To Brian Halac, the 1990s seemed like a good enough time to get into the pinball repair business.
Pinball machines were as popular as they ever had been. Bars still had them, people wanted them in their homes and folks were willing to pay to have old machines repaired.
Even then, he expected that pinball’s popularity wouldn’t last forever. It was a fad, he thought.
To an extent, he was right. Bars began clearing out their machines and people with decades of experience fixing flippers and recalibrating scoreboards were starting over in new industries. Plungers and ramps seemed to be going the way of the stagecoach as PlayStations and Nintendos moved in.
Luckily for him, and for pinball fanatics around town, the 47-year-old was wrong. Pinball isn’t dead.
Somewhere along the way, what happened for muscle cars, comic books and Atari games — years after production ended — happened for pinball: It became cool again.
“After the bar game died, people bought pinballs for their homes more than ever,” Halac said. “After that, (business) really started ramping up.”
By then, most of his contemporaries had quit or died. When business surged again, Halac was one of the city’s last pinball repairmen. And business was good. Still is.
“I literally can’t keep up,” Halac said. “I’m so bogged down.”
Halac operates a one-man business, The Pinball and Jukebox Guy, specializing in pinball, jukebox and casino machine repair. He’s been at it for nearly 30 years.
He’s working with Hollywood Candy to restore more than 50 retro pinball machines. This spring, the Old Market shop will open a nostalgic pinball arcade, each machine restored by Halac and a helper from the store.
“The key is Brian, he’s the one who understands these machines,” said Larry Richling, the store’s owner. Other companies that still work on pinball machines “don’t have time for people. You’re low on the totem pole.”
Pinball truly is making a comeback. The world’s leading manufacturer, Stern Pinball, saw revenue grow 30 percent last year, and 40 percent the year before that. Tournaments are popping up around the country.
That resurgence is good news and bad news for Halac.
When he started in the business, he had a long list of contemporaries to lean on.
“The horrible part about being me is the only person I have to ask is me,” he said.
Halac sometimes consults Terry Kincaid, a friend from Nebraska Technical Services, for support. But “for the most part, I have to figure it out.”
Halac said he can’t rely on the Internet for much help — it solves maybe 3 to 5 percent of his issues. Most often, when he can’t figure it out, he either plugs parts into working machines until he discovers the dud, or he powers through with trial and error.
Trying to keep up with the Hollywood Candy job alone is pushing Halac to bring on apprentices. He may be grooming the next generation of pinball wizards.
“I can use this as a training site,” he said.
But finding apprentices has been difficult. Many don’t have the technical skills, passion or interest to keep it up.
Business is good, the people are fun, but the reason he keeps doing it when nobody else does: Solving the mechanical mysteries under that 50-year-old hood of lights and bumpers is a rush.
“There’s a lot of detective work in it,” he said. “Every time I finish a problem, I sleep better that night.”