Article as published
in The Eagle Tribune
By Terry Date
March 17, 2009
SHE'S A PINBALL WIZARD
New Hampshire woman a whiz at fixing arcade games.
Welcome to the time machine. Pinball repair technician Sarah St.
John, 43, flips dual wall switches in an arcade-sized room in her home workshop. A bank of
pinball machines to the left lights up. They flash, pop, ring. One even roars.
The heads on the machines display popular culture icons in campy poses
from the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s - a 1960s surfer girl dance party, Captain Kirk and the
Star Trek gang, Dirty Harry frowning and waiting for someone to make his day.
The machines convey a sense of time flipping backward.
That's the way St. John likes it. She is one of the few repair
technicians who serve a small group of people who have a passion for pinball.
St. John got her start in pinball repair as a 16-year-old Pittsfield
High School student in 1981. The owner of Berkshire Vending Co. recruited her to work as a
summer technician, cleaning pinball and other amusement machines.
Within a month, St. John proved she was capable of more
responsibility after she asked to fix a broken Xenon pinball machine. She perused a
manual, ran some tests, and reprogrammed a memory chip. Green lights flashed seven
times and Xenon came alive.
"It started the game up," she said. "It was a great feeling."
St. John was promoted to traveling repair technician. Through
high school, then college, she drove a Berkshire Vending Co. car to taverns, pizza
joints and arcades, hauling her bag of fuses, switches, chips inside and fixing the
machines. Her skills paid for college.
St. John has a yen for those days. She was in her youth. It
was the digital revolution. Pinball was popular and changing, becoming more complex,
and video game interest was rising after the arrival of the games Space Invaders
Graduating with an electrical engineering degree from
Northeastern University, she went to work as a technology specialist for a
semiconductor company after the arcade business crashed in the late 1980s.
In July, the Pelham woman retired and returned to pinball
repair. Actually, she never left. She has been repairing machine for friends all
along, collecting customers, of which she now has about 400, as well as parts and
"I accumulated a huge selection of machines, and friends
would ask if they were for sale," she said. Her new business is called My Arcade
The pinball world is fairly small, said Gary Vincent,
curator of the American Classic Arcade Museum at Weirs Beach in Laconia, where
he has 270 pinball machines, all for playing. There is only one pinball
manufacturer left - Stern. Williams, Gottlieb and Bally all have gone out of
St. John repairs Vincent's machines.
Like doctors who make house calls, St. John is one of
the very few who still go to people's homes and make repairs.
"She is about the only one I know of who has a business
that will go and repair games in your home," Vincent said.
One of the homes St. John frequents is in Lowell, Mass.,
and belongs to Joe Balas, 56.
He has 25 pinball games. St. John makes house calls for
repairs to his home about 12 times a year.
St. John is a good teacher, and lets her customers take
part in the repairs, Balas said.
Thanks to her lessons, he can do the simple things - clean
contacts and switches, fix loose wires.
"Other than that, I have to call in the Marines, which is
Sarah," he said.
Balas, who belongs to the Boston Pinball Association,
says pinball is a release.
"It's fun to improve, it's fun to play," Balas said. "It's
a hobby with a passion for people who are really into it, and I am really into it."
Balas said the success of St. John's repair business is due
to her technical skill, but she also understands the emotions of people who play
the game and want their games to perform correctly.
St. John travels within a 100-mile radius of her home,
going to Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont for repairs.
She is an avid pinball player and has more than 100 games,
including classic games like Wizard. Friends often congregate at her house for
hours of pinball.
Friend Adam Pfeifer, 31, of Nashua stops by about once a
week either for system repairs or a friendly competition.
He's been hooked on pinball ever since age 6 and played
the classic pinball game Eight Ball at his parents' home.
Often, a 30-minute visit to St. John's Pelham home will
stretch into three hours, with the two of them going against each other on the
game Circus Voltaire.
For St. John, the allure of pinball is the melding of
technical wizardry with the fun. She likes the challenge of figuring out what
is wrong with a machine and fixing it. She also likes the way the game can
transport a person back to a time and place.
"Yeah, I can feel it, going back," she said.
She again hits the two wall switches in her workshop.
One of the first sounds is the roar from a Jurassic Park
game. T-Rex cranes his neck to take a pinball in his jaws.
His species is extinct, but pinball is still holding on.