Bars go retro with pinball machines

Shawne Caumsgrove, center, asks a question of teammate Denis Gautreau, right, as Justine Buck, left, looks on during a women's league pinball night on Thursday, July 27, 2017, at Flip Side pinball bar in Westerly. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Shawne Caumsgrove, center, asks a question of teammate Denis Gautreau, right, as Justine Buck, left, looks on during a women's league pinball night on Thursday, July 27, 2017, at Flip Side pinball bar in Westerly. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Above the Addams Family, Metallica and Family Guy pinball machines, blue and purple light glows on the players' faces, faces that can go from focused to contemplative to vexed in the seconds it takes for a ball to hit a target but then roll between the flippers.

Behind the nine machines, patrons sip on some of the bar's 55 varieties of craft beer, from Stone to Smuttynose to Sixpoint. There is lots of laughter, and lots of cursing.

On this Thursday night, 11 women at Flip Side pinball bar in Westerly are competing in the weekly women's league, called Double Danger Dames.

"It's competition but it's still fun at the same time," said Katharine Stapleton-Santee of Westerly. "You're learning new things, you're meeting new people. Even though it can be a very solitary game, it's in a very social environment, so you get to meet people that already have something in common with you."

Mark and Dana Carvey, business partners as well as husband and wife, opened Flip Side at 1 Railroad Ave., across from the train station, in November of 2016. They have been pinball aficionados and competitors for years, and they want to play a role in the game's revival.

More than 4 million pinball machines have been manufactured since 1931, but it was illegal in much of the country for more than 30 years, according to the documentary "Special When Lit."

In 1942, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned pinball, on the belief that it was a game of luck that promoted gambling. In 1976, Roger Sharpe went before the New York City Council to demonstrate that he could make the ball go where he wanted it to, and the ban was overturned.

Pinball boomed, and many fondly remember playing pinball at an arcade or corner store as a kid. But the rise of video games and the Internet led to a decline in participation.

"Public places of amusement have been falling by the wayside like crazy," Pinball Hall of Fame owner Tim Arnold said in the 2009 documentary.

Now, some bar owners are seeing pinball and other games as a way to attract customers.

In New London, Rod Cornish started buying arcade games last summer for the basement of Hot Rod Café, of which he is the owner. The Addams Family pinball machine was so popular he added Metallica and Game of Thrones. Now, more than 10 games, including Pac-Man, NBA Jam and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are at his Bank Street restaurant and Cornish turns them on for weekends and for private events.

Cornish might add a board updating the high score and start doing tournaments.

Unlike the Carveys, he doesn't have a personal attachment to the games.

"Even though I don't necessarily like it myself, I can kind of step back and see what people enjoy, and I try to provide that," Cornish said of games in general.

A few blocks away, Dutch Tavern has had a pinball machine for decades, though not the same one. Its Space Jam machine has been out for repair for a month, and owner Peter Detmold said people keep asking when it will be back. He hopes soon.

"They're kind of making their resurgence now," Detmold said. "It's almost like a retro thing."

Fun for the cost of a token

The Carveys met online six years ago, and their second or third date involved playing pinball at Willimantic Brewing Company. Soon they were going there twice a week to play.

Then they bought a pinball machine, started competing and helped found The Sanctum, a pinball co-op in Meriden.

They also run The Carvey Group, working in lighting sales. With a job so dependent on the housing market, they started thinking about having a safety net and talked about opening a pinball bar.

What put them over the edge with this dream was visiting North Star pinball bar in Montreal. Adam Kiesler and Justin Evans, friends they had made through playing pinball, held the grand opening of the bar on New Year's Eve to ring in 2016.

That April, Dana decided to walk around downtown Westerly and write down all of the places that were for rent. She "just about lost (her) mind" when she saw that the space that had housed Christina's, a retail clothing store, was available.

The Carveys signed the lease and began renovations in July with a goal of opening by Thanksgiving, which they achieved. Dana, 37, explained that they set this timeline because the night before the holiday is one of the busiest bar nights of the year.

"I said, if we're not open by then, we're going to be screwed for the winter," she said. "We have to be open by then; people have to know about us."

The bar hosts a co-ed pinball league on Tuesday nights and the women's league on Thursday nights; both start at 7:30 and the only cost is for tokens.

Asked what she envisions as the future of Flip Side, Dana said, "I just want people to play more pinball" and laughed.

The Sopranos (left) and Jack Bot are two of the games lined up against a wall at Flip Side pinball bar in Westerly. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
The Sopranos (left) and Jack Bot are two of the games lined up against a wall at Flip Side pinball bar in Westerly. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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