When you get the chance to interview a living legend like Roger Sharpe, it can be difficult to focus on a specific topic: Roger has been involved in the pinball industry for over 30 years, on many different levels and in many different roles.
As a writer Roger wrote the heavily illustrated book ‘Pinball!’, as well as numerous articles for industry magazines and newspapers including The New York Times. He is also well known for testifying before the New York City Council in 1976 and successfully demonstrating that pinball is a game of skill, not chance.
Roger designed several pinball machines for manufacturers including Game Plan, Stern, and Williams, and he founded the Professional Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA) together with Steve Epstein, owner of the legendary Broadway Arcade at that time.
He became head of marketing at Williams, where he licensed many themes that subsequently featured on pinball machines (or slot machines.)
This list of his pinball-related achievements just goes on and on.
Today Roger is in good health and still active in the coin-up industry. Josh and Zach, his two sons, run WPPR and IFPA, and Roger still follows new developments in the pinball industry.
PM: From the point of view of someone who is interested in pinball, do you feel you have had a pretty good life given all that you have achieved so far?
RS: I have no complaints. What is so remarkable to me is that, compared to other people who are in hobby or work in the industry, is that I grew up pinball deprived. I didn’t really discover pinball until I was in college.
From that point on pinball has truly become the journey of my life in many respects. That is probably much more astounding to me than many of the accomplishments I’ve achieved. What I have been so fortunate to accomplish were just ‘stops’ along the road and not specific goals that I set out to do, if that makes sense at all.
PM: It does, and again it indicates your journey must have been fun.
RS: It was! There was one surprise after another, after each door that was opened and each corner that was turned.
PM: Don’t you think that it’s ironic that you grew up in Chicago – where most manufacturers were based – but since pinball was illegal in those days you didn’t play it until you went to college?
RS: It would be comparable to growing up in Detroit, Michigan and not knowing automobiles are being built there. When I was very young I had played pinball, (very much as I wrote in my book) standing on a crate, during a vacation in California. I was overwhelmed by it, but then I went back to my day-to-day life and forgot about it.
Until, as was the case in my life, I have an older sister and my parents and I would travel to visit her at the University and there were pinball machines around. So I would play a game while the family was having lunch. Then go back to the real world and there’s no pinball.
So it didn’t stay on the radar until I went to college. I went to the University of Wisconsin and there were pinball machines in the local bars, the bowling alley and other places and I found myself mesmerized.
I was a terrible player at that time and had no clue what I was doing. I would just pull back the plunger, shoot the ball up the playfield and start flipping like crazy. Little by little I started to realize I did not have to flip if the ball was not close to the flippers. And then there was another epiphany: if the ball is only on the right side, I only have to flip the right flipper. There were these points of discovery. I was just learning on the job so to speak. The true turning point for me was watching a fraternity brother of mine at a local burger place on campus. I watched him play pinball while he ate his lunch. I had never ever seen anybody cradle a ball on a flipper, did not know that was possible, then aim and do things that obviously had a skill component to it. At that time in Wisconsin, games were set on add-a-ball. It was a five ball game and he got it up to ten balls. When he was down to eight or seven, he did what he needed to do and got the game back up to ten balls while finishing his hamburger, French fries, soft drink and a cigarette.
At a certain point he turned to me and asked if I wanted to play, as he had to go back to class. I think I drained all 10 balls before he even left the restaurant. Maybe he got like a block away. But that was a defining moment for me when it comes to pinball. I saw that there was skill definitely involved in playing. I remember I went back to a bowling alley where there was this game, Gottlieb’s Hurdy Gurdy, I used to play all the time and started trying to apply some measure of control and skill.
So, again, it was self-teaching and it was something I found remarkable. Eventually I experienced that incredible rush of turning the machine, seeing where my high score was, and then trying to better that and getting to the point where I mastered the game using the techniques I had acquired on other games. Instead of being able to play one game well, it became a situation of being able to play multiple games exceptionally well.
PM: So at that point were you constantly on the lookout for new games to play?
RS: Well, it’s interesting. In Madison, Wisconsin there were a number of places to play pinball, including the student union, but the turnover of games wasn’t as frequent back then compared to what everyone is used to now. I think there were some machines that were actually in operation for all four years I was in college. I know that there was a new game or two added at the start of a new semester. But I was never on a quest to find new games. I suppose I assumed that whatever was available was it.
When I graduated and moved to New York, I was on the lookout for any pinball machines anywhere in the city and I couldn’t find any in arcades that were in midtown Manhattan. So, there I was, having discovered and enjoyed pinball for four years and feasting on the games, to a state of pinball famine.
But then one day everything was to change for me and for pinball. I was walking past this store and heard a very distinctive sound—the ringing and chiming of pinball machines. I immediately turned back and entered this adult bookstore where they had pinball machines and I started playing every day after work on my way home. And then one day the games were on their sides and confiscated by the local police. The odd thing was: behind the curtain there were peepshows, but it was the pinball machines that were the object of the police enforcement.
I was able to find a store in Greenwich Village that had a few machines and that became a place I visited fairly regularly. But I found myself thinking that I wanted to buy my own pinball machine just so I could play whenever I wanted to.
Read the rest of this interview, which is over 56 pages in total, in the full first issue of Pinball Magazine.