Walking through the Stern Pinball factory, you're rarely out of sight of Angus Young's sneering gaze. It's the very same sneer that appears on the cover of AC/DC's 1979 album Highway to Hell, only here it's rendered in silk-screened and airbrushed paint on large wooden boards. Follow the boards down the assembly line and you'll see Angus's face become steadily more embellished with lights, bundles of wires, and complicated-looking mechanical assemblies before the board is fitted into a cabinet where it will become the playing surface of Stern's current flagship product, a pinball machine dedicated in loving detail to this most massive and gloriously boneheaded of rock bands.
The Stern factory, like most places that conjure up visions of Wonka-like playtime utopias, is actually kind of drab, housed in a nondescript building in one of the many nondescript industrial zones scattered throughout Melrose Park. It's a smallish operation, with anywhere from 100 to 150 or so employees depending on what phase of production the current machines are in at the time. For more than a dozen years, it was also the only place in the world where new pinball machines were being manufactured. Williams, Stern's last competitor, closed down its pinball division in 1999 to concentrate exclusively on slot machines. (This year, upstart Jersey Jack Pinball began manufacturing its first game, based on the Wizard of Oz and set to be released in March.)
Since at least as far back as the 1930s, Chicago has been the global capital of pinball manufacturing—home not only to Stern and Williams, but also the late giants Bally and Gottlieb. There doesn't seem to be any one specific reason why the pinball industry made Chicago its home, although the local manufacturing infrastructure and the regional popularity of bagatelle (pinball's flipperless, French-born evolutionary forebear) were certainly factors. Chicago remained the epicenter of pinball culture as it spread across the globe, even during a period when it was actually illegal to play pinball here.
"I'll tell you what," pinball designer Steve Ritchie says of the industry's peak, "it was extremely fun for me. It was fun for all of us. And, yes, there was ridiculous competition. Just ridiculous. [But] we all knew each other."
Things are different now. There's hardly any "each other." Ritchie's one of the last designers standing; Jersey Jack is the only other place that employs them.
Ritchie's official biography includes a lengthy list of technological firsts; machines he designed boast features that have since become standard in pinball's technological lexicon, and Ritchie-designed machines like High Speed and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are considered classics among pinball fanatics. His designs have outsold all other designers, and during pinball's heyday Ritchie, a musician who picked up the guitar the day after he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1963, was sort of the industry's rock star figure. High Speed, for instance, is based on a high-speed chase that Ritchie once had with police while driving a Porsche.
"My hearing is very bad now," Ritchie says. "I have an ear disease so I can't hear pitch very well anymore. But as long as we're playing AC/DC music I'm totally happy."
When arcade video games hit the public in the late 70s they were aimed at pinball's prime demographic: kids with time to kill and quarters to spare. But a steady stream of technological advances and an overall uptick in sophistication made the 80s and 90s a golden age for pinball design. In the late 90s, however, increasingly powerful home consoles gave gamers little incentive to go out to arcades, and pinball's popularity suffered greatly as a consequence.
There are two major factors that helped Stern survive the industry's near extinction. One is that they've maintained a high quality of gameplay, bringing on design legends like Ritchie and John Borg to develop their tables and staying away from dopey technological gimmicks like Williams's doomed-from-the-start "Pinball 2000" video projection system, all of which reflects favorably on the company in the eyes of hard-core pinball players. The other was Stern's savvy instinct for licensing existing entertainment properties ranging from Batman and Tron to CSI and the World Poker Tour. Stern marketing director Jody Dankberg credits those smart licensing decisions with maintaining a connection between Stern and the pop culture world at large.