by RONA MANN / photos by A. Vincent Scarano

“It’s really very straightforward. The trick is just to hit the shots.”

                                                                   …Dana Carvey

Dana Carvey, pinball wizard

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – that can take the place of passion. Pure, unadulterated passion. You know when it’s real…and when it’s genuine, there is nothing that can top it.

Although its origins go back more than three centuries, this particular passion gained much of its notoriety in the seedy little arcades that dot seaside towns, on the boardwalks framing beach resorts, and stuffed in the back corners of amusement emporiums.

Pinball. That addictive stuff of the sparkly, seductive, often loud machines that you bang on, scream at, shake in anger, get admonished for tilting, high five in victory, and return to again and again if indeed you fall in love. Dana Carvey is one of those people who fell delightfully, hopelessly in love and is doing absolutely nothing to get clean of her habit.

First, there’s the matter of that name. Dana DiMarco met Mark Carvey though an online dating site. At their very first meeting Mark joked, “You know if this works out, you’d be Dana Carvey.” Although she initially laughed at his cheeky remark, the name change eventually did come to fruition two years ago when the couple eloped to Maui. As “Dana Carvey,” sporting the same name as the Saturday Night Live comic and actor, she’s heard it all by now, but still gets a kick out of the notoriety.

Her real kick, however, is pinball.

Pinball is in reality, a very old game indeed. Its origins harken back to the late 1700s in France when players would ricochet balls off wooden pins affixed to a table. The game became known as bagatelle. In 1869 a British inventor who manufactured bagatelle tables, settled in Cincinnati,Ohio and was granted a patent for a spring launcher, giving way to the birth of pinball in its modern form.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that coin operation was introduced; a game would cost just a penny, so post-Depression, people rallied to drugstores and taverns for this inexpensive habit-forming entertainment.

The 1930s also saw the introduction of the electrification of the game with flashing lights attracting more and more players, and pinball’s popularity increased substantially. Following WWII, coin-operated games were once again the rage, this time with the addition of player-controlled flippers, designed to keep the ball in play longer.

Fast forward to the 1970s and the introduction of microprocessors which brought pinball squarely into the arena of electronic gaming. Now manufacturers could fashion their machines with more elements of skill, digital sound effects, and complex rules. But the 1970s and ’80s were also huge years for video games, thus dealing a blow to pinball, which did not see a resurgence until the 1990s.

The Playing Field

This whole business of “gaming” brings up an interesting wrinkle in pinball’s long and storied history. At one point, Carvey says, “pinball was looked upon as gambling.” For over 35 years pinball was banned in New York. Then-mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia conducted raids throughout the city scooping up and disposing of thousands of machines that were later destroyed with sledgehammers by the police and unceremoniously dumped in the Hudson River.

The ban ended when Roger Sharpe, a witness for the Amusement and Music Operators Association, testified in a Manhattan courtroom that pinball games were games of skill and not games of chance. He demonstrated his skill by playing a game or two of pinball right in the middle of the courtroom; and so impressed was the judge, that the ban was lifted. Dana looks to Sharpe with the same awe and adulation she would afford a rock star. And as for the game Sharpe saved, “It’s really very straightforward,” Dana says matter-of-factly in its defense. “With pinball, the trick is just to hit the shots.”

Ah, more easily said then done; but with practice, you not only get better at pinball, you also get hooked. “And it hooks just about everybody,” Carvey laughs. “It’s really catching on again because those players under 20 years of age have never seen this before and really get pumped up. Those 21 to their mid 40’s think it’s a cool thing to do because it’s interactive. And those 50 and older…to them it’s nostalgia. Brings back their childhood when they played pinball in arcades with spare nickels.”

With Dana it began innocently enough when on their second date, Mark took her to the  Willimantic Brewing Company to drink beer and play a little pinball. “I was hooked from the very beginning. That one night grew into driving all the way to Willibrew two or three times a week.” Before they knew it, the couple celebrated Christmas 2011 by buying each other a pinball machine as a present and putting it in their basement, renaming the space, “The Pit.” Before long, Mark learned how to take apart the machines and fix them himself; and in no time their collection quickly grew. “Pinball restoration is like classic car restoration. We kept switching out machines and getting new ones.”

The more Dana played, the better she got, graduating to competition. By entering competitions, she began amassing points, much like a Masters bridge player. “Every quarter we go to New Hampshire and compete. And I competed in Maine, Pittsburgh, Massachusetts, and more; yet the New England Pinball League was lacking a place to play in Connecticut. So Mark and I and a group of avid pinball friends decided to create the Connecticut Pinball League and find a place of our own.”

That “place of our own” is known as The Sanctum, a pinball co-op run by a team of four, housed in an old warehouse in Meriden. Here, each Monday evening Dana, Mark, and their merry band of flipper addicts bring their own pinball machines (“they really are quite portable. They fold up and you can just throw your machine in the car”), so that other like-minded pinball enthusiasts may enjoy playing. “All machines are on free play” Dana says, “but we ask for a $10. donation, and you can bring your own snacks and drinks along.”

The Players

Initially the small group acquired a Kickstarter page and raised $10,000 from within their own community; rent and lights are now paid by ongoing donations. “We started with 1000 square feet,” says Carvey. “But we outgrew it quickly and now have twice the space, three times the amount of machines, and players come from all over New England. “Sanctum” is truly a perfect word for the venue as Webster defines it “a place where you can be alone and not bothered.” And absolutely no one bothers these folks as they convene weekly to master the dead flipper pass, the nudge, the tilt, and all the other nuances that can make the difference between a ball dropping into the drain or zooming   with a well calculated thrust out of the danger areas, translating into yet more points.

They are masters at the flippers. They know moves like drop shake. They know how and when to tilt, and they never, ever, ever get enough. They challenge themselves. They pit their talents against others. When a pinball machine lights up, they light up. It’s a release, a calculated scientific approach, and a challenge all in one.

Perhaps the highlight for those who inhabit The Sanctum on a regular basis is the 24 hour tournament called “The Final Battle.” Those who qualify, play from 10AM one day to 10AM the next day, drawing pinball enthusiasts not just from Connecticut, but from all over the USA. This year’s marathon will take place on November 4th.

Within the last year the Carveys also opened Flip Side, a unique, fun pinball bar in Westerly, Rhode Island. As their website indicates, “Five years, one marriage, and 42 machines later, Flip Side Pinball Bar is open!”

The numbers vary by the day, but as of right now, Dana is ranked #2395 out of 42,000 players in the world; #142 in the women’s division. Her husband Mark is #640 in the world; but that changes frequently, often with just the release of a plunger!

Dana and Mark and their faithful dog,”Gary,” the well-loved mascot of The Sanctum, may be found every Monday evening, making that trip to Meriden, and they’re in Westerly several times a week. But they’re not alone. Just as sure as there are buttons and lights…as sure as a happy bunch of people are pulling back plungers propelling those balls into a playfield that varies with each machine…as sure as the “pros” fight to increase their point standings and the newbies stand in awe of the flashing lights and the zooming balls….pinball continues. And thrives.

There is nothing that can take the place of passion.

Intrigued? Want to play, or just want to watch? The Sanctum is located at 290 Pratt Street in Meriden, East entrance under the green awning. Donation: $10. per person

Play is every Monday evening from 6:30PM to Midnight and open to everyone; kids are encouraged as there is no bar on the premises; BYOB.

www.tothesanctum.org

Or come to 1 Railroad Avenue in Westerly to Flipside Pinball Bar www.flipsidepinball.bar

 

 

 

 

 

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