Entrepreneur Dick McNicholas was working in Australia during the ’70s when he first became fascinated by pinball machines. He recalls fond moments of coming across the games in random corners of garages and restaurants and admiring their artwork. However, it wasn’t until he returned to America and began working in the amusement industry that he realized how susceptible pinball backglasses are to chipping and how difficult they were to repair. With the world becoming more captivated by video games, these pieces of history were disappearing quickly, but in 2017 McNicholas took it upon himself to preserve these magnificent works of art.

Dick McNicholas Founder of Pinball Art USA, LLC

Dick McNicholas founder of Pinball Art USA, LLC has 45 years in the amusement and vending businesses. His experience has included ten years of route operation, publishing Amusement Machines: Your Route To Success, running a store selling reconditioned games and vending equipment to operators and for home use and decoration, importing and exporting the same equipment, cleaning beer taps in pubs while in college, and commercial/domestic cleaning in Australia. Now Dick is licensed by the former major manufacturers of pinball machines to collect, digitalize, and archive their backglass from 70 years of pinball machine manufacturing. See how Dick pulled off what no one else had ever thought of doing. Pinball Art USA has perhaps the largest licensed digital collection of backglass images in the world with more yet to come. Now at the pinnacle of his career, Dick is holding back from retirement.

What was the most important lesson you learned from your first job delivering papers?

Discipline! I was a third grader living in a rural area with a lot of distance between deliveries on rocky roads with lots of dogs. It was an evening paper Monday thru Saturday with a Sunday morning delivery. I had the route through the eighth grade and I learned about commitment to others as well as myself. I was also responsible for collections and writing new subscriptions, both were done monthly. If I was short on the collection it came out of my profit. I bought my own new bike in the fourth grade and paid for it from the route profits. Discipline also taught me how to repair my bike out of necessity when a rock had punctured a tire.

Discipline was a lesson and a habit I developed early on. I was also blessed with a mother that was a good consultant and advice giver.

“Whatever your mind can conceive and believe it will achieve. Dream great dreams and make them come true. Do it now!”

Before you started researching the business of pinball, did you have a particular liking for it? Do you recall the first time you ever played?
Dick McNicholas with grandson Alex cleaning a pinball machine
Dick McNicholas with grandson Alex cleaning a pinball machine

My introduction to pinball occurred while living in Sydney, Australia in 1974. I became fascinated with the game and later after returning to America I landed in the amusement business. Although being a new player of the game I was more interested in making money from them. I played pinball a lot, but found as my route of machines grew, I spent more time managing the business. My enjoyment of the game soon gave way to the enjoyment of collecting quarters from the machine’s cashbox. During the peak of the video boom from 1976 – 84, game machines were incredibly profitable.

While doing my research on the amusement business in 1976, I read in RePlay Magazine that the technology would be such that in 5 years we would be playing video games on our televisions at home. It was also stated that the games would be available as easily as the book of the month club. I knew then that would be the demise of the video boom for commercial machines and operators. It happened in 1981 with the emerging Odyssey Console hitting stride and the development of new companies marketing new games on tape. Still, another invention was the VCR and VHS tapes that allowed families to stay at home and rent movies from companies like Blockbuster.

For me it was time to get out of the amusement machine route operation. There had been a huge influx of new operators during those 5 years. The marketplace was saturated with pinball and video games. It was time to find a different direction and opportunity.

In all the history of the world there never was anyone else exactly like you, and in all the infinity to come, there will never be another you.”

You mentioned that you have owned 18 businesses in your life. How did each of those contribute to your success today?

It was not long before I began realizing that my interest was in business ownership and working for myself. Many of my businesses have been built around commercial and domestic cleaning and the amusement and vending industries. 

I had a variety of businesses in the early ‘70’s. I cleaned beer taps in pubs and taverns while at the university. I went from a 48 hour a week job to 10 hours a week making the same money monthly while cleaning beer taps. I worked Tuesday and Thursday from 5am to 10am and made more than I ever had before with almost no overhead or up-front investment. Tell me, who would not want to work for themselves?

After that I had a commercial and domestic cleaning business in Australia cleaning homes, offices, and apartments. Again, it was a business with minimal investment and high returns. I worked 5 hours a day from 7 am to noon and spent the afternoons on the beach.  All these businesses were easy to run and required little overhead. They were easy to start up and easy to sell. They were always very profitable.

For some time, I had a small candy machine route that raised funds for a missing children’s organization. I also imported and exported new and used amusement and vending equipment. I operated a small distributorship for used and reconditioned games and vending for operators and the home market. I was always game for the next venture coming down the pike. Often, I would sell, trade, or close down things that were not profitable enough or that were not sparking the adrenaline that an entrepreneur needs to keep the juices flowing.

Can you tell us what inspired you to write your own book?

I learned at the outset that 95% of businesses fail in the first 5 years. I told myself that if I survived those 5 years that I would write a how-to-do-it book on the game business, which spawned my next venture. I hired a ghost writer to work with me and together I published my first book Amusement Machines: Your Route To Success. It fulfilled two objectives: first, to publish my own book and second, having a mail order business experience.

I advertised in several national magazines and sold books on all continents except for Antarctica. I was also fortunate enough to visit buyers in islands and countries where my book was sold. Still, it was the amusement and vending business that I have enjoyed the most. There are a lot of opportunities in different parts of these industries. Operating games was a unique business different from what most others might do.

Being in the game business was fun! It opened a lot of new doors and opportunities as well as friendships. I shared what I did with my two daughters and four grandchildren. They have all grown up with pinball machines and video games in their homes. Tell me, who does not love playing pinball!

How did you develop the business skills needed to keep all your startups running?

When first starting in business I lacked confidence and self-esteem, but discipline led me to seek help. I enrolled in Foreign Trade classes offered through the U.S. Department of Commerce and studied Importing and Exporting for 2 years in night classes. I also read a series of books written by Dale Carnegie, author of how to self-improvement books for public speaking and building self-confidence. How to Win Friends and Influence People is one of Dale Carnegie’s books that I would suggest to everyone in business. Lastly, I mentored with successful business owners and associates. It is always helpful to learn from others and to share what you have learned as well.

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”

What was your biggest challenge when starting Pinball Art USA?

Financing! The biggest challenge of starting any business is financing. That will never change. Early on, I always had my eye on businesses that did not require a lot of financing or cash investment.

I had the help of a relative in the way of a short-term loan when I started in the amusement business in 1976 and repaid it quickly. A year into the business I had the opportunity of assuming a route operator’s loans on financed games. The operator was in a hurry to sell and gave me his well-equipped truck and other necessary equipment for game machine operations. That route more than doubled the size of the one I had. The beauty of the loans I assumed were on the Rule of 78, which were loans that charged the bulk of the interest up front. Say, for instance, that the loan was for 24-months. You would pay three quarters of the interest in the first six months. What I ended up with were payments at an exceptionally low interest and a savings for me.

The amusement distributor that led me to this deal later agreed to sell me new equipment at nothing down and 90-days cash. I would buy 30 or 40 machines at a time and operate them on my route for 90 days before paying him the full price of the games. This was at a time when the game industry was booming. I made enough off the machines in 2 months to pay for the games. The extra month I used his money to grow my business. Seeing the opportunity and seizing it is always an important part of success. Keep your eyes open and be ready to fund an opportunity at short notice. If you do not have the required capital, always have another source that can help in the way of a short-term loan.

“Hazy goals produce hazy results. Clearly define your goals. Write them down, make a plan for achieving them, set a deadline, visualize the results and go after them. Just don’t look back unless you want to go that way.”

You’ve been monitoring the pinball art industry for years, but it has only recently begun to take off. Do you have any thoughts on why this is?

Yes….and it could not have come at a better time! There has been a resurgence of interest in pinball over the last 20 years. Nearly every state has a pinball association organized at the state, national and international level. Clubs are popping up everywhere.  Tournament play is organized at the city and state levels with national and international competition. Men and women’s leagues are available at all levels. Groups are forming on social media with interests in repair help, buying and selling, enthusiasts, collectors, restorations, and more.

The interest has spread from Mom and Dad’s era to the youth. Pinball machines are of a new age and new technology. More people young and old are both buying old pinball machines and repairing them. It is like an addiction. You are not satisfied owning just one. You obviously want to have a second to keep the first one company.

The admiration of pinball backglass has long been part of me, but it was not until more recently that I was game to seeing if I could be licensed by the former manufacturers’ intellectual property holders. Pinball manufacturing as we knew it, began in 1931 and ended 1996. The popularity of video games had overtaken pinball. The new medium of video was an attraction to the youth. The pinball on the other hand was something enjoyed by their mom and dad’s generation. The youth were not drawn to it…yet.

Once I connected with the licensors, I was authorized to find and digitalize the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 individually different pinball machines built with backglass in a backbox. That spanned 7 decades! Pinball machines were typically made for a few months before moving on to another pinball model.

Most new pinballs brought new innovative things such as flippers, pop bumpers, slingshots, bells and chimes, coils and more. Pinball was always changing and innovating during those 7 decades. My collection of digitalized pinball backglass can be seen at: Pinball Art USA.

Pinball Art USA has been authorized by the major former manufacturers of pinball. Today we offer our images on photographic paper, canvas, aluminum, framed and backlit, greeting cards, jigsaw puzzles, t-shirts, calendars, and pinball backglass reproductions on acrylic.

I have just introduced a new page to my website featuring “The Real Thing” a 50 year-old collection of backglass. This collection was accumulated by Mel Appel from New Jersey. Pinball Art USA and Mel Appel are working together to offer these rare backglass, many of which have not seen the light of day in 5 decades.

It has taken my lifetime and career to achieve a pinnacle in an industry that has brought me so much joy personally and professionally. I am only known by few, but I will be remembered by the lovers of pinball art. Mel Appel and I share much in common. We love pinball art and the enjoyment that the game of pinball brings to all.

“Defeat may test you; it need not stop you. If at first you don’t succeed, try another way. For every obstacle there is a solution. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. The greatest mistake is giving up.”

Why is it so important to you to preserve pinball art?

Once I learned that there was no archive of pinball backglass I felt a need to make sure there was one. Having been in and around the amusement and vending business I was familiar with collectors, operators and distributors. Most shared the same interest and were helpful in growing my collection of images. 

I hear from many visiting my website that they enjoy looking at the art of the time. I am familiar with what the deterioration of backglass looks like and I am trying to capture and digitalize the image before recapturing and restoring it to its original beauty.

It would be wonderful to find them all. That may be a desire planted in another pinball enthusiast yet to come that will follow me.  My goal is to preserve the art of the artist’s that worked for companies like Gottlieb, Williams, Bally, Stern, Chicago Coin, Midway, Genco, Keeney and many more.

Which part of your collection holds the most significance to you?

The backglass images in my Archive, Backglass Prints and Slideshow pages impress me the most and bring me the most joy to view.  The history of the art is of the time and shows the progression of styles and themes. These are what is important for me to archive and save. These are the history of backglass art.

There are thousands of pinball machines around the world that have broken or missing backglass. I am now getting a new request every week from a visitor to my website asking for a reproduction of an image they have seen on my website. It does my heart good to know that I am helping someone complete their pinball machine with a new pinball backglass printed on acrylic that will not break.

The most significant part of pinball art are the artists! Without them we have nothing. With them we have an age that brought friends together and created fun and new friends for all of us. I enjoy studying backglass and often seeing the humor of the artist in their work.

“There is a gold mine within you from which you can extract all the necessary ingredients.”

Have any pinball artists reached out to you upon learning that you are preserving their art? What has been their reaction?

Good question. The answer is No, not yet. However, I would think they would appreciate the recognition of their gifts.

They are incredibly talented men and women that have shaped and molded art into a machine that brings such peace and enjoyment to all. As well as frustration and anger, of course to those that love it so much. Why else would so many be found to have one in the living room or kitchen.

The response from visitors to my website are incredibly positive. It seems to me that pinball backglass lovers enjoy searching my site and finding backglass they have not viewed before. I take a lot of pride in restoring the art to its original condition. It is often a challenging task, but one that is done with love and appreciation. I do not do this all on my own! I have an artist that is my partner in Pinball Art USA. This artist has the gift of recapturing a damaged backglass. So, it is yet another artist that is preserving the art of an artist.

“Success is an attitude, get yours right. It is astonishing how short a time it takes for wonderful things to happen.”

What are you most excited about for your company in the next few years?

Growth! In the next few years, I anticipate tripling the number of pinball backglasses on my website from 400 to 1,200. I have not been able to travel to photo shoot collections for 18 months. In the meantime, I have been successfully testing other methods of collecting images.

My goal is to archive pinball backglass. We presently have a well-established assortment of products available for the public from our images. What is needed now is to focus on adding to the archive. I would like to ask for any collectors or enthusiasts with pinball machines or backglasses to reach out and help me accomplish this goal.

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act but also dream, Not only plan but also believe.”

Anatole France
Warehouse of pinball machines from Pinball Art USA
Warehouse of pinball machines from Pinball Art USA

Thanks to Dick McNicholas, now these 70 year-old overlooked pieces of art are being preserved for future generations. Be sure to visit Pinball Art USA to see the gallery of their entire collection.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.