SS Billiard' Pinball Circus this weekend; interview with owner

For pinball enthusiasts, nowhere in the Twin Cities can that flipper itch be better scratched than at SS Billiards in Hopkins, where you'll find a regular rotation of 30-plus machines.  Billed as the T.C.'s "longest continuously operating arcade," SS has been in business since 1970, with current owner Lloyd Olson running the show since purchasing the operation from his mother in 1979.

But SS doesn't survive on Memories alone -- rather, a name reason for the arcade's charm (and no doubt their survival as well) is Olson's continual presentation of events, gatherings, and tournaments.  Two big ones to calendar for the near future are: SS's Pinball Circus (April 3rd & 4th) offering open play on both days for $10, and also the arcade's May Day Tournament (May 1st), an annual event that brings in some of the finest players from around the country but also has a wealth of pinball play for those not in the main event.

Recently, I flipped a few questions to the SS proprietor.  Here's what Lloyd Olson bumpered back about his arcade, his favorite games, and the greatest pinball feat he's ever witnessed.

CP:  With the progress of the home video game console, the arcades of the 1970's and '80's were no doubt hit hard.  But your place has endured.  To what do you attribute the longevity?

Lloyd Olson:  A lot of it has been good fortune or even luck. I've always been out of step with what everybody else was doing and it's worked for me. I had the manager of one of Minnesota's largest arcades once tell me, "You're doing everything opposite of everybody else, yet it works." 

While SS has gone through the air hockey, fooseball and billiard phases, pinball has survived.  Why do you think that is?

Pinball has stood the test of time. It's been around similar to what we know it today for over 50 years with the addition of flippers, and has a history back another 30 years. Things like that don't die easy. 

Do you consider pinball a sport?  And if so, why?

Absolutely. If you ever watch the great players, you know their skill level is equivalent to any athlete in any sport.

What is your favorite pinball game of all time, and why?

Capcom Kingpin. I've always enjoyed playing that game. Classic Mark Ritchie

design , That game is always pleasing for me to play. I don't get to play much and I'm no great player, but I've always enjoyed that game.

What is the most popular pinball machine in your place at present?

Stern's Batman The Dark Knight. Not a deep game, but a heck of a lot of fun.

What's the most impressive pinball feat you've ever witnessed?

Paul Madison playing Cirqus Voltaire in one of my pinball tournaments. He had two balls trapped on the right flipper and just using the left flipper making all his shots with the other balls. Simply amazing.

Who is the finest pinball player you've ever known?  What made him/her so great?

Lyman Sheats. Great man. Great pinball designer. One of the top players in the world. Yet always pleasant to talk to and very willing to sign an autograph or answer a pinball question. Great sense of humor. and he really loves pinball.

Do you consider pinball an important piece of American history?  And how do you feel the progression of games from the arcade to the home has changed the

fabric of our leisure pursuits & passions?

Yes. Pinball has been a part of America for a longtime. When we began to see and hear it in songs, advertising, movies - it became part of our culture, who we are.

People that grew up during the video fad, about 1979 to 1981, are the group that got older, jobs, families. So when they had time and money, home game rooms became very popular. When I was a child it was toy trains and dolls; for them it was video games and pinball. the next group will be collecting and doing what interested them growing up. So eventually the pendulum will swing the other way and you'll see more pinball on location again.

I don't think home game rooms have changed us that much. There are always people who do things at home, and there are those that go out. Look at the movie industry. The last few years for them have been phenomenal as far as box office take. No matter what they do at home, people still go out for entertainment.

Why do you feel pinball at an arcade is gaming time better spent than playing, say, the Wii?

I can't say it's better. Only history will decide that. Books, newspapers, comics --- so much is read on a screen nowadays. Much of our printed material like newspapers is going away.  A lot of our entertainment now is on a screen too. People are used to it. 3D stuff you interact with could be falling by the wayside. So our society as a whole may be undergoing changes that we can't even imagine yet.


Images courtesy of PinGame Journal,  SS Billiards

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