If you go into a trendy bar in the Marais and ask if there’s a pinball machine—or, as they say in France, “un flipper”—the barman’s going to smile at you, perhaps with a nostalgic sigh, and say, “Pinball? Oh, no. It’s been a long time since we’ve had one of those. You know, it’s too ‘old school.’”
There it is, yet more proof that the more things change, the more they really are not la même chose. For many years now, with fast food, economic slumps, smoking bans, and other laws eating into France’s basic bistro culture, the atmosphere people knew and loved has been disappearing from French cafés. They are healthier places, for sure, without the fumes of Gauloises and Gitanes, but the acrid air of romance that used to come along with the cigarettes is gone, too. The cane chairs and the cracked-vinyl banquettes are being replaced, bit by bit, with more modern furnishings. And for entertainment there are now flat-screen TVs tuned to the local equivalent of ESPN where once the most rousing sport to be found was flipper.
And rousing it was! Steel balls caromed around the table as the player massaged, tickled, pressed, and slammed the flipper buttons. His body (or hers) twisted and contorted to coax—but not to tilt—the whole machine so the balls would launch again, again and again, bells ringing, lights flashing, driving up the flashing score into the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions, with untold free games in the offing as others at the bar stood by with a pression or a panaché in hand, fascinated by the movement and the noise.
But now, not so much. With each change of proprietor, we’re told, a café is likely to lose the machine some still call by its old-fashioned name, “billard électrique.”
Games with balls and pins have been around since the 18th century, but the innovation of flippers was introduced to pinball in the 1940s, making it more a test of skill. By the 1950s, with their slightly American allure, the games had swept France like Zippo lighters and the Hollywood-influenced films of la nouvelle vague. (In the cinema, François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Yves Montand were among pinball’s many aficionados.) But by the 1990s videogames, including home videogames, were eating away at pinball’s popularity, and the cafés themselves were disappearing. The French who once practically lived in their local bistros started cocooning in ever more comfortable homes. By 2010, cafés were closing at the rate of two a day in France. So when you find pinball machines in Paris today, there’s a distinct air of anachronism about them, and discovering them at all takes a bit of exploring.
At Le Nouvo Cosmos, a café in a working-class neighborhood in the eastern part of the city near Belleville, young people are outside on the sunny terrasse (where they can still smoke), and the regulars are inside at the counter in front of their beer or their coffee, talking and laughing. It seems just the sort of place that ought to have a pinball machine, and it turns out it did, until just two months ago. The young man behind the counter selling cigarettes, who is also the owner of the café, says pinball machines make too much noise and take up too much space, and there’s always a problem getting them repaired.
Guy Lecaplain, who rents out pinball machines to Paris bars, says the smoking ban indoors is one of the problems, since cigarettes and flippers just seemed to go together. And today’s kids aren’t used to paying for their games, especially when they don’t win anything tangible in return. Older players, meanwhile, are more and more taken with the lottery and off-track betting tickets now available in many cafés.
Yet the currents of nostalgia run so strong that even in establishments where there’s no longer a machine, fans may still know where the remaining few can be searched out. The owner of a bar at Oberkampf, which doesn’t have a machine, has a list of places where people still play flipper every chance they get, and he’s among them. “I’m a fanatic,” he says, “a real fanatic.” Then he leans over the bar with a conspiratorial smile. “Do you know how to recognize a true pinball player? It’s the player who buys seven games straight off [for 3 euros]. That way you get two extra games free!” And if you’re good, that could keep you going for hours.
The pinball machines that are holding their ground in Paris bars are mostly in places where students hang out, like Le Valmozzola, a bar-pizzeria near the University of Paris at Jussieu. On a recent afternoon, the air smelled of coffee and behind the electro music you could make out the familiar whizzes and bells of the pinball machine. The owners had thought about getting rid of it, but finally they didn’t want to lose that noise because of the way it contributes to the ambiance. Indeed, in this neighborhood full of students anxious for anything that can help them relax, pinball machines are still pretty common. A waitress at La Valmozzola announces proudly that a new machine, this one with a Shrek motif, will be coming in the next day or so.
It’s in one of the American bars in Paris that we find the most enthusiastic embrace of the pinball machine, however. On any given afternoon, if you drop by Le Redhouse on Rue de la Forge Royale near Place de la Bastille, you’ll find Joe Boley, the owner, or his brother Nite at the table. One day, as Joe stands behind the bull skull on the bar writing out the list of that evening’s special cocktails, he tells me, “Pinball relaxes people completely. It liberates them much more than if they’re just alone in front of a glass.” In 2011, says Boley, his pinball machine was included in a sort of pub-crawl pinball rally where players went from bar to bar competing against each other.
I walk over to the machine at Le Redhouse, an “Avengers” model, and a friend of Boley’s named Vincent volunteers to give me a few pointers. My score starts climbing, but mostly in pitiful five-digit increments, as Vincent confides, “Joe holds the record on this machine.” So I have to ask Boley afterward. “Do you think you’re the Pinball Wizard of Paris?”
He smiles. “Sure!”
Perhaps it will be up to the Americans to save the pinball machines of Paris in the few bars and cafés where they still exist. But Guy Lecaplain says he’s developed another business that’s thriving: selling billards électriques to private individuals. These enthusiasts and collectors, who are often in their 40s or 50s, have organized nationwide competitions, and they’re constantly pushing up the price of the machines to three or four times what used to be the going rate. According to Lecaplain, many are willing to pay 7,500 to 8,000 euros, or around $10,000, for their favorites. According to Pierre-Thomas Colin, one of France’s premier collectors and organizer of the National League of Pinball Players, it’s not just that the machine encourages a convivial atmosphere among competitors, but that it takes on a personality of its own. “The flipper is a living object, and you never play the same game on it,” says Colin. “The player has a physical relationship with the object that he has between his hands.”
With such passion attached to the machines, they will probably be with us for a long time to come, but as they move into private homes and collections, and out of the cafés, a little bit of French culture goes with them.
—with Christopher Dickey