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National and World

January 22, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

(Continued)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. —

In the Jersey Jack Pinball factory, history is covered in bubble wrap. A handful of simple, gorgeously illustrated 1960s-era games — Flipper Clown, King of Diamonds, Road Race — stand in a back corner, ready to ship to a nostalgia-minded connoisseur. The rest of this workshop in Lakewood, N.J., has been given over to a brand-new game with an old-timey theme, the machine Guarnieri believes will rocket pinball into its next golden age: the Wizard of Oz.

Each Oz pinball machine is the size of a casket built for a member of the Lollipop Guild. On this day in early fall, millions of dollars of parts — LED lights and emerald-green legs and a forest's worth of anthropomorphic plastic trees — are sitting in cardboard boxes, waiting to be fished out by arcade-world craftsmen. On one assembly line, they'll put together the machine's heart, adding rails, rollover buttons and magnets to the yellow-brick-road-laden playfield. They'll also add the brains, stuffing the PC board, power supply, and other electronics inside the Wizard of Oz's exterior shell.

In addition to the parts and labor, building a new pinball company takes courage, plus a light messianic streak. The 55-year-old Guarnieri, who's got a lot of his native Brooklyn in his tireless voice, is the best kind of salesman. He talks fast but means everything he says, remembers every detail of anything that has to do with arcades, and doesn't take himself too seriously — while still treating the quest for pinball supremacy as a noble, essential mission.

In Guarnieri's view, this humming factory is proof of all you can accomplish when you love what you do. Bean-counter types have "said some sh--ty things" about his arcade ambitions, he says, telling him he's crazy to throw his money into the shrinking ball-and-flipper market. Perhaps it's true that irrational exuberance can lead you to bankruptcy. But it's also the only way to make something great from absolutely nothing, just as Guarnieri's role models did. "What overcomes doubt," he says, "is the resolve and the passion and determination of people like Steve Jobs and Sam Walton, whether it's going over the hill in Normandy or whether it's building a freaking pinball machine."

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