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Pinball Fights to Survive in an 'Angry Birds' World

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's 10 p.m. on a Wednesday at The Sunburnt Calf, a popular Australian-themed pub in New York's Upper West Side neighborhood teeming with 20-somethings crammed around the bar and downing Fosters.

Upstairs, a crowd has gathered to shoot pool, while the blinking lights of a Star Wars pinball machine in the corner remain untouched by customers, the bumpers, flippers and shiny silver balls ignored.

The bar's manager, Tim Harris, said he installed the machine for aesthetic purposes, not as a money-making venture.

"People only play occasionally -- maybe two to three times a week," he said. "We put it in the bar because it looks great and is cool but it in the end it's an analog game in a digital world."

The story of pinball's deep decline is not a new one, as interest in other "old school" pastimes like board games and bowling has faded, replaced by video games and smartphone apps.

But for pinball lovers, the trend is a deeply sad one -- a slice of Americana on its last legs -- yet a tale that can hopefully at least partially be reversed.

The chips all fall on one man: Gary Stern, the president and owner of Stern Pinball in Chicago and the world's last remaining pinball manufacturer.

"Gary is really preserving an irreplaceable form of entertainment," said Josh Sharpe, the president of the International Flipper Pinball Association, a competitive pinball organization. "There's nothing that can fill pinball's void if it went away -- it really is unique."

Stern has been around pinball his entire life, having worked in the stockroom beginning at age 16 at Williams Electronic Games, one of the original pinball manufacturers.

His father was a game operator -- the owner of amusement games that licenses them out to bars or arcades -- in Philadelphia in the 1930s and eventually the founder of Stern Electronics, which later acquired half of the Williams business.

Pinball thrived throughout 1970s to the early 90s, a period which saw as many as 100,000 machines produced per year by five different companies.
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