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Russ Jensen, Pinball Historian

(webmasters note, Pinball historian and author Russ Jensen passed away on Saturday 10th November, 2007 aged 71.)

With the passing of Dick Bueschel, Russ Jensen may well be our leading pinball historian. And just like Dick, Russ is generous not only with his time and resources, but also his knowledge.

I feel that should earn Russ not only our gratitude, but also our thankful respect. I can’t think or anyone who as a hobbyist has done more to promote and help preserve pinball than Russ. As enthusiasts, we should applaud his effort. I thought we might get to know Russ better if you know where his Pinball Roots are planted.

Russ, who turned 69 in October of 2005, has had close to 150 articles published or reprinted. The first table he bought, a Metro, would start a career of collecting that numbered between 40 or 50. The most he ever had at one time was 14, although he now only has his Metro, and a Williams Doo Wa Diddy.

His favorite era is the 40s and 50s, and he spent much of his time repairing tables. That changed with the coming of Solid State machines. Since he didn’t particularly enjoy playing them he never learned the techniques needed to repair them. Russ is a retired electrical engineer, getting his degree from UCLA in 1958. He worked as a civilian Naval employee for 36 years.

Druadic, who met Russ at the 2002 Pinball Expo in Chicago, feels he is the Master of Pinball Information. “He has helped me many times during VP table creation. He is the man to meet if you want to know about any age or date pinball machine. He has all the information, and is one heck of a nice guy. It was an honor to met him in person.â€

Interested in computers, Russ took several classes during the late 50s, including machine language for the pioneer SWAC system which used Cathode Ray Tube memory, where data bits were stored as dots on a CRT. During this time, Russ was introduced to one of the first Personal Computers, a Bendix G-15, which was about the size and shape of a refrigerator. It used vacuum tube plug- in modules, and a magnetic drum main memory. Input/Output was a paper tape reader/punch and an IBM electric typewriter.

Russ said that his favorite tables were produced by Gottlieb and Genco, and that he considers Harvey Heiss to have been as close to an innovative genius as we’re likely to see.

As far as Russ can remember, the first pinball machine he ever played was located in the Eagles Lodge hall on Broadway in Glendale, California. He was about 8 years old, and once a week his mother took me for violin lessons in Glendale. At some point the location of these lessons was moved from a downtown building to the Eagles Lodge hall. The lessons were given in one hour classes, and if you arrived early you had to wait until the previous class was finished. While waiting in the lobby, Russ noticed two interesting machines there.

One was a large console slot machine, and the other a pinball game which had a picture of a street intersection on the backglass. Russ remembers asking my mother for a nickel and playing that machine. It fascinated him; especially the little cars which mysteriously appeared in the picture and advanced as the bumpers were hit; a form of "light animation" with which he was to become quite familiar in the future.

Several years ago, when answering an ad in the newspaper, Russ found and purchased the game he had played at the Eagles Lodge. It turned out to be Genco's Stop And Go from 1938, not to be confused with the game of the same name they put out in 1951. As soon as Russ saw the backglass of the game he knew it was the game he had played as a kid. The machine however, had a repainted cabinet and he eventually traded it off after trying to restore the cabinet art. In a way, Russ wishes he had kept that game as it was in very good shape, except for the cabinet art, and was a good example of early backglass light animation.

When he was 11, he and some friends were exploring an abandoned building in the small town of La Canada, where they lived. The place had once apparently been an automobile repair shop of some kind and had not been used for anything for many years. Out back of this place we found an interesting item, so they went, got a coaster wagon, and hauled it home.

It turned out to be a pingame with the name Rocket on the playfield, which of course, was Bally's first electric payout pinball machine from 1933. They couldn’t make it work because they were unaware that it required battery power to operate. So after playing with it for awhile, they probably dumped it, That game was the first pingame that Russ Jensen owned.

As a boy Russ had an interest in electrical things. His father, an electrical engineer in the telephone and later the aircraft industry, had taught him about electrical circuits from the time Russ was about 5 or 6. When they moved to La Canada, Russ had his own workbench in the back of the garage.

At that time Russ’ mother would take him and his sister to Los Angeles on the bus, which required them to change busses in the neighboring town of Montrose. It just so happened that the corner where we waited for the bus was also the location of the shop of a local coin machine operator, Glenn Catlin.

The area where Mr.Catlin put out his trash was right behind the bus bench and Russ soon discovered that Catlin threw out various electrical items which Russ often recovered and took home to experiment with in the garage. On several occasions Russ even got bold enough to knock on Catlin’s door and ask him if he had anything that I could have. Catlin was always friendly.

Russ remembers being invited into Catlin’s shop and seeing many slot machine mechanisms without cases setting on a long bench. They were there awaiting pickup by the Sheriff's Office to be destroyed, since they were illegal. Russ remembers clearly that Many of them had pictures of lions, monkeys, elephants, etc, on their reels.

Another thing Russ remembers about Catlin's shop is going by there several times at night and noticing a lighted sign in the window reading All Electric PinGame, $10 and Up. Once, while waiting for the bus, Russ saw a pingame out in the trash. He remembers it had a short backboard with pictures of horses on it. He knew it was too big to carry home on the bus, so I waited until that evening and asked his dad if he would go get it. They drove to Montrose but, as luck would have it, it was gone!

Shortly after that, Catlin moved his shop out of that building and into a Quonset hut on the same lot as his home, about a mile away. One day Russ went to his new location, and was invited in. When Russ asked if he had any electrical parts he wanted to get rid of, Catlin surprised Russ by offering him a pingame if he could haul it away. Well, Russ went home and again asked his dad for help. Catlin gave Russ two pingame, Bally's Variety and Vogue, both from 1939. Pinball machines had been outlawed in most of Los Angeles County years earlier, and he could no longer legally operate those games.

Pingame were illegal in Los Angeles County, so other types of amusement machines were operated in their place. These included various gun games made during World War II, and roll down games put out by Genco after the war. These games somewhat resembled pingame, having a lighted score-indicating backboard, but they delivered to the player five wooden balls about the size of tennis balls which would be rolled down the playfield to drop into scoring holes at it's back. These holes were covered by glass to keep the player from touching the scoring contacts.

Setting those games up in his garage, and using his electrical knowledge to get them going; other kids in the neighborhood played them and asked where Russ had gotten them. Two of the boys who lived nearby soon went to Catlin's and got their own games. Since those fellows had no knowledge of electrical things Russ got the games going, and keep them that way. Word of those games spread quickly, and before long there were quite a few pingames in the hands of boys. News of Russ’ repair knowledge also spread, and he ended up working on most of them at one time or another.

Russ’ mother's family lived in Memphis and his family took vacations there. Once or twice Russ spent the entire summer with his relatives, returning home to California on the Greyhound bus. His uncle worked as a door-to-door salesman and Russ often accompanied him on his daily rounds. He liked to have a beer two or three times a day at local bars. At that time, the late 40s and early 50s, most of the bars in Memphis had one-ball horserace pingames.

Even though it was illegal for kids to play these machines, Russ’ uncle was friends with the bar owners and they would let Russ play them. One game which was found in many of these Memphis bars at that time was a Bally Eureka. Other Bally one-ball games Russ recalls playing were Champion and Turf King.

A famous game he recalls playing in Memphis was the 1st flipper pinball, Gottlieb's Humpty Dumpty. He played it in the Raleigh drug store in Raleigh, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb. He also played other flipper games in restaurants, drugstores, and such places in Memphis. Two games he specifically remember playing there were Genco's Puddin' Head and United's Blue Skies. In those days almost every café, and many drugstores, in Memphis had pins, as well as the bars with their ever-present one-ball.

Once, for his return bus trip to Los Angeles, his uncle gave Russ a five dollar bill with instructions to use it only for playing pinball, a gesture I greatly appreciated. Almost every Greyhound stop had pingames so Russ really had a ball playing pinball during this trip. Russ recalls that many of the games had names of cities and states, a popular theme for pingames of the late 40s and early 50s, which seemed quite appropriate for those bus station locations.

Up until just a few years ago, there was an amusement area on the waterfront at Long Beach known as The Pike. When Russ was a teenager, in the late 40s and early 50s, he’d often travel to Long Beach, either by streetcar or hitchhiking, and visit the Pike.

Russ remembers they had two fairly large amusement machine arcades. One of these arcades had all pre-war, non-flipper, pingames, probably 30 or 40 of them, all equipped for 2 cent play. These games had a wide push-in type coin slide in which two pennies were placed side-by-side. Russ enjoyed playing those machines because they reminded him of the games he had owned and worked on when he was younger.

The other arcade had the more modern games set up for nickel play. However, that they had a one-ball horserace machine equipped for penny operation which Russ played on several occasions. He had heard stories in the last several years that there were also bingo pinballs operated at the Pike in later years which were also set up for one-cent operation. The only time Russ visited the pike since the 50s, the arcades were closed.

Ever since the 30's, Pico St in Los Angeles has been the location of that city's coin machine row. Russ recalled as a g teenager taking many walks down Pico and exploring the coin machine distributorships there. Places with names such as Siking, Luenhagens, and C. A. Robinson. Little did he know at that time that the great Harry Williams once had a shop there, the location of which he probably walked by many times without knowing it.

He remembers entering some of those distributorships with their showrooms displaying lines of brand-new wood-rail pinballs. When he was brave enough, and nobody seemed to be looking, Russ would sneak a game or two on one of these shining new beauties. Pico was a very fascinating street for a young pinball fan in those days. At that time those pinballs games could not be legally operated in the city of Los Angeles, or many of the surrounding communities. These machines were there, however, for purchase by operators in other parts of Southern California without such restrictive laws.

So Russ Jensen comes by his passion and love of pinball the same way most of us have, by being introduced to it at an early age. And while some folks may feel his picture taking skills leave a bit to be desired, he is one of the most enthusiastic pinball ambassadors we have ever had. I’ve asked him countless questions over the past several years, and he has never failed to provide me with more information than I expected. If we all had the same attitude and approach to sharing our love of pinball, we would benefit more than we can imagine.

Updated Feb 02, 2006 Written by tiltjlp
webmaster links:
Pinball Nirvana's Russ Jensen Article Collection
Pinball News Article, RUSS JENSEN
Pinball Nirvana's thread about his passing


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