KOKOMO, Ind. — At their height, the pings and bells of pinball machines could be heard in arcades and pizza parlors across the country, offering an afternoon escape for teenagers and a consistently profitable investment for store owners.
Unbeknownst to the two groups, their actions were illegal in many cities — including one in northern Indiana that is taking steps to reverse an arcane, unenforced law banning the amusement devices inside the city limits.
A recent city ordinance in Kokomo, passed on first reading last week by the Common Council, intends to repeal the “outdated” ban, likely as early as next week, according to the Kokomo, Indiana Tribune.
"There are, not just locally but even nationally and statewide, laws out there that have been on the books for years that are silly, are outdated, are no long relevant," said council member Steve Whikehart, who is sponsoring the ordinance.
According to Popular Mechanics magazine, pinball was outlawed in most large cities during World War II, due mainly to a perception that it was a game of chance, not skill, and thus was a form of gambling. Many of those bans remained in effect until the mid-1970s.
Kokomo’s ban, according to the ordinance under consideration now, was originally codified in 1975, but newspaper accounts indicate it could stretch back to 1955.
The ordinance gave the Kokomo Police Department the power to impound any machines still operating. It was deemed "unlawful for any person to operate, permit to be operated, or permit to be offered or available for operation, any pinball machine," as written in city records. A story published in the July 26, 1955 edition of the Kokomo Tribune said the machines “tend against peace and good order, encourage vice and immorality and constitute a nuisance."
At the time, the possible punishment to own or operate a pinball machine was a fine of up to $300 and six months in jail. There were reportedly more than 100 licensed pinball machines in the city.
Whikehart said that despite the peculiarity of passing an ordinance to legalize pinball, it is the council’s focus to eliminate unnecessary and inefficient city codes, effectively modernizing the city’s laws.
"It is one of those things that I think anybody who gets into public office, you have aspirations and oftentimes even delusions of grandeur, the things that you want to accomplish and the changes you want to make in the community," he said. "In this instance, it was one of those things that needed to be addressed."
In 1981, Kokomo began collecting license fees for amusement machines, or arcade games. The decision was quickly fought with a lawsuit filed by a number of amusement companies.
Included was Jeff Collins, owner of ACE Music, who remembers having to, for a time, pay the city $50 to move or rotate arcade games. He can’t believe, however, what he is now hearing about pinball machines.
When asked whether he found the fact that he’d technically been breaking the law for decades funny, he laughed and said, "I guess so. So has everybody else who’s been playing them. So has everybody else that’s got one, and man, I’ve sold a lot of pinball machines in Kokomo."
The Kokomo, Indiana Tribune contributed to this story.