The new pinball machine had made its way to the end of the assembly line, having been fitted with all the devices that make a silver ball’s zigzag journey through the flashing, dinging playfield such an addictive pleasure. Before the machine could be shipped, Jack Guarnieri had one more thing to add. He took a silver marker and signed “Jersey Jack” on the back—indicating his nickname and the name of his company.
“In a lot of ways, it’s a playable artwork,” he says.
Guarnieri doesn’t sign all the games that leave his Lakewood pinball factory, but this one was special. It was among the first finished Hobbit machines, the second design produced since Jersey Jack Pinball started in 2011. Lined up nearby were 2,500 or so Wizard of Oz games—the company’s first model—complete with ruby-slipper flippers and a winged monkey that snatches up captured balls. “Just like in the movie,” says Guarnieri.
The plunger that first put Guarnieri in play was a want ad he spied on a subway ride just after graduating from high school in Brooklyn in 1975. “Pinball mechanic,” it said, and although he wasn’t a devotee, he liked electronics. For the next 35 years he fixed, bought and sold amusement games, opening two arcades of his own after he moved to New Jersey in 1989. When the supply of pinball machines dwindled—only one of the major manufacturers remains, Stern Pinball in Chicago—he decided to make his own.
“There was no instruction book on how to start a pinball company,” he says. Eager customers ordered the games when they were nothing but designs; last year one of those customers became a financial backer. About 80 percent of the games, which start at $8,000, land in home game rooms; the rest are in arcades. Guarnieri aims to make 10,000 games a year within five years. “It’s a huge undertaking, a Broadway show,” he says. “It took more than $2 million to develop our first game.”
As production of the Hobbit ramps up, each of the several dozen employees in the factory has the task of playing for 20 minutes each day to reveal glitches. That includes Guarnieri. “I’m known for tilting a lot,” he says. “I think it’s a Brooklyn thing, to nudge the game.”