This summer, Superelectric owners Ben Haehn, Nathaniel Murray, and Dave Spasic are branching out from their studio parlor and launching a brand new pinball arcade in the heart of Gordon Square. As they finish preparations for their grand opening, we sat down with Dave to talk about their epic quest to put pinball back on the map in Cleveland.
How did you come up with the name Superelectric?
It’s a story from 9 years ago. Ben and his bandmates started making shirts for their group “Canada’s Electric Tiger Machine” and they wanted a cool name to go along with their merch. Mainly through an evening’s worth of shouting words at each other, SUPERELECTRIC was born.
When Superelectric first moved in to 78th Street Studios in 2008, it wasn’t a pinball parlor. How did the space transition into one?
The studio space is and always was meant to be a creative space. For the first four years the space served as a studio and pseudo gallery space. Ben would paint and screen print and Nathan worked a lot on his collage and sculptural work.
When Ben first started collecting pinball machines it was just something fun to have in the studio to do during downtime. We didn’t really know what we were doing at the time, but we figured they would probably be worth about the same amount we paid for them if we ever needed to sell them. Over time the number just kept growing and I remember it becoming an issue. We’d say things like, “This is too many. We really need to get rid of some.” But I guess at some point we just gave in.
How many machines have passed through the Superelectric doors?
In December when we began the process of submitting information to the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO) I went through our info and counted all of the games we’ve had. At that time we were over 80 machines.
Once we started talking more seriously about the new location with DSCDO we went on a tear and really started to look for more unique games. In one day we drove to three different locations from Cincinnati to Columbus and back and brought home 5 machines. I haven’t done a tally recently but we have had well over 100 now and are still trading constantly.
Where do you go to find new games?
We’ll look for games on ebay or craigslist and often get calls or contacts from people we meet about games. In just a few years we’ve probably met most of the major pinball collectors in Ohio and the surrounding states. Many times the process of getting a game is just as much fun as playing it.
Ben really wants to start filming our adventures getting games because he thinks it would be an awesome TV show. It would probably be a lot like American Pickers with a little Hoarders mixed in.
What is involved in refurbishing the game, or getting it ready to play?
We always start with a good cleaning. Dirt collects on the playfield and in all of the moving parts and is the biggest reason why games break or deteriorate over time. After cleaning a game we’ll evaluate how much restoration to do. On some we’ll clear coat the playfield and remake the backglass. Sometimes we’ll refinish the cabinet or touch up the art on the playfield. It all depends on the game, the collectability, the condition, the gameplay, ect. Most games need some service to get them running great and Ben will work on the older electromechanical games and I’ll work on the circuit boards of the newer solid state games.
How do you decide what to keep and what to sell?
We’ll sell anything besides Cowpoke and Farfalla because those were both gifts and really great games. There are games that are hard to let go but I know we’ll be able to find something cool to replace them. Being able to let games go has been key building the collection and it’s awesome to set up a game in a family’s basement and see the enjoyment they get out of it immediately.
Initially, Superelectric was functioning primarily during 3rd Fridays, when 78th Street Studios is open to the public. In the past two years, you’ve expanded the scope of your business, throwing pop-up pinball parties and renting out your studio space. How did these one-off events first come about?
Our first event outside 3rd Fridays was Henry’s 7th birthday party. Henry’s parents had been to a few of our 3rd Friday events and are really cool, so when they asked if we wanted to host a birthday party we were all for it. Henry is a great kid and we look forward to his birthday every year. He is going to be 9 soon!
We haven’t really done any marketing. The only ad we’ve ever run was in the last issue of the Lake Erie Monster comic. Word of mouth has been great for us and people approach us for all kinds of crazy ideas: weddings, fashion shows, etc.
Aside from your standard pinball fare, what other services does Superelectric offer?
We do a lot of screen printing for businesses and artists in the area. We’ve made shirts for Sweet Moses, Happy Dog, Toast, Nalu Surf Shop, and Flying Fig. We also do a lot of prints for Derek Hess and Oliver Barrett. We do custom backglasses and cabinet art for pinball machines.
Can you tell us about your partnership with the Progressive Arts Alliance?
We started talking to Progressive Arts Alliance a few years ago. Our friend is a teacher with the group and needed help screen printing with the kids at a few schools in town. The mix was an easy fit so we opened our doors for students to come to Superelectric and learn about the science of pinball. Some groups were building tabletop pinball machines and came to us for help with art and a better understanding of how to make their games fun to play. Others were exploring the science of kinetic energy and how a ball travels on the playfield.
It was awesome to see how the groups would interact with pinball. Many of the students had never seen a pinball machine in person until they came over. We want to expand what we are doing and have field trips at our new space weekly to explore the art and science of pin.
What’s the weirdest machine you’ve ever acquired?
We picked up this crazy game from 1987 called Hardbody. It is probably the most absurd theme for a pinball machine. It’s a bodybuilding workout pinball machine and it has photos of the professional body builder Rachel McLish on the backglass. The sound effects are dumbbells hitting the gym floor and the goal is to hit targets for different workout stations for arms, legs, abs, chest and back. The gameplay is actually really fun so we’re working with John G and Jake Kelly to retheme the game as a Lake Erie Monster pinball machine.
You’re dipping your toes into custom pinball creation. How did your collaboration with Lake Erie Monster creators John G and Jake Kelly come to fruition?
We’ve been friends and admirers of John and Jake for a while and we just threw the idea out there. It was something they never really thought about but both excited about the concept. We’ll probably have 3-5 games made up and will have one at the new parlor when it is done.
Do you plan on expanding this to offer more custom pinball machines?
The custom games are something we’ve dreamed about for a while and we’re really looking forward to making a whole collection of custom games. We have a few artists that we’re working with to come up with new themes and concepts. The custom scene really brings us back to the creative root of where we all started.
What makes Gordon Square the prime location for a Superelectric Pinball Parlor?
Gordon Square is our neighborhood. We love the business and people that are here and are really happy that we were able to score a spot right in the heart of it. I think the vintage vibe of Gordon Square made for a perfect fit. What better place to put a pinball parlor than next to the historic theatre and down the street from a classic soda fountain.
What are some new features of the upcoming location?
We’re planning to have around 25 machines in the new space. We want the collection to be representative of the best games from the last 50 years. We’ll have some of the electro-mechanical riffle games there and a really cool shuffle puck bowling game. We’re still looking for some of the right vintage novelty games like the coin-op fortune teller from the movie Big and old love tester games.
Should we save our quarters for the new store or do you have another payment plan in mind?
We are still working on it. If we don’t use a pay for play by the hour type system it will probably be token drop.
For us point grabbers out there, what’s the tilt policy in your new shop?
Nudging has always been a big part of the game, especially because early on the games didn’t have flippers. We keep our games with a little wiggle room unless we are hosting a big tournament. You just gotta know the line and how much you can move the machine before it says no more.