Off the Clock: The Zing of Pinball Captivates English Profs

Posted: January 23, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Dean Taciuch and Laura Scott
English professors by day, pinball wizards by night, Dean Taciuch and Laura Scott are enamored of their 1989 Earthshaker! Machine.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Some folks come home from a hard day working at the office or teaching classes and want to unwind with a glass of wine, quiet music and a good book. In Laura Scott and Dean Taciuch’s home, “unwinding” means loud noises, flashing lights, slams and shouts.

That’s because they fell in love with a pinball machine.

Nostalgia will get you every time, and when it bit Scott, she couldn’t get the idea of a pinball machine out of her head. She had read an article in Make magazine about restoring old pinball machines and it started her thinking about all the times as a kid she’d played at camp and in arcades.

After shopping around, the couple, both term associate professors of English, finally found what they were looking for at a collectibles store in Manassas, Va. The 1989 Earthshaker! Machine, designed by Jerry Lawler, replaced Scott’s china cabinet in the kitchen and is now a huge hit at parties.

“It’s my noisy, violent dollhouse,” says Scott.

Little does the English Department faculty know it, but Scott and Taciuch keep tabs on how well their co-workers play the game when they come for a visit. (So far, Robert Matz, chair of the department, is the sure winner, they say.) Taciuch has been known to stay up past midnight trying to wipe opponents’ high scores off the list.

However, with a new hobby of pinball machine restoration comes the restoring part, and Taciuch quickly learned that he was on his own with learning how to repair a machine that takes a beating and therefore breaks often. In some ways, taking care of the pinball machine and finding replacement parts has been as time-consuming as maintaining that high score.

“We read somewhere that buying a pinball machine is like buying a 1960s British sportscar — you’re always working on it,” says Taciuch.

Only one company still produces pinball machines in the United States, as pinball machines have been slowly but steadily replaced by high-tech video games and slot machines. However, the fad is still alive with hobbyists, and the couple has found web sites devoted to pinball enthusiasts, not to mention parts for sale on Ebay and other online auction sites.

And then there are the conventions. Since Scott and Taciuch acquired their machine two years ago, they’ve traveled to three pinball conventions — in Maryland, Pennsylvania and as far as Houston. There, the pinball machines are set to “free” and available for anyone to play, trade or buy. From movie and television tie-ins such as “The Sopranos,” “X-Files” and “Ghostbusters” to settings such as the desert or a fun house, the couple says an array of machines spanning several decades can be found.

Though they haven’t committed yet, they are thinking of getting another pinball machine for the house. It would mean getting rid of another piece of furniture, however. The old piano might have to go.

As for their favorites, Scott and Taciuch say they like the machines that have interesting “toys” in them, but are not too gimmicky.

“Some of the new machines have too much going on, and often your ball will be taken away from you while something spins and whirls and lights up,” says Taciuch. “That takes something away from the experience. Above all, we just want to play a good game.”

This article previously appeared in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

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