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by Russ Jensen
While going through my files I came across a series of "notes" I had made after my visit to pinball pioneer Harry Williams in early 1978, and subsequent phone conversations with him in the years to follow. The article to follow was written to pass on the information I gained from those conversations. First, let me briefly relate the story of how I came to visit Harry in the first place.
One day while talking to pinball author/historian Roger Sharpe on the phone, he suggested to me that I call or visit Mr. Williams sometime, who he described as a very friendly individual. I didn't really think at that time I would have the "nerve" to call this great man, but I took his address and phone number anyway. Well, several months later my wife and I were visiting friends who lived about 50 miles from Palm Springs where Harry lived. I decided that I would try calling him to see if there was any chance I might visit him sometime. I called him, told him of my interest in pinball, and that Roger Sharpe had suggested I get in touch with him, and said that I would sure like to come see him sometime if it would be no bother. Much to my delight he responded by asking when I would like to come, and when I asked "how about today", he again surprised me by saying "alright, come on over".
I talked to my wife and our friend and they agreed to go to Palm Springs and look around while I visited Mr. Williams. We then drove to Palm Springs and they let me off at Harry's house agreeing to return in an hour or two. Well, I'll tell you, those were two of the most enjoyable hours of my life! That memorable visit occurred on March 18, 1978. I had decided not to take many notes during my visit because I felt it would be more casual and relaxed if I didn't. So we just had a friendly visit and afterwards I made additional notes concerning the "highlights" of our talk. For this reason, the information in these articles may not be in a real logical order, but it does cover what I later considered to be the most interesting information gathered from this "pinball great" during that visit and the phone conversations that followed later.
I rang the bell and was cordially greeted by Mr. Williams who invited me in and we sat in the living room. Shortly, his charming wife served us coffee and we began discussing both of our favorite subject, pinball. I started by telling him about my pinball collection (about 10 or 12 games at that time, I believe) and showing him pictures of them. I remember him asking me why I had so many Bally games and my saying that it was because they seemed to be easier to find in our area. When we got to the picture of the one Williams game I owned at that time (and still do), SHOO SHOO from 1951, Harry said, "oh yes, that was one of my dogs". Ever since then I have thought that that was a very interesting piece of "pinball trivia".
We then began discussing his early game designs and the company he founded, called Automatic Amusements, in Los Angeles in the early 1930's. He said his shop was located in the 2500 block of Pico Blvd., an area I walked through many times as a teenager in the early 1950's. That area of Los Angeles is still "coin machine row", even today. Harry brought out his scrapbook and started telling me about his early designs and showing me ads for them. Three of the games he talked about were ADVANCE, SIGNAL, and DEALER. Harry described features of these games in some detail and I could clearly see that he was justifiably proud of his early handiwork. I also remember being impressed by how clearly he remembered details of games he had designed over 40 years earlier! Harry told me that Bally and Exhibit in a few cases bought the rights from him to manufacture and distribute some of his designs in the Mid-West and East, letting Automatic Amusements take care of the West. He said, however, that part of the "deal" was that Bally had to credit him as the designer in their advertisement for the games.
Harry also told me about the first game he designed with a "light-up" backboard. He said the game was called TRIANGLE, but so far I have never found any information on a game by that name. Harry told me it was one of the first games to have such a backboard, but that Genco's KINGS (April 1935) may have been out first. He also told me that even though "one-ball payout" games were quite popular in the mid-thirties he only designed one such game. This, he said, was called TURRET and the top arch had 3 "slots" for the ball to enter which paid 10, 20, and 30 cents, respectively. The holes on the playfield, he remarked, paid varying amounts, up to 3 dollars. Also during our discussion of Automatic Amusements Harry told me that when he went to work in Chicago in 1935 he left his father in charge of the Los Angeles business.
A major part of our discussions that day centered around the period of World War II. Harry said that when the war broke out he, and his game designing partner Lyn Durrant, were working for Exhibit Supply, the company he said "that made the best games in 1941". He went on to say that Exhibit didn't seem to be too interested in obtaining "war contracts". They let Harry and Lyn out of their contracts and they decided to form a new company, which they called United Manufacturing, to rebuild games and get into war work, where the money was in those days. Harry told of he and Lyn going to Washington DC trying to get "war contracts" and of Dave Gottlieb being there at the same time. He remembered Dave as saying, after they had been there for awhile, "let's go back home and make games". At that point I mentioned a Gottlieb "war theme" game I had recently seen called HIT THE JAPS and asked Harry if he remembered that as being a "conversion" by Gottlieb. He replied that he did not believe that Dave Gottlieb had ever made any "conversions", saying that it was probably a production game made after the war started.
We then discussed the "conversions" made by United, and later Harry's Williams Manufacturing. Harry said their conversions had entirely new playfields. The original cabinets, he remarked, were re-used, but new designs were applied using decals made by Advertising Posters which he said were hard to tell from a new paint job. He emphasized that only the electrical and mechanical parts and the cabinets were re-used in their conversions.
Harry said he left Lyn Durrant and United in 1942, and started his own Williams Manufacturing Co. in 1944. He said Williams' first machine was a "fortune telling" arcade machine called SELECT-A-SCOPE. He also mentioned another early machine he made being an arcade shooting game called PERISCOPE. These games were also "conversions" in that they were built with parts taken from "pre-war" games, since new parts could not be obtained during the war for "non-essential" Items such as amusement machines.
I then mentioned an old Williams game a friend of mine owned called ZINGO which had a vertical playfield. Harry said he remembered it also as being another early Williams game. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: Williams Manufacturing made two pingame conversion games in 1945. The first was FLAT TOP, an example of which now resides in the beautiful Stan Muraski collection in Rockford Illinois. An example of the last Williams conversion, LAURA, is owned by Richard Conger of Sebastopol, California, included in his extensive pin collection.)
After the war was over, Harry said, his first all new game was SUSPENSE which was the first such game to be produced. He said this was followed by Gottlieb's STAGE DOOR CANTEEN, and then Bally's VICTORY SPECIAL. Harry then told me that at the time when Harry Mabs at Gottlieb came out with the first flipper, Williams had also been working on a similar device. Their's, he said, used a shallow hole into which a ball would drop, which would then be kicked out by a "bat" behind the hole. This was an "automatic" action, however, and not controlled by buttons on the cabinet. When I asked him if he remembered SUNNY as being Williams' first flipper game he said he could not remember. I also asked Harry why Williams made a few games in 1953 employing "score reels" and then went back to "light bulb scoring". He replied that it was because the paper they used for the reels had problems with "burning". I guess due to heat generated in the backbox, although thinking about it now I am confused about how that could happen, unless they used light bulbs to illuminate the reels.
Regarding United in the later years, Harry said they had "trouble" in the Fifties because they were producing the controversial "bingo games". I then asked him if the reason United's bingo circuitry was different from Bally's was because Bally had some sort of patent on it? Harry replied that he did not think so and that the reason was probably that since Lyn Durrant was a good circuit designer he probably thought his method was better than Bally's.
At one point during our visit our conversation was temporarily interrupted by a phone call. It was someone from New York City (I believe either a newspaper reporter or writer) asking Harry some questions about his career. Also during our conversation, Harry told me that he had recently been contacted by a couple from the San Francisco area, Jim and Candace Tolbert, who were writing a book on pinball. He then gave me their address and phone number in case I wanted to get in touch with them. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: A short time later I called them and talked to Candace. She told me about their forthcoming book, TILT, and said they were also going to begin publishing a coin-op magazine called "Amusement Review" which, she said, was to cover both older games and the "current scene" as well. She then asked if I would like to write a column for them on old pingames. I told her I had never written before, but she convinced me to try it. I finally agreed, and so began my "pinball writing career". Incidentally, my column for Amusement Review was called "Five Balls, Five Cents", a title I decided to retain when I started writing for COIN SLOT in 1981, and still use today.)
Well, there you have it, a brief account of my memorable visit with the late coin machine pioneer, Mr. Harry E. Williams. But my association with Mr. Williams did not end there! In the years to follow (up until his untimely death in September, 1983) I called him on the phone on several occasions, asking questions about his career and remembrances of events in pinball history. In future articles I will relate information obtained during these conversions in much the same way as I have just described my original visit to Harry. So stay tuned!
THE HARRY WILLIAMS "PHONECONS" PART 1
Last time I told about my memorable visit with pinball pioneer Harry Williams at his home in Palm Springs, California in March 1978. After that visit I had the occasion to talk on the telephone with Mr. Williams several times between that time and his untimely death in September 1983. During these conversations I asked various questions of him and made notes of his answers and comments. Many different subjects were discussed during these calls and not necessarily in any particular sequence; just as the questions came to mind during the call. In this, and succeeding articles, I will describe the information I gained from this great man during these telephone conversations.
Before I start presenting the content of these phone conversations with Harry, a word about the accuracy of this information. You must keep in mind that most everything Mr. Williams told me was from his memory of games and events which, in general, took place between 30 and 50 years earlier! For this reason everything he said may not have been entirely accurate. Names of games may have been confused, etc. However, I have made little attempt to try and correct this information, even though I may have reason to believe that some of it was in error. I will report what Harry told me and it is up to the reader to assign whatever amount of credence he wishes to this information. As a final note on this subject, let me say that during these conversations there were many times when I felt that he sounded unclear on some points, but with others his memory appeared to me to be "crystal clear", My first phone conversation with Mr. Williams occurred on May 1, 1978.
I first asked Harry if he had heard of Universal Industries, a company in existence in the late 1940's, one of who's games, a 1-ball horserace game called WINNER, I had just acquired. He told me that the company had been founded by Mel Binks (a designer for J. H. Keeney Co.) and Lyn Durrant, Harry's friend and ex-partner in United Manufacturing and owner of that outfit at the time. Harry went on to say that United was eventually taken over by Seeburg in the late 1960's, just as Williams was taken over by the same company in the early Sixties. I next asked Mr. Williams about two old games owned by a friend of mine, Fred Roth of Thousand Oaks California, on neither of which we could find any manufacturer's name.
One of these games, TORPEDO, he said he did not exactly remember, but from my description of it's features said it sounded very similar to Bally's FLEET of 1934. The other game I mentioned, STAR-LITE, (also from the mid-Thirties) he said he thought may have been made by Chicago Coin. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: Upon looking up TORPEDO in "Pinball Collector's Resource" (by my friends Rob Hawkins and Don Mueting) I found three games by that name made in the 1930's: one by Dudley Clark Co. in 1934, and one by Jennings and another by Exhibit Supply, both from 1936. There was only one STAR LITE listed made by Exhibit in 1935.) When I finally asked him about another of Fred's games, an early game by his Williams Manufacturing Company called ZINGO, he had a better recollection.
He said he remembered making that upright game during World War II using parts from pre-war games (since during the war game manufacturers could not get any new parts or war essential materials). When I told him that Fred's machine had large colored light bulbs mounted on each side, Harry said he did not remember building it that way, the lights probably being added by an operator. Finally, Harry told me of the very first machine made by his Williams Manufacturing. He said it was a fortune telling arcade machine called SELECT-A-SCOPE. He then told me that one of these machines was still in operation in an arcade on the pier in Santa Monica, California. That ended our first telephone conversation.
My next phone call to Mr. Williams occurred a little over a year later, on April 2, 1979. I first asked Harry if he knew which company first originated the "match feature"? He replied he thought it might have been United, or possibly Keeney, remarking that Keeney designer Mel Binks was a good designer. He then said that his ex-partner Sam Stern might remember, but that he himself was not sure. I then asked Harry if he remembered the pingames made by Williams in the early 1950's, which had a "bingo format". He replied he remembered them producing LONG BEACH (the only true "bingo pinball" made by Williams).
When I asked him about a flipper game with a bingo format and a "circus motif", the playfield for which my friend Rob Hawkins had found, he said he did not remember it, again saying that Sam Stern might recall it. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: I finally found out, by looking at Mike Pacak's old pinball brochures at Pinball Expo '87, that that game was called STARLITE and was made in 1953. Other Williams "flipper/bingo" games were: DISK JOCKEY, FOUR CORNERS, and HONG KONG, all made around that same time.)
Harry next related to me the story of him leaving his Williams Manufacturing Company in 1959. He said the company was bought in that year by the Consolidated Drug Company. He went on to say that he and Sam Stern had been partners in Williams since 1947. He told me that Consolidated let the partners opt for either cash or stock in the company. Harry said he took the cash, but Sam decided to take stock instead. He went on to say that Sam later regained control of Williams for a short time, but finally sold the company to Seeburg in 1963. I next asked Mr. Williams if he remembered who originated the "pop bumper"? He replied he thought it was Exhibit Supply. When I told him about the 1938 Stoner game, ZETA, I had when I was a kid, and that it had a "spring type" pop bumper in the center of it's circular playfield, he said he remembered that game and that it could have been the first use of such a device.
I then asked him if the Exhibit games made just prior to the war were the first games to use "eject holes"? Harry quickly reminded me that his 1934 pioneer electric action game, CONTACT, was the first to use such a device. He also said that CONTACT was an early game having a "ball return", referring to it's "Contact Hole", I suppose. Harry then went on to say that some other games in the mid Thirties had various forms of "kickout holes", but that the invention of the "bumper" by Bally in late 1936 caused this type of feature to virtually drop out of sight (bumpers becoming the rage) until the Exhibit games that I had mentioned.
The last thing that Harry mentioned during this conversation was that he had recently attended a special showing of the new Brooke Shields movie, "Tilt", the idea being that the producers wanted him, the inventor of the "tilt", to endorse the film. He said that the film wasn't too bad but that it's portrayal of 'pinball hustling' "certainly could not help the image of the industry". Harry ended by saying that the movie was somewhat boring to him and that he hoped it would not be very popular and didn't think it would be. Well, we never really had a chance to find out since the film was never really released to theaters, but several years later made limited appearances on cable and regular television.
The next telephone call to Mr. Williams took place on July 2, 1979. I first asked him which games produced by his Automatic Amusements Co. in the 1930's were also produced by Bally (he had told me during my original visit with him that he let Bally produce some of his designs for Eastern and Mid-Western markets, while retaining the West Coast for Automatic Amusements). He replied that ACTION and SIGNAL in 1934 were the only ones. I next read to him a list of Automatic Amusement games I had and asked him if it sounded complete?
He replied that he also designed two games which were not on that list, namely CHEVRON and KNOCKOUT, both from 1935. He then told me about a game called MULTIPLE which he said he designed for Bally, in which a ball landing in a hole at the top of the playfield caused the values of other scoring holes to increase, as indicated in small "windows" located above those holes. Harry next told me about his career after leaving California to go to Chicago in the mid Thirties. He said he went to work for Dave Rockola in 1935 and stayed there until sometime in 1937. He said while working there he met young designer Lyndon (Lyn) Durrant and that they became good friends.
Harry then told me that they both left Rockola in 1937 and went to Bally where they worked for a short time because, he said, they "did not like the conditions there". Harry then said that he and Lyn went over to Exhibit Supply in 1938, and that that company was nearly bankrupt at the time. He went on to say, however, that Exhibit became one of the leaders of the industry by the early 1940's. He then remarked that at that time even Gottlieb copied some of Exhibit's games. The last part of our conversation dealt with the beginnings of United Manufacturing during the war years. Harry said that he and Lyn left Exhibit and formed United just before we got into the war. He said he left United probably in late 1942 after they had produced 5 or 6 "conversion" games, starting his Williams Manufacturing (the forerunner of the current Williams Electronics) sometime in 1943.
Harry then told me that United's "conversions", unlike those from most of the other outfits producing such games during the war, had entirely new playfields. He went on to say that all the parts from the old games, from which these "conversions" were made, were disassembled, cleaned, and sometimes replated. He then said that the only wood used from the old games was the cabinets themselves. Finally, I again mentioned that upright style Williams conversion game, ZINGO, owned by a friend of mine. Harry said he remembered that he made one mistake in the design of that game, that of putting a "slope" to it's playfield (instead of being perfectly vertical) because, he said, it made it more difficult for the player to shoot the ball with any velocity.
This concludes my discussion of our first three phone conversations. Next time I will continue to describe later similar calls.
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