m already looking forward for the 2018 edition. For a more detailed report on TPF17 visit Pinball News.