A.I

Pinball is reviving a small Illinois town

McLean, Illinois, has a population of 750 people and 100 pinball machines.

The town square looks like something out of a Western: brown brick buildings baking in the summer sun, surrounding a single red pavilion in the middle of the square, where families sometimes gather after church.

This downtown square used to host parades, gatherings, and harvest festivals, back when the railroad was the lifeblood of McLean in the early 20th century. Now, it’s empty and earth-toned. McLean weathered the loss of the railroad as a primary artery of business and culture, and then of Route 66 after the iconic roadway was decertified in 1985, though its truck stop on the modern Interstate 55 is still going strong. These days, McLean is quiet, surrounded by the cornfields; people keep to themselves. There’s a library, a museum, and a hardware store in the town square, but (with the exception of the truck stop) the local businesses are only open part-time if at all.

The color scheme shifts when you enter the old town bank, and things aren’t so quiet anymore. You pass under a sign reading “PINBALL PARADISE,” and suddenly everything is dark and neon and beeping and dinging, full of tourists. You’re in one of the tiny town’s two pinball and arcade museums.

Pinball Paradise and its nearby sister building, the Arcadia Arcade Museum, are two fully functioning arcades nestled in the middle of McLean, holding about 100 games from the 1950s through the ’90s. The way that a town so small it doesn’t have a grocery store — most residents shop in Bloomington-Normal, the college town 15 miles away — came to be in possession of one arcade machine for every seven or eight residents is a strange one.

John Yates, the owner of the two arcades, says God “worked in a weird way” and led him to pinball. Growing up in Bloomington-Normal, he bought his first pinball machine on sale from a local arcade when he was in high school in the mid-’80s.

“I had no intention of being in the arcade business,” he said over the phone. In fact, he started off working with a different type of machine: While in engineering school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he bought vending machines and installed them in dorms and apartment buildings. “I was always an entrepreneur,” Yates said.

There was a garage behind his college apartment where he wanted to store his vending machines. “It was, like, boarded up,” Yates said. “Nobody knew what was in it, or who owned it.” He tracked down the owner, who then said that Yates could use it if he cleaned out all the “junk” inside.

After breaking apart the boarded-up door to the garage, Yates found something unexpected: 15 pinball machines. He wheeled them one by one across the street back to his apartment, where he developed a fascination with fixing them. Yates loved making the LEDs blink on and the flippers move like they were supposed to, soldering and waxing different parts of the machines back to their former glory.

“I thought, This is really fun. I think I want to be into video games and pinballs instead of vending machines,” Yates said.

After college, Yates ended up in Silicon Valley. He kept collecting pinball machines throughout his time in the tech world, buying buildings in McLean to store them in.

He was part of a series of failed startup ventures, the last and most painful being Boxaroo, an online sales company that was in talks to be bought by eBay prior to the financial crash of 2008. The venture capital ran out, and Boxaroo was no more.

So Yates moved from Silicon Valley back to rural Illinois. “I was kind of frustrated and depressed. I was burned out,” he said. “I had a family, with three little kids. So I just wanted to do something simple and relax for a while.”

Yates settled in McLean and spent a year remodeling one of the buildings he owned: an apartment upstairs, and a business area downstairs. By this point, he had bought up five buildings in town. He would eventually own eight, or, by his estimation, two-thirds of McLean’s downtown square. At first, he used them primarily as pinball machine storage. In 2009, he opened up that first building to the public — Arcadia, which sits in the old town drugstore — as a vintage arcade. That went well, as Arcadia attracted ’80s games enthusiasts from near and far. So, a decade later, the building that had once been a bank and a post office became a Yates games project, too: Pinball Paradise. He set the machines to run on a few quarters, just as they did when they were first produced.

“I have to keep changing banks, because they hate me so much” for bringing in bags and bags full of quarters, Yates said. “I had one bank that, literally, they broke their coin machine and said, ‘We’re never getting it fixed and we’re not taking your coins.’ The next bank, every time I went in, the ladies scowled at me. So I moved to another bank.”

Two decades after moving himself and his machines to town, the pinball business is Yates’ whole world, and a great deal of McLean’s world, too. The arcade and the pinball museum bring in anywhere between two dozen and 200 tourists per day. Along with the two arcades, he runs four different arcade-themed Airbnbs in McLean — complete with Mario-themed decor and a few arcade machines per apartment. They’ve grown in popularity over the past year thanks to COVID-19, as people from Bloomington-Normal and Chicago turn to closer options than usual when they want to get away.

Along with the museums, Airbnbs, and other rental apartments, Yates estimates that he now owns 1,500 pinball machines. Most of them aren’t on display, but sit in storage. He sells them on eBay, where he also sells pinball parts — it’s hard to find the correct parts for a 1955 or 1968 machine these days, since there are only a handful of companies still making pinball machines. And Yates is training up his youngest daughter, 13-year-old Samantha, as his apprentice.

Photo of a young woman playing a vintage pinball machine

Clos-up photo of vintage pinball machine

Samantha and her 15-year-old sister, Daphne, navigate the rows of machines with fluency, naming the years in which different games came out and the telltale signs of their age or state of repair. As we talk, Samantha points out a Hi-Diver game from the 1950s, complete with wooden rails, saying, “My favorite era of pinball is these … you have to load the ball yourself. […] You can tell they’re older if you have to load the ball.”

Yates and his family members are the only people running Pinball Paradise and Arcadia. They don’t have employees, and until the Airbnb business increased during the pandemic, they brought very little in the way of economic impact or tax income to McLean — all while buying up a massive portion of the buildings the town had to offer. Given this, Yates is not without his critics.

“No one has open hostility towards me, but there are definitely people that resent me,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s resentment, or jealousy, or what. But they see me as someone who’s successful.”

When Yates approached the owner of the local hardware store and the elderly homeowner next door asking to add their buildings to his collection, he was met with a firm no. Yates says he contributes to the town, claiming that the $75,000 new pavilion in the town square built in 2020 came, to a large extent, from the hotel taxes he pays on his Airbnbs. (Given the privacy of tax records, we were unable to verify this claim.)

One longtime resident of McLean, who was not comfortable being named, said he thought Yates was overstating the amount of the town’s real estate he actually owned, adding, “What does it matter? We’re all just a generation away from a wrecking ball anyways.”

Yates said of McLean’s residents, “If they’ve been watching me, they’ve seen that I’m working 16-hour days and I’m doing everything myself. It’s not like I’m some big fat cat sitting back and commanding an army of servants.” And some in the town are admirers of what he does: The current members of the Village of McLean board, for example, are “big fans,” according to Yates.

“I do get a lot of pats on the back and people saying, ‘Oh, we’re so thankful for what you’ve done to the town,’” he said. “They all give me credit for saving the downtown, because all of these buildings were falling in, and I’ve restored all the buildings.”

Yates is full of big plans to continue changing the landscape of McLean: During my visit, he suggested at various points building a pizza parlor on the square, or an amusement park, or a third arcade, or a ceramics studio.

He describes all of his ideas as “good, clean family fun,” which is a big departure from the way pinball was perceived throughout the U.S. in its heyday. For much of the 20th century, pinball was considered an activity for delinquents, a way for teenagers to waste time, and even a gateway drug to a gambling addiction. It was banned or restricted in many municipalities, most famously in New York City. Pinball’s image was damaged by the fact that most machines were manufactured in Chicago — a hotbed of crime during the Great Depression — and by their association with other morally suspect businesses, such as pool halls. Mayors confiscated pinball machines and constructed photo ops in which they smashed the offending objects to bits.

Photo of a father his two teenage daughters outside a pinball museum

But for Yates and his churchgoing family (his middle daughter, Daphne, hopes to go into ministry), pinball is downright wholesome. “We’re trying to build a family attraction where it’s something that attracts families that want to come and just have good, clean fun,” Yates said.

For area resident Eric Gordon, Arcadia and Pinball Paradise represent a return to some of the vibrancy the town once had. When I met him, he had brought his teenage son, Cole, to town, in order to remember his own family history there and to bond over a shared love of ’80s games. Eric Gordon told me his father pumped gas at the local truck stop during the Great Depression, and even met his wife doing so. Now, Eric Gordon said, downtown McLean has never looked better.

“It looked pretty rough” back when he was growing up, Eric Gordon said. “But this looks fantastic … and I can show my son the games I played when I was his age or younger.” Cole Gordon noted that he’s not as good at the games as his father — though, of course, he’s lacking decades of practice.

“What a great way to bring generations together,” Eric Gordon said of the arcades. And soon, the arcade will be passed on to the next generation, as Yates’ daughter Samantha trains in what he calls the “lost art” of electromechanical pinball maintenance, ready to take her place in the often male-dominated pinball world and, as she said, “help my dad out.”

Yates’ success wasn’t planned — “I haven’t really marketed this thing at all. I haven’t ever run an ad, I’ve never put up a billboard,” he said. There’s a Facebook page, and a listing on the Village of McLean website, but that’s it. As he continues to expand his operation, though, Yates plans to try to draw more and more tourists. “And that’s when I think there will really be an impact on the town.” Maybe pinball will be what keeps people visiting McLean for generations into the future.

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