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January 11, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

(Continued)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. —

Pinball first captivated the spare-change-having masses during the otherwise unamusing Great Depression, then surged again after World War II with the game-changing advent of the flipper. The pinball wizardry chronicled in the Who's "Tommy" launched a silver-ball renaissance in 1969, and the development of bell-and-whistle-larded computerized machines in the 1970s kept those balls rolling. New York City also ended its three-decade-plus pinball ban in 1976 — Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had believed it was "a racket dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality" that pilfered from the "pockets of schoolchildren in the form of nickels and dimes given them as lunch money" — further clearing the way for the game's cultural ascension.

It was right around that time that Guarnieri got into the business, taking a job as a pinball mechanic after graduating from high school in Brooklyn in the mid-1970s. Soon after, Pac-Man came along and chomped up all the coins. In 1979, pinball manufacturers sold more than 200,000 machines in the United States; three years later, they sold 33,000. During that same period, video games went from collecting around $1 billion per year in quarters to a high of $8 billion, with 1980's Pac-Man reportedly earning more than $1 billion in coins in its first year on the street.

As silver balls lost their capacity to thrill in the 1980s, Guarnieri rode the video game wave. At his peak as an arcade operator and service person, he oversaw 400 video games in and around New York City, in pizzerias and hardware stores and barber shops, as well as the Waldorf-Astoria and the World Trade Center's Skydive Restaurant. For a time, Guarnieri says, the joystick tycoon's biggest concern was excessive profitability — once in a while, a massively popular game like Asteroids would jam up with quarters, rendering it inoperable.

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