Skilled players put competitive pinball scene into full tilt
Michelle Badura grew up playing pinball in her neighbor's garage. For the past 10 years, she has played in Riverwest, primarily at Riverhorse, Foundation and the Polish Falcon.
"My favorites are Tales From the Crypt, Monster Bash and countless others," says Badura. "I think even Soapy's Laundry on Locust had a machine for a while, though I don't remember which one."
When she first started playing regularly, she did not pay attention to other pinball enthusiasts. It was a solo, zen-like experience for her.
"I considered pinball my anti-social responsibility. I'd sneak in rounds while out with friends whenever I didn't feel like being social," she says. "Yet I would still see others playing and wonder what's their attraction to the game."
Eventually, Badura started to take note of the familiar faces she saw "slapping the silver balls around" and began to see pinball as more of a group activity.
This summer, she started a pinball tournament at Uptowner, 1032 E. Center St.
"The goal is to support the game, the establishments, the creativity of the people who support pinball and have fun with it," says Badura. "Of course, there is a competitive side to it as well, which will most likely be unleashed in the future."
The Riverwest-based pinball tournament takes place the third Wednesday of every month and is sponsored by Lakefront Brewery. The next tournament is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 7 p.m.
"Every tournament places four winners. Usually they get a six pack of beer and brewery tour tickets along with other miscellaneous prizes," she says.
The Uptowner event also receives donations from Fischberger's Variety Store, massage therapist Gretchen Peskie, Stern Pinball and Vegga's Pub.
Uptowner hosted a one-day pinball tournament during Center Street Daze in 2012 and later added two more machines, including the Attack from Mars machine that was in the North Avenue Classic Slice before it closed.
Blackbird Bar, 3007 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., has a pinball tournament on the first Sunday of every month. It's sponsored by the Milwaukee Brewing Company and hosted by Matt Koster.
"Blackbird has been the premier pinball bar in Milwaukee, starting out with two or three tables and now five well-maintained tables," says Koster. "It's a natural fit for a tournament."
Badura says Blackbird Bar co-owner Holly Doar was very supportive of her efforts and connected her to other pinball enthusiasts in the city. The Milwaukee Pinball Academy Facebook page is 142 members strong with some of the city's most skilled players.
"It's great to meet so many people who nerd out about pinball this sort of way," says Badura.
Badura also hosts a pinball tournament at Finks, 1875 N. Humboldt Ave., on the second Monday of every month at 7 p.m. This one's sponsored by Central Waters.
Each event averages around 14-20 players and offers drink specials.
"I'll confess, the first week we had the tournament I thought nobody would show, but lo and behold, there were 14 eager players waiting to play," says Koster, who started playing at the age of 10 at Imperial Lanes on 35th and Oklahoma. "I'm not a serious player, but I love that every game has it's quirks and highlights."
Badura was inspired to take her pinball hobby to an organized level in 2009 when she moved her best friend and frequent pinball partner to Seattle and met some people making a zine about Seattle's pinball culture called Skill Shot Zine.
She was very impressed by the zine's back page, which featured a list of places to play pinball. Badura decided she wanted to offer this information to pinball players in Milwaukee.
The Seattle zine founders, Brad Hayden and Gordon Ornelas, suggested Badura use their publication as a guide to create a Milwaukee version of Skill Shot.
"I took them up on this offer and am hoping to have Skill Shot MKE launched soon," she says. "Milwaukee should have a map. There are so many places to play and really great machines floating around town."
The zine will be available later this fall or in early winter at coffee shops, libraries, independent shops and places with pinball machines.
Aside from Uptowner, Fink's and Blackbird, Badura recommends playing at Landmark Lanes, 2220 N. Farwell Ave., Thurman's, 1731 N. Arlington Pl., and the Maytag Coin Laundry, 2009 E. Kenilworth Pl. Currently, Badura is focusing on locating pinball machines in places that are not in bars and therefore available to players of all ages.
"There are machines all over the city. It's an adventure finding them. Sometimes you end up in places you would not ordinarily find yourself because you're itching to get your hands on a machine you have not played in a while," says Badura.
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