The Addams Family Pinball: A Legend in its Own Time

(reprinted from PlayMeter Magazine, March 2002)

It's spooky and it's kooky and it's an award-winning game.

It's The Addams Family pinball, celebrating 10 years of popularity and long life in the field and on the Play Meter Equipment Poll. Not many games set records, at least not in recent history. One exception is a pinball that captured the imagination of the playing public from day one: The Addams Family pinball, themed to the campy cartoon characters made famous in The New Yorker Magazine and further immortalized in a '60s TV series and two big-screen movies in the '90s.

The design genius behind The Addams Family pinball and later The Addams Family Values redemption game was Pat Lawlor, a prolific pinball designer who was also responsible for a string of pinball hits: Banzai Run, Earthshaker, Whirlwind, Fun House, No Good Gofers, Road Show, Safecracker, and Twilight Zone in the Bally/Williams/Midway days. Lawlor started his own company in 2000, Pat Lawlor Design, in Harvard Ill., 65 miles northwest of Chicago.

Today his talents and expertise are apparent in Stern Pinball's Monopoly, a game his company designed "soup to nuts" including programming, art, and music, and then turned over to Stern for production. Pat Lawlor Design staff includes John Krutsch, mechanical designer on almost all of Lawlor's games, who also worked on The Addams Family; Louis Koziarz, programmer on Tales of the Arabian Nights and No Good Gofers; and Greg Dunlap, a former programmer at Williams. Consultants are used on a regular basis for music, sound, and art. Among them are Chris Granner, who has his own music and sound company, and John Youssi, an independent illustrator who did the artwork on most of Lawlor's pinball games.

"I was lucky," said Lawlor, referring to the large talent pool that became available when Williams closed its pinball division. "I couldn't see this talent leaving," he said. "Our industry needs these people." Lawlor said, "I'm really happy that we could go back to doing pinball and help bring it back from the abyss. And it looks like we did a good thing. Monopoly's long-term legs are holding. I pride myself on games that earn for a long time because that's what the operators need." He explained: "There are a lot of operators who know how hard it is to do this. The equipment does not magically appear. It takes a tremendous amount of skilled people to get any piece of equipment to make money. That's a tremendous feat. You're walking past something sitting there quietly and people are drawn over to put money in it. Amazing!"

What does Lawlor say to those who claim that pinball requires too much maintenance? "Tell me a business where you don't have to do a little work to earn money." said Lawlor. "In reality, the upkeep of these games is not that extensive. Those who operate pinball and make it part of their daily routine are rewarded; these games make money." Lawlor warms to the subject of pinball: "Our business is a cyclical industry. What is old becomes new again. Consider that in 1982 Bally declared pinball dead, went out of business, and closed its pinball division. How wrong could they have been? Just look at the following decade. We've just gone through a really low time for pinball and now sales are picking up and people are playing the game again. People see pinball and they smile."

He continued: "Pinball has an intrinsic resale value. In fact, the resale value of pinball games has never been higher. When figured into the equation of operating, when you move that piece of equipment on after operating it many years and still get back half and sometimes more than what you paid for it, what other piece of coin-op equipment can you do that with?"

Creating a legend

Lawlor was a regular viewer of "The Addams Family" TV series; it's fitting that he would design what could be called the best selling pinball of all time. As expected, Lawlor has a pinball collection that would be the envy of any collector since he has one of every game he designed, including a special gold edition of The Addams Family with serial #1 on a brass plaque.

According to Lawlor, the game designers at Williams were in charge of what they wanted to work on; it was a game designer-driven organization. When he heard about "The Addams Family" movie, as he put it: "I went crazy." At the time, the marketing department at Paramount Pictures told Lawlor what inspired the studio to do the movie: A survey produced a 95 percent hit rate for recognition when people listened to snapping fingers and "The Addams Family" theme music. The deal for The Addams Family pinball was made while the movie was being shot.

Lawlor had the script from the movie in his hands nine months before the movie's debut. "We took all the good stuff we could out of the script," he said. The design team attended the movie's opening in Hollywood. Lawlor said the movie opened with a box office of $55 million for the first week. "We took the pinball and ran with it." The Addams Family was a Bally game. Lawlor explained that Williams had purchased the Bally trade name to make pinball machines but had been unable to sell more than a few thousand of a model. There seemed to be a "spell" over the Bally name. Lawlor said, "After I did Fun House, which was a huge success, I was asked to do a Bally game. There was fear of the Bally name.

I said OK, but I had to be allowed to 'do my thing' with the game. Up until that time the Bally box was a different package than the Williams package. I changed that package to be the Williams package. I was told the company would be happy with 5,000 games sold and we sold more than 21,000!" The list of awards for The Addams Family is quite extensive. Play Meter presented the game with its operator-voted Award of Excellence for Best Pinball Machine of the Year for 1992 and 1993. The Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA) presented Best Pinball awards for '92, '93, '94, '95, and '97, plus a special award for the most innovative technology for the patented electronic self-flip flippers.

As Lawlor explained, Larry DeMar, the programmer for The Addams Family, wanted to do a feature where the flipper flipped by itself and shot the ball into the swamp on the game. The flipper got better and better. DeMar generated a piece of code that was able to modify the behavior of the flipper and it learned to perform this action and improve upon its performance. In The Addams Family, when Thing flips, the game is learning how to do this flip and does it better. The flippers made it look like Thing was flipping from under the playfield.

Lawlor noted that when the Terminator 2 pinball game came out it was called 'the game that came along once in a decade.' Well, it was followed by The Addams Family! After The Addams Family, the company alternated games under the Williams name and the Bally game. The Bally spell had been broken and designers did not know whether their next game would be a Bally game or a Williams game, depending on where it fell in the production cycle. "Everyone who worked on The Addams Family is still in a version of the game business somewhere," said Lawlor. "The talent that was at Williams in the decade of the '90s was staggering."

Lawlor has a theory about why all the great pinball companies in history were family-owned: "The industry has its ups and downs and families are willing to hang in because they love it and it's a craft. A big corporation can't do that." He continued, "Anyone in this business who designs something looks at that product like it is one of their children. You take a year to create this thing, put your own personality into it, and heaven forbid something should happen when you release it because it's like your child is misbehaving. You become attached to the games and they are important to you." Setting records Lawlor said the record in the modern era for the most pinball machines ever made was 20,230 for Eight Ball and its incarnations by Bally.

He noted, "In the first run of The Addams Family we produced in excess of that number. We broke the records. And six months later the company reissued the game as The Addams Family Gold and announced 1,000 serial numbered games made with gold trim and brass plaques. The day the late Joe Dillon made the announcement the games were sold out." (DeMar has the gold edition game with serial #2.) Lawlor estimates that approximately 21,250 The Addams Family pinball games are in existence. Roughly one third went overseas. A number of the games have been shipped back to the United States because the resale value is higher here, said Lawlor. The Addams Family first appeared on the Play Meter Equipment Poll in March 1992 and continues until today. By January 2002 it had garnered the highest number of longevity points for a pinball game (4,131 in January 2002), and until recently had the highest number of longevity points for any game on the chart (that record was broken in January when ICE's Cyclone redemption game reached 4,149 points).

Lawlor would be prime for the "You don't know me" line made famous in credit card commercials because when he travels and people ask about his line of work, all he has to say is, "You would know me from pinball machines. I designed The Addams Family" and everyone knows it. Lawlor commented, "They say, 'the game where the hand comes out!'" "The Addams Family was special because the people who built it were special, and that's not just me. I cannot begin to list all the games and products that this design team touched. Without this kind of talent there are no games and no money to be made by the guy on the street."

Lifetime love of games

Lawlor got an early introduction to the coin-op game business. His dad was a sales representative for Schlitz beer and brought young Pat along with him on Saturday business calls to taverns. Pat received dimes to play the games in the locations. His fascination with the games planted a creative seed for the future game designer. A self-taught programmer, Lawlor started in the amusement business in 1980 with Dave Nutting Associates, an R&D group that was part of Bally/Midway.

Lawlor said, "If you're that excited about doing something and you can teach yourself, you will probably be a more driven person." Lawlor continued video game programming until 1983, when, as he put it: "video collapsed." In 1985 he hooked up with DeMar and they designed the Banzai Run pinball for Williams in Lawlor's garage. After that, he was on a roll.

Lawlor receives e-mail from game collectors all over the world, the most recent one from The Netherlands asking about Fun House. "The Internet has made a global community out of anything you're interested in," said Lawlor. He sees the Internet as a tremendous advantage for operators: "With the Internet you can put games up for auction on eBay and make them available to a worldwide group of collectors. Look for used pinball machines on eBay on any given day and you will see what I mean."

Back to PLD Home