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Greatest Hits: Such A Supple Wrist

October 5, 2009

Since Blogger screwed up my original blog, making it impossible to search, I thought I’d re-post some old stuff over here. First one:

Mister Jalopy just found a flippin’ sweet near-mint Captain Fantastic pinball machine, a castoff that a neighbor had set out at the curb for the trashman. (We should all be so lucky!) Captain Fantastic is one of my favorite Bally electro-mechanical pinballs from the seventies, and a sister machine to my Wizard pinball, and both are, along with Fireball, in my all-time top three. All three machines feature artwork by the king of pinball artists, Dave Christensen.

Few outside the world of serious pinball maniacs would recognize Christensen’s name, but I consider him a major influence on my own work, despite the fact that I only learned his name less than a decade ago. I grew up in the seventies, and I can distinctly remember playing machines designed by Christensen, and being mesmerized by the blinking tableaus of lowbrow decadence, images filled with lots of in-jokes, eyeball kicks and a heaping helping of big-boobed sexy girls that tantalized my adolescent libido.

There’s not a lot of background info on Christensen on the internet, beyond some basic biographical stuff. (I did just order this book, which I found whilst Googling for this post!) Most of the artists of that era worked for the silkscreen company in Chicago (Ad Posters) that screened backglass and playfields for all the pinball companies, but Christensen started at Bally, writing operators manuals, before becoming an artist for the company. He ended up co-designing and providing artwork for some of the best pinballs of the era.

Like the rock star that he is, Christensen is best remembered for one of his earliest hits, Fireball. From 1972, Fireball is generally considered one of the best electro-mechanical pinballs ever, with features like zipper flippers, multiball play (a real novelty at the time) and a spinning rubber disc “Grabber”. While the linework isn’t as accomplished as his later work, already his trademarks are evident, with sophisticated hand lettering on the playfield, a brilliant color scheme, and a detailed belt buckle worn by the blazing demon on the backglass. Bally tried to make lightning strike twice with Fireball II, but it was an early victim of the pinball malaise of the post-Pac Man era, and sadly not as good as the original.

Fireball was a huge success at the time, and Christensen became Bally’s star artist. All through the seventies, Christensen created a series of beautiful machines, all the while developing his idiosyncratic style with pinballs like Monte Carlo, Bon Voyage, Ro Go, Twin Win, Air Aces, Old Chicago, and on and on. Christensen’s deft handling of celebrity likenesses meant he also produced art for several cool licensed machines as well, beginning with Capt. Fantasic & Wizard, both created to as a tie-in with the film version of The Who’s Tommy. Christensen did machines for Dolly Parton, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Bobby Orr’s Power Play, a machine I remember fondly, having shoved endless quarters into it at a local bowling alley, when I was a mere pup.

Another favorite of mine as a kid, that I hope to eventually add to my collection, is Voltan Escapes Cosmic Doom. From 1978, it’s a full-blown work of mature genius from Christensen, here at the height of his powers. The backglass is unbelieveably baroque, evoking old Republic serials, classic sci-fi pulp illustrations, and the airbrushed faux-Frazetta van murals of the era, combined with a wink of camp, and oozing sleazy sex appeal. Just Fucking Awesome. Despite my prejudice against digital scoring, I would buy this one in a heartbeat.

One last thing, a few years ago, a private collector commissioned Christensen to do a backglass for an X-Rated Pinball, called Big Dick. The NSFW image can be seen here. I’m happy to report that I have this backglass in my collection!

Update. I recently participated in an art show dedicated to the art of Mr. Christensen, and loaned out my Wizard and Fireball pinballs for the show.

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