Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Winona high schoolers learn art and science by restoring old pinball machines

Two people interact with an old pinball machine
Winona Area Public School high schoolers Jarek Lapides (back) and Corey Duncan (front) work on restoring a pinball machine through the Pinhawks club.
Courtesy Matthew Wagener

In the basements of homes around the country are old pinball machines, relics of a pastime that is seeing a resurgence.

Winona Area Learning Center teacher Matthew Wagner was thinking about all of those old, maybe broken down, pinball machines when he started a new club for his students.

It’s called the Pinhawk Club and its members restore broken pinball machines to working order.

They plan to auction off their first fully-restored machine Saturday for funds to keep the club going. MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Wagner along with a student member of the Pinhawks club, high school junior Corey Duncan.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

[MACHINE STARTING] [GAME SOUNDS]

CATHY WURZER: Do you recognize that sound? If you played pinball, it's a happy sound and kind of mesmerizing. This is a classic old machine called Pinball Space Cadet. Now, some people are lucky enough to have old pinball machines like it in their basements.

Matthew Wagner is a teacher at the Winona Area Learning Center and was thinking about all of those old maybe broken down pinball machines when he started a new club for his students. It's called the Pinhawk Club. He and the students restore broken pinball machines to working order, and they are auctioning off their first fully restored machine this Saturday for funds to keep the club going.

Teacher Matthew Wagner is here, along with student member of the Pinhawks Club, high school junior Corey Duncan. Matthew and Corey, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.

MATTHEW WAGNER: Thanks for having us, Cathy.

COREY DUNCAN: No problem. Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. This sounds like so much fun, Matthew. How did you get the idea for this club?

MATTHEW WAGNER: It kind of came-- pinball, I got into it during COVID. Like a lot of people, I was just looking for a hobby. And my friend bought one at an online auction. He didn't have a place to store it, and my garage had a lot of space. So we ended up putting it in our garage.

And over the next year, him and I got it working. And what I love about my school-- so art is actually my main subject that I teach, but I also teach something called work-based learning. And work-based learning is just kind of a career pathways class. And I figured, you know what? Pinball has a lot of electronics. It has a lot of hands-on learning. If I can get that into my classroom and get students working on them, that would be fun for me and them.

CATHY WURZER: I never thought of it that way. I love pinball machines. I love playing pinball. So I hear what you're saying about some of the skills, the mechanical skills, you need, but what else goes into the learning? Why would a pinball machine be such a good tool for learning?

MATTHEW WAGNER: Yeah, I always say that it's kind of a great example-- like I said, I'm an art teacher, and pinball has a great history with visuals-- the back glass, the playfield. It just kind of takes you through history. So some of the things that we did included some paint restoration, which is something that Corey helped do-- like on the cabinet, some of the paint starts to flake off and get really old and look bad. But it's also a lot of just problem-solving, figuring out why something isn't working and what we can do to make it work.

CATHY WURZER: Probably teamwork is involved, too, I'm assuming.

MATTHEW WAGNER: Absolutely. And actually, to get students interested in it-- so the machine that we are auctioning off is from 1964. It's called Zig Zag. It's a water skiing theme-- would go great in a lake cabin or something like that. But you can take them apart in pieces.

So what I did was I took the back box where all the score reels are, I just took that out and I just set it on a table in my classroom. And I just had students come up to it and start being like, what is this thing? I said, yeah, do you want to figure it out? Let's start just tinkering with it and breaking it apart. And the rest is history.

CATHY WURZER: Well, Corey, let's bring you in here. Why did you want to start working on pinball machines?

COREY DUNCAN: Well, first, it was my girlfriend. She was going to paint it and I was asking her, where are you going? Because we were in the middle of class. And she was telling me she went back there to go paint the cabinet on the pinball machine.

So I asked Mr. Wagner what it was about, and he asked me if I wanted to go ahead and help her. So I just started helping her with that at first. And then later, I started changing lights, cleaning it up, because it's old, and yeah.

CATHY WURZER: It just started. What did you learn while you were working on this machine?

COREY DUNCAN: Well, I learned how to read the schematics. I learned where wires go, problem-solving, because it's like trial and error. You got to see what works and what doesn't work and see why it don't work.

CATHY WURZER: Sure. Exactly. I'm curious, the both of you now, what are some of the common problems these machines come to your club with? Obviously, they're not working, right, but is there specific things that happen to old pinball machines, Matthew?

MATTHEW WAGNER: Yeah, there's a variety of things that can happen. It kind of depends. Pinball can be categorized kind of into two categories. Older machines are what's known as electromechanical, and those are all like think of the bells and the chimes, like the "ding, ding, ding," and the scores reels moving.

CATHY WURZER: Sure.

MATTHEW WAGNER: All of those machines, and that's the machine that we have, really come down to cleaning and just making contacts. They get really dirty. The machine that we got, it was fortunate, it was a donation from a guy in Westby. And it was sitting in a barn. It was part of his father's old collection.

So some of the older ones can involve some mouse poop in the corners, or various things that go on, or mice eating the wires. So there's all sorts of things with that. And then the newer ones switched over to circuit boards. So they're known as solid state machines.

And those get a little more technical. If you ever see digits on the back glass instead of the old reels, you know that that machine is a solid state and uses circuit boards. So that gets a little more advanced. They both really have the same fundamental pathways to getting them working.

CATHY WURZER: Got it. OK. So, Corey, you took a crack at getting this thing going. How's it look now?

COREY DUNCAN: It looks pretty good, I would think. I think we did a pretty good job on it.

CATHY WURZER: Good. Now, have you had a chance to play the machine? How does it play?

COREY DUNCAN: I played it a few times. It plays pretty good. I like it.

CATHY WURZER: Now, I admitted that I love pinball. Do you play pinball? What do you like about playing a pinball machine?

COREY DUNCAN: I haven't really played pinball this much, but what I like about playing pinball is that I'm competitive. So I like to see that score go up. I like to try to beat high scores in everything.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, I agree with you. Matthew, what do you like about playing pinball?

MATTHEW WAGNER: Back in the day, I played a lot of video games. Now, I have two kids and I don't do that as much as I used to do. But there's something about pinball that kind of is video games. It's art. It's physical.

You get to stand around with your friends and kind of crowd over the machine. And like Corey said, it is really fun chasing those scores.

CATHY WURZER: It is fun. Now, you received this as a donation, this 1964 machine that you all have gotten into working order. Are you hoping to get a specific amount of money off of this auction to keep the club going? Do you have a target, a goal here?

MATTHEW WAGNER: We don't. We'll just kind of be happy with anyone who really wants to buy it. Some of the little perks that we're adding to it, I realized that owning a machine in your home, which is becoming pretty common, it can be kind of daunting. And our club will be offering at the auction free delivery.

And we'll also be offering a year of maintenance on the machine. And the idea behind that is just also to make whoever owns it feel comfortable with it, but also to provide students some opportunities of almost running a small business-- communicating with people, scheduling times, just some basic things that they'll see once they get out of high school.

CATHY WURZER: I love that. Are you thinking this could become kind of a little bit of a business for the club? Once you start going on this route, Matthew, it's possible you might have a lot of broken pinball machines to deal with.

MATTHEW WAGNER: Yeah, I know. If you talk to people who get into this hobby, they say they multiply quickly. The main goal for us is to do one machine a year is the goal.

It's hard. You don't want to work under pressure too much. And we've had the whole year, and the machine is ready to go. And actually, I did just pick up our next machine for next year already, which is very exciting.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, very good. OK. So, Corey, when you tell your friends what you do, what do they say?

COREY DUNCAN: I don't even know. No, they think it's cool, because they also kind of want to play what I'm working on.

CATHY WURZER: Well, it's kind of old school, kind of a throwback, but it is an awful lot of fun once you start. Absolutely. What do you hope happens with the club going into the future here, Corey?

COREY DUNCAN: It seems like a fun thing. I hope a lot of other people get to experience it, at least.

CATHY WURZER: You two are great. Thank you for joining us. Best of luck. I hope this sells for a lot of money.

MATTHEW WAGNER: Thank you for having us, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: That was Winona area public school teacher Matthew Wagner and high school junior Corey Duncan. They're auctioning off their first fully restored pinball machine this Saturday evening on the Winona State University campus.

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