When I first heard the story, I thought it was an urban legend. Like Mikey's stomach, infused with a deadly cocktail of Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola. Or Walt Disney's frozen body awaiting a return to a perfect future world.
Always affable, nearly famous Todd Tuckey has a way of making anything sound like an urban legend when he talks. The owner of TNT Amusements achieved a sort of notoriety in Pennsylvania with his late-night, phlegmatic, never-ending ads for refurbished video game machines in the early 2000s. A fact he pointed out within minutes of getting on the phone with me.
I was working on a story about buying refurbed game machines and he was my source. After working through the particulars, Tuckey interrupted my wrap-up by asking if I wanted to hear a real story.
The tale he told, heard from the friend of a collector, was about a fabled pinball machine, a dream machine that was never manufactured, its design thought lost forever. But then in 2000, Tuckey said, a real estate magnate stumbled across a stash of design documents for the pinball table in the back of an old warehouse he had just purchased.
It was pure, blind luck, Tuckey said.
Lacking any experience in pinball, the story went, this guy who had never built a pinball machine, or any machine before, convinced a few hundred people to invest money in his attempt to recreate the pinball. And over the next five years, as hope for the machine faded and the money man disappeared, this collective of potential owners began to argue among themselves, buying and trading the rights to their owed machines.
They even had a shared motto about when they would see the machine or their money again: "When pigs fly."
Then the inconceivable happened: Pigs flew. The machine, a collector's item made from scattered parts and fueled by grit and dreams, was completed and shipped to the investors and was better than anyone imagined.
That was the story of Capcom's Big Bang Bar pinball, or at least the one I heard that day back in 2007.
I later discovered that much of the yarn's minutia was wrong. But it was not because its more unbelievable elements were crafted of pure fiction but rather because the drama and impossibility of the feat didn't do the true story justice.
Big Bang Bar's creation is a story of pinball's near death, of one man's attempt to become a piece of pinball history, of bankruptcy, of obsession, of short-lived redemption and personal disaster.
Big Bang Bar was as much, maybe more, a product of Chicago as it was Capcom's creation. To understand why, you need to understand how Chicago became the bedrock upon which pinball was built.
Although pinball traces its distant ancestry back to France during the reign of Louis XIV and the 1871 patent of the plunger by a British inventor named Montague Redgrave in Cincinnati, Ohio, the game's heart and soul is deeply rooted in Chicago's 1830s rise as a Midwest metropolis.
Coin-operated games using Redgrave's plunger, known as bagatelle or billard japonais and similar to pachinko games, were already popular across the country in the early 1900s, but they hadn't yet become a smash hit. At least not until 1931 when David Gottlieb started producing a game called Baffle Ball at his manufacturing plant located about 10 miles from the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan.
By the end of 1932, there were more than 100 pinball manufacturers in the U.S., most of them in Chicago, firmly solidifying the Windy City as the home to pinball.
By the '70s, pinball machines looked much like they do today with plungers, flippers, bumpers, digital displays and a host of solid-state electronics controlling it all. The decade was even home to two pinball films: 1975’s Tommy and 1979's "Tilt."
But it was the golden age of arcades in the mid-80s, awash in the "I want my MTV" generation of parachute pants-wearing, Jackson-loving, quarter-popping teens, which set the stage for pinball's greatest rise and a stark collapse into near oblivion.
The pinball industry first rocketed to the heights of culture-shaping popularity in the '80s. Then, with the opening of the '90s, that success staggered and began to teeter on the precipice of a financial freefall. And it was then that Capcom decided to build a studio devoted to pinball machines.
A number of people with first-hand knowledge of those early Capcom Coin-Op days said they still weren't entirely sure why the Japanese-based company decided to invest in pinball. Several people told Polygon they were contacted by the company back in the '90s for advice, and all of those people — highly placed in the world of pinball design and creation — told the company it was a bad idea.
But Capcom did it anyway and its effort lasted just 18 months.
"The guy who convinced Capcom to get into the pinball business didn't really know what they didn't know," said George Gomez, who is currently the vice president of game development at Stern Pinball, but who at the time was designing pinball machines at Williams. "They didn't understand the business."
The company first got involved in pinball through a Chicago game studio known as GameStar in 1994, but by the summer of 1995, Capcom took over the operation and used it to established Capcom Coin-Op in Chicago.
"They had decided in Japan to do this, probably looking at Data East's success in pinball," Stern Pinball head Gary Stern said. "They hired a lot of Williams' people. Whether they were unsuccessful because of their own practices or because the market had blipped and they missed the high point, I don't know."
Capcom's step into the pinball world was complicated by the fact that it headhunted a core group of people from Williams. And in retaliation, Gomez said, Williams "basically sued everybody." That meant that Capcom, worried about falling afoul of the flow of lawsuits over even the most straightforward of pinball designs used at Williams, had to essentially reinvent everything from the flipper to the bumper. That slowed the development process of Capcom's initial tables and made the costs go through the roof, Gomez said.
"They had to turn on the money faucet, and they were spending a lot of money before they were going to get anything back," he said.
While an established company like Williams could afford a misstep or two, Capcom Coin-Op, hemorrhaging cash from the get-go, had to make sure every one of its tables were hits.
"But nobody gets it right 100 percent of the time," Gomez said. "Capcom closing didn't surprise me. I saw the games they were making and how they were struggling to sell them. I knew it was just a matter of time."
But before it shut its doors, the company managed to create something that would become nearly mythical in pinball collecting circles: Big Bang Bar.
And had it not been for Gene Cunningham, a Midwest octogenarian, warehouse mogul and skating rink owner who became obsessed with not just buying the hard-to-find table but recreating it, few outside the defunct company would have ever had a chance to play it.
Unfortunately, the effort cost Cunningham dearly.
After spending months trying to track down Gene Cunningham over the phone and computer, researching his life and trying to piece together how he found himself in possession of Capcom's pinball rights and then seemingly lost not just those rights but everything, I decided it was time for a trip.
Flying into Chicago on a Friday, I spent an evening walking through the packed work floors of Stern Pinball, watching a dedicated team of men and women thread, strip and crimp bundles of wires, press colorful and waxed playfields with lights and assemble toys as they hand-constructed pinball tables.
It was a complicated process that required space, time, money, but most of all, experience.
Saturday morning, I woke early, hopped in a rental car and drove more than two hours to Bloomington. The trip down Interstate 55 is a journey from Midwest urbanity into the country's heart of middle America, a trip past corn fields and wide-open spaces dotted with tiny towns, a straight-as-a-razer drive on two lanes that rarely requires a shift of the steering wheel.
Unanswered emails and phone calls made this a necessary trip to speak to Cunningham. But first, I wanted to check out the place where Cunningham first discovered pinball, the skating rink that he owned for decades before losing it to a bankruptcy sale.
The Bloomington, Ill. Skate 'n' Place is almost anachronistic, it so firmly grips to the '80s.
Past the doughy-soft asphalt of the recently resurfaced parking lot and through the front door, visitors find the neon-meets-disco-ball lighting and urethane rollerboard flooring of a skating rink that seems plucked from 1984.
There's the skate rental counter, dutifully guarded by a bored teenager flanked by interested, but not too interested, girls of his age on roller skates. There's the seemingly always empty pro shop packed with pastel-colored roller skates mounted to a faux wood panel. Over in the back corner is a makeshift arcade, a cinder-blocked cubby packed with dated gaming machines, both video and pinball. And in the center of it all, huge in its presence, are the shiny wooden planks of the rink, lightly dotted with circling, smiling, occasionally giggling children and teens. The entire scene is bathed in the almost visible bass of overamplified music.
Occasionally the music is punctured with the sound of someone talking over an intercom, perhaps announcing something, but I really can't make it out. Instead all I hear is a familiar patter and then, once more, the pure white noise of music.
Tim Overholser has the look of a man caring for an antique car or beloved pet as he first crouches down to examine a quarter-operated pool table and then stalks to the skate rental counter to make sure things are running smoothly. It's clear that this is more than just a business to him.
Overholser wears a slightly faded, black polo shirt embroidered with the name of his place under a stylized picture of a roller skate and cluster of stars. The black and white ballcap tucked firmly down on his broad brow shares the same image.
When I ask him if we can talk about Gene Cunningham, a look passes over his face of slight irritation and concern for a moment before he tells me that we better go back to his office.
Cunningham opened the skating rink back in 1973 and it quickly became a hangout for local children. Overholser tells me he was eight when his mother started bringing him to the place. By the time he was 13, he says, he was a great skater and he started working for Cunningham, a man who steadily became a father figure to Overholser, a child of a single mom.
"I was a skate guard," he says. "I worked the skate check counter, DJ. I've done pretty much everything here."
In 1988, Overholser decided to buy the business from Cunningham and signed a contract that had him paying rent and giving money toward ownership, Overholser says.
Over the next five years, Overholser says he spent all of his time running the place, it became his life and the people who came to skate, his family. He even met his wife at the skate rink.
"I was working here at this skate check counter and she came up and inquired about wheels for her skates," he tells me, smiling. "I went ahead and sold her a pair of wheels for her skates. She kept coming up every few minutes saying they needed adjustments. But they really didn't. It was just her way of coming to talk to me, so that's kind of how we met."
While the skating rink was Overholser's passion, he says, for Cunningham it was simply a business.
"The one thing about this place is I'm passionate about roller skating. I have kids who are passionate about roller skating. They are here when I open the door, every session," he says. "I can see that passion in a kid a mile away. That was me. I was one of those kids, I was one of those kids who had to live here all the time. It was my second home. Sometimes it was my first home. The difference between me and Gene is he was just passionate about the money, the business."
But after Overholser took over the skating rink, things between he and Cunningham began to break down. Cunningham, Overholser says, would drag his feet on repairs he was obligated to make and it was hurting the business. The relationship between the two, which had once been akin to father and son, became rocky and, eventually, Overholser says he couldn't take it anymore.
"At the end of 1993, I walked away from it for over 21 years," he says. He sold the business back to Cunningham at a loss, and Overholser says he was so disgusted in the entire affair he moved out of his hometown.
"At the time I just needed to get out of the area," he says. "I thought about this place everyday."
Then in 2014, Overholser started getting phone calls. It was the bank that owned the mortgage on the rink. The place had recently closed due to Cunningham running into financial trouble and declaring bankruptcy. The bank needed someone to come in and get the place up and running again, get the lights and heat on.
"I told them I'd walked away from it 21 years ago and, provided that nothing much had changed, I could probably come and help," he says. "My wife and I came in that night. Within 30 seconds of walking in the door, I had everything turned on for them. Nothing had changed that much. We looked over the entire building and negotiations started at that point, and they said, 'Would you be open to the idea [of buying the rink]?"
While neither he nor his wife had been thinking about buying a business, they both had a lot of history at the rink.
"It was more about saving it," Overholser says. "We'd met here 30 years ago. Obviously we had a history here. There's lots of memories here, not just for us but for all the kids and the adults who have grown up in this place since 1973."
Overholser and his wife ended up buying the place, and the warehouse next door, at an auction and then spent nearly $150,000 and six weeks fixing up and modernizing the rink.
"I lived here night and day," he says.
Overholser was a wealth of knowledge about Cunningham in the '70s, '80s and early '90s, but, he says, Cunningham didn't really get into pinball until sometime after 1993, when Overholser sold the place back to him.
I thank Overholser, but before I can leave, he says there's one more thing I should probably see.
The warehouse next to the skating rink is run down and falling apart. The wall facing the rink has been painted up with old cartoon characters, but everything else about the place looks dangerous it's so rundown. Overholser walks me around to the front of the building and its two glass doors.
When Cunningham started to sink into bankruptcy, he started losing all of his warehouses, Overholser says. This derelict building became the final resting place of Cunningham's pinball parts business. Illinois Pin Ball, he says.
Inside the front doors are signs of the warehouse's last ties to Cunningham.
There's an empty glass display case with remnants of pinball parts scattered across its glass top. Next to it stands an old Pac-Man machine and a Sega driving game. The only pinball machine in the place is a Flash table, its power cord wrapped around the backbox, a dusty circuit board resting on the playfield glass.
But that's not what Overholser wants to show me. He takes me back into the depths of the building, into the dank darkness of the cement-floored warehouse. Up against a back wall stands an odd little construction, something obviously built by hand to serve some sort of specific purpose. It has a very low roof, perhaps seven feet off the ground. The rectangular box is missing one wall and the other is broken up by a series of metal squares, each maybe a foot across. Overholser smiles at me.
"Do you know what that is?"
I walk around it but can't, for the life of me, figure it out.
"This is where they painted the Big Bang Bar cabinets," he says.
Overholser walks me out to the parking lot, but instead of heading back to the rink he takes a few broad strides to the side of the road, right next to the entrance to the lot. He points down the highway to a road not too far off. The massive new sign for the skating rink slips quietly between ads as Overholser speaks.
"You see that house?" he says. "He's just down that road. Maybe five minutes."
I thank him, walk back to my rental car and prepare for the short ride to Cunningham's house.
Big Bang Bar
Biker Babes from Mars, Planet Mars, illustrations of aliens ripping astronauts apart and an underground extraterrestrial city: Before it was Big Bang Bar, the now legendary pinball table started out as a single concept that spurred a lot of very different ideas.
The early overload of concepts was driven by the unique approach the game's lead designer, Rob Morrison, was taking for creating the game.
Instead of developing and evolving the game on his own in the more traditional way of creating pinball machines, Morrison opened up the process to the entire team of people, like sound designer Jeff Powell and artist Stan Fukuoka.
"I did what seems like hundreds of comps, playing with different layouts and characters to make sure I did all I could to realize the game's potential," Fukuoka told me.
His concept art seems to back that claim up. An early hand-drawn image shows a giant, spiked monster looming over two men in space suits. Another shows a space-suited man and woman being grabbed by aliens with massive heads. In a third, three women on hoverbikes fill the page with the words "Biker Babes from Mars" hovering above them. And finally, there's a shot of a space canteen packed with a mix of aliens drinking, playing future video games and watching a dancer cavort in a liquid-filled tube.
Fukuoka said that Morrison's original idea for a space-themed game was spurred by his creation of a mechanical arm that would lift and move the ball across the playfield, something he thought could drive a lot of attention to a machine placed in a bar.
Eventually the team settled on a space bar concept and set to work.
The table was Morrison's first solo project and also the first machine that Powell and Fukuoka worked on without the guiding hand of mentors or more experienced co-workers — something that seemed to help with the game's inspired design.
When Powell came to Big Bang Bar, the game had just settled on its theme and mood, which was starting to take shape through Fukuoka's art.
Where once he had focused on aliens and space babes, the new artwork centered on putting a player inside an outer space bar. The backglass picture, which faces anyone playing the game and is home to things like the display and score, shows a woman in red smiling directly out at the player, a pair of futuristic sunglasses pulled down from her eyes. Behind the woman is a scene of riotous drinking and cavorting, a barman who is all grinning teeth, and go-go dancers suspended in tubes. The whole scene is bathed in pastel blues and greens, a stark contrast from the blacks and reds of traditional pinball machines.
Fukuoka said, once the theme became a party in outer space, his vision began to come into focus.
"The challenge for me was to convey that message when someone first sees the backglass," he said. "I wanted the background to be dark, like a nightclub or space, but also bright colors to convey the overall mood and fun of the game."
As the team worked through the designs, the table took shape; a punishingly hard pinball machine that is as fun to play as it is to watch others play.
"Rob had so many ideas that he couldn't incorporate everything into it," Powell said. "He basically threw the kitchen sink at the machine."
By June, 1996, there were about 14 prototypes of the machine created, some of which were dropped in nearby locations for live testing. And the results were overwhelmingly positive. People seemed to love the game.
But Capcom was growing increasingly impatient with the expensive pinball division. They wanted it to make money on a blockbuster.
In a fit of what some described to me as desperation, the company decided to push Big Bang Bar's release back, worried that a pinball table with a completely new science fiction IP wouldn't draw in the sort of audience that Capcom needed from its next table.
"Just before Big Bang Bar was ready to be manufactured, we had a bunch of German arcade owners come in," Powell said. "They saw Flipper Football, which had a soccer theme and soccer scoring, and they went nuts over it.
"Capcom jumped at that and pushed it forward. They thought that it would be a hit in Europe and save the company."
In November, Capcom brought both games to the Chicago Pinball Expo, the largest gathering of new pinball machines in the world.
Big Bang Bar pulled in crowds who stood in line for a chance to play the game. Flipper Football was mostly ignored.
It was an obvious sign of what Capcom had to do to survive. But it came too late. So the company shipped Flipper Football into a void of hype.
Less than a month later, Capcom shut down its Chicago pinball division, mothballing both the completed Big Bang Bar without shipping a single unit and the still-in-development Kingpin.
The closing wasn't exactly a surprise to those at the studio, but there was a sense of desperate potential that perhaps if they worked hard enough, fast enough, they could get just one more machine out the door.
"We had the thing finished and ready to go," Powell said. "We had prototypes out in bars and arcades. The artwork was done, everything was done. It was a complete machine.
"I put a year of work into that and then to not have it get out was just kind of crushingly frustrating."
As the studio shut down, many of those working at Capcom purchased the surviving baker's dozen of Big Bang Bar machines (one was lost to a fire) at cost. It seemed that the future of the pinball table would be lost to a group of dedicated employees and their homes.
But that changed three years later, thanks to Cunningham.
Everyone seems to have a different description of Gene Cunningham. To some, he was a collector and a dreamer. To others, he was a nut. Or something between a conman and a businessman. A man who did the impossible, the inconceivable, the ill-advised.
And now, to many, he's vanished. Gone from the pinball trade shows that were once his familiar haunt. Gone from the skating rink he once ran. Gone from the pinball parts company he once ran out of an old warehouse and beat-up truck.
In talking to those who knew Cunningham, befriended him, worked with him or felt they were betrayed by him, it becomes clear they do all agree on one thing about Cunningham: With little experience, not a lot of help and no likely chance at success, Cunningham promised the impossible and then delivered.
But Cunningham's dream of recreating Big Bang Bar didn't go smoothly, not by a long shot.
His first hurdle was significant. He needed Capcom, a Japanese-based company with a penchant for clinging to its properties and a long history in game development, to sell this real estate man and skating rink owner its rights to its pinball creations.
It turns out that in 2000, that wasn't as big a challenge as everyone thought.
"It wasn't like anyone was beating down the door for the stuff," said Stern's George Gomez. "It was a deal that didn't hurt them, and eventually the rights were going to revert back to them."
Gary Flower, pinball historian and author of "Pinball: The Lure of the Silver Ball," said Capcom at the time had been quietly shopping around the remnants of its pinball business, which included rights and parts to its machines.
"Gene got wind they were up for grabs and drove across the country to buy them," Flower said.
While some believe Cunningham's interest was purely in Big Bang Bar, Flower and others say he had long wanted to get into the business of pinball creation with one of the then defunct companies. That included, at the time, Capcom, Williams and Bally.
Big Bang Bar just happened to be his first successful run.
By 2004, four years after buying the rights to Capcom's pinball machines and Williams' pinball parts, Cunningham was hitting up pinball expos, telling people they could buy into a future Big Bang Bar with a deposit down on what would be a $4,500 machine.
Cunningham announced the remake in October at the 2004 Pinball Expo in Chicago during a wide-ranging talk about his company, Illinois Pin Ball, which up to then mostly sold parts to pinball owners.
Ever the showman, Cunningham unveiled an original Big Bang Bar he purchased from a collector and announced that he would be creating and selling remakes.
"There [are] going to be 111 machines made," he told the audience. "The first machine will be mine. The first 10 will be prototypes.
"Machine number 01 will be plated with pure gold, $2,000 worth of gold in the sidebars, legs, feet bolts. It will sell for $12,000, and it's already spoken for."
The rest of the first 10, he told the crowd, would each have a plaque with the number of the machine, the name of the original buyer and a saying.
He told the gathered enthusiasts that he wouldn't start the process until he had received at least 55 preorders.
By the end of the four-day show, 121 people had already registered to buy a machine. A month later, he sent out letters asking for a 50 percent deposit on the machines.
Despite the interest and the deposits, there was a lot of doubt among the people who worked on the original machine at Capcom.
"I heard through the grapevine that Gene Cunningham had bought up the parts," Jeff Powell said. "Everyone was skeptical. No one knew for sure if he had the rights to do it.
"But somehow he had gotten the dumpstered drawings and everything. We were all skeptical. 'Is he really going to do it?'"
Mark Ritchie said he thought it was kind of crazy when he first heard about it.
"I thought only a nut would do that," he said. "There's nothing easy about pinball, about producing them. It's a lot of work, tons of people, tons of time.
"How is that guy going to make this in some Illinois shithole?"
It was true that Cunningham didn't have a plant for assembling the pinball machines, but he had plenty of warehouses sprinkled around Bloomington, including one next to his skating rink.
The process of making a pinball machine typically requires an assembly line and workers with the skill and experience threading wires into the bundled packs that then have to be crimped, tested and eventually connected to the back of the playfield and the circuit board that runs the game.
In the case of Big Bang Bar, Gene already had the circuit boards and some parts, but he had to figure out the rest and then assemble it all.
On top of the possibility of the whole thing falling apart, the asking price for the table was higher than usual. A new Stern pinball machine straight from the factory cost less than what Cunningham was asking.
Despite the naysayers and the challenges, production got underway shortly after Cunningham collected the deposits. When June 2005 rolled around, the tables were still being assembled. Cunningham told his then roughly 180 investors that he needed the rest of the money, but that he also still didn't know when the machines would be done.
As 2006 approached, some of those who had paid for a table began selling their pre-purchase off to other collectors. Rumors began to swirl that the money was gone and the tables would never ship.
And then they did.
First, European buyers received their machines in a sort of last minute rush. In July 2006, new legislation was going into place that would have made shipping the machines, which contained solder that included lead, into Europe impossible.
Despite getting that first batch out just under the prohibition line, the rest of the owners didn't receive theirs until a year later in the summer of 2007.
Big Bang Bar's launch day kicked off with a party at Cunningham's Illinois Pin Ball in Bloomington. Many of the people involved in creating the original game came out to chat with the new owners and autograph art or tables. There were balloons, a "happy birthday" banner and even a cake.
It was a sheet cake frosted in white, framed in ribbons of blue icing and topped with a picture of Cunningham playing Big Bang Bar under the words "Congratulations Gene."
A table in front of one of the warehouse doors was packed with T-shirts, art, hats and other bits of merchandise. Inside the warehouse were rows upon rows of massive cardboard boxes, each one sitting on its own palette.
There were even a few of the machines set up outside for people to play, before going home with their own.
Dale Stevens, a U.S. Air Force research engineer, was one of those lucky new owners. Number 174.
He said he stumbled across Big Bang Bar on an old newsgroup called rec.games.pinball. He was scanning it one day and noticed someone talking about Cunningham building a new pinball company from the "ashes of Capcom."
"I contacted Gene and Illinois Pin Ball and received a letter back from his wife with instructions," Stevens said. "I eventually sent in my deposit and kind of kept quiet about it."
Like seemingly all of the people who bought into the chance to own one of the machines, Stevens was very happy with the outcome.
After the relative success of Big Bang Bar, Cunningham thought he'd give it another try.
Over the next six years, Cunningham tried to once more to bring a pinball table back from the dead. First he tried with another unreleased Capcom classic: Kingpin. Then with a Williams' title called Wizard Blocks.
Neither came together, and in the spring of 2013, Cunningham filed for bankruptcy; his money, his pinballs, perhaps his legacy lost in the convolutions of a contentious three-year bankruptcy case.
While Gene Cunningham delivered on his promise to ship all of the more than 180 Big Bang Bar machines all over the world, to fans of his seemingly impossible project, it cost him dearly.
Many believe Cunningham lost money on each of the machines he assembled and sent out. It's unclear how directly that impacted his life, but within two years, Cunningham was fighting to save his business and home from bankruptcy.
In 2009, as he fought to keep from bank foreclosures, he entered into an agreement with a Georgia-based pinball company to sell off Illinois Pin Ball and its inventory for just under $1 million. Instead the deal soured, kicking off nearly three years of arguments, claims of theft, deals, counter-deals and finally two lawsuits.
Reading through the voluminous court filings in the case, it appears that verbal agreements and a third company caused mayhem with the deal. The whole mess was made worse by Cunningham's urgent need for cash to fend off the banks.
Ultimately, companies in Australia and Georgia both paid Cunningham some, but not all, of the money promised, and Cunningham delivered some, but not all, of the goods. The deals and counter-deals were laced with threats and arguments, and at some point Cunningham simply started to sell some of the parts others said he already sold to them.
Buoyed temporarily by the infusion of cash, Cunningham started making the rounds at pinball shows again, trying to sell off parts for a variety of pinball machines. But eventually it all came apart and the money seemingly ran out in 2013.
On March 1, 2013 Cunningham held a massive warehouse sale in which he cleared out most of his pinball goods, including a golden Big Bang Bar. Then, 28 days later, he filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection along with his wife, Georgianne.
Things were proceeding through the typical process of bankruptcy until the court-appointed trustee sat Cunningham down to walk him through the details of the case and it became clear that Cunningham hadn't been exactly forthright when he filed, according to court documents.
The trustee discovered that Cunningham had left out quite a number of details when filing, including the transfer of 20 pieces of real estate, the ownership of vehicles, office equipment, commercial workout equipment and pinball parts. He also, according to court records, seriously undervalued his possessions, listing the total value at $80,000 while carrying an insurance policy on his personal property for $1.1 million.
The biggest issue, though, was that Cunningham failed to mention the warehouse sale he held just weeks before filing bankruptcy.
The trustee saw the failure to disclose all of this as deliberate and told the court Cunningham wasn't making a good faith effort to clear up his debts. The court agreed, and on June 25, 2014, the case was converted from a voluntary chapter 11 to a chapter 7.
By then, much of what Cunningham owned was already gone.
In June 2013, an auction cleared out the contents of the skating rink where he learned to love pinball.
After his filing became a chapter 7 case, the sell-off of Cunningham's life quickened. In June 2014, Planetary Pinball Supply bought much of what remained of Illinois Pin Ball.
An Aug. 26, 2016 filing offers a glimpse into the steady drip feed of cash to Cunningham's mountain of debtors. In all, 25 pages of columns showing sell-offs, deposits and disbursements to credit card companies, people owed unpaid wages, the IRS. More than $300,000 paid out in one filing.
One month later, the case, documenting over 414 court filings running from a single page to dozens of pages each, finally closed.
After a short drive from the skating rink to a rural neighborhood, I park my rental car under the bowed limbs of some unidentifiable trees, just short of a run of train tracks that look like they might still be in use. Gene Cunningham's house sits back a bit from the road, but not so far back someone couldn't clearly see me walking straight toward his door.
The front yard is home to a massive dish antenna; the huge side yard is dotted with a variety of playground equipment like a wooden swing set, a massive half-buried tractor tire, a tiny castle, picnic benches and a fort with a slide. There's also a moss-covered pond.
The front door, I discover as I walk closer, doesn't look used. I decide the side door is probably the best choice.
As I approach it, I catch my first glimpse of the back of the house. Where one might put a yard, Cunningham has placed what used to be a massive warehouse. Now it's just a pile of blackened rubble, curled beams and folded-over sheet metal.
The obvious fire damage looks fresh. I notice a dangle of wire snaking through the debris and leading up to a beaten-up truck next to the wreckage. The cable dangles limply from under the lifted hood of the vehicle.
Then I'm at the door and knocking. No time to think about fires or trucks.
My first attempt to talk with Cunningham wasn't an unannounced visit to his home, halfway across the country. It started with calls to his attorney and the U.S. Attorney's Office. Then, after tracking down his phone number, calls to his house. Most were unanswered, but I talked a few times to someone that I can only assume is his wife, Georgianne. Every time, I left a message for Gene. Told her what I wanted to talk about, what I hoped to achieve. Every time, she said she'd let him know. He never called back or came to the phone.
So it came down to this final Hail Mary: showing up at the house and asking in person, nicely, if we could sit down and talk.
I knew my chances weren't good, that it would be unlikely anyone would want to pick through the wreckage of their life with a stranger. But I gave it a try anyway.
After a long pause, after my knock, the door shuddered slightly and then opened. It was Georgianne looking slightly confused, maybe slightly alarmed, asking me who I was, what I wanted, why I was here at her front door.
I told her the same story I had on the phone. In the background I caught a glimpse of someone, likely Gene, standing in the shadows. I heard him asking who it was, what they wanted. Georgianne turned and talked for a few seconds, then turned back to me.
"Have a seat," she says. "He'll be out in a minute."
And the door closed.
We sit inside a small enclosed patio at a round glass table in slightly aged swivel patio chairs. Gene Cunningham is wearing a blue and white striped polo shirt, his white hair combed straight back from his forehead. He shows some of the wear of his recent struggles in his face, but his eyes are sharp, piercing and brook no platitudes. He wants to get straight to it.
Cunningham's interest in pinball started when he was a kid, he says, but it didn't become a serious thing until he owned the skating rink.
Like a lot of rinks, Cunningham had a company providing games for his business. One day, the vending machine people came out to switch out a few of the games and he asked them what they'd be doing with the pinballs they were taking out. They said they would fix them up and sell them.
"I said, 'Well just take them to my house,'" he tells me. "Next thing they did was take the jukebox. I said the same thing, 'Bring the jukebox to my house.' So I had two pinball machines and a jukebox. That went on. Every time they would change one, I would buy it or go over to their shop and buy it, so I got up to six or seven of them. I don't remember the exact count."
Over time, Cunningham began to develop particular tastes in pinball and soon found himself collecting them, then attending auctions, first in Indianapolis and then all over the country.
As he attended first auctions and later conventions, his knowledge of pinball machines grew until one day he stumbled across the story of Big Bang Bar.
"I knew where one game was," he says. "I went and played it and I liked it, so I looked around and the people who had it wouldn't sell it."
He gave up on the idea, at least for then, and continued to collect machines. Soon he had hundreds.
Pinball historian Flower would later tell me about how he once visited one of Cunningham's warehouses.
"I knew Gene as someone who had amassed a large number of pinball machines," Flower said. "He would buy them and put them in storage.
"When I visited him, he had 1,000 games, but very few of them were in working condition. They were just set up on legs. There were rows upon rows of them.
"I don't think you could even walk between them."
The more machines Cunningham bought, the more he thought about getting into the business. Then, one day, he heard that Capcom, which by now had shut down its pinball business, was looking around for a buyer. Cunningham was so electrified by the idea of buying up the company he hopped into one of his big box trucks and drove his way down to California and Capcom, unannounced.
He said when he got there, he was the only one interested in buying. He bought the parts they had, any machines and, most importantly, the rights to the machines the pinball division had created, including rights to Big Bang Bar and Kingpin, both games that were never sold.
"I took it all, just loaded it up right then," he says.
Cunningham was so excited about closing the deal that he didn't think to weigh what he was loading into his truck and, while heading through the Nevada mountains on his way home, his truck's transmission went out.
He ended up getting towed to Reno where he had to wait for parts. The next transmission lasted just long enough to get him to a little town called Elkhorn, Nev. before it gave out.
"It caught on fire, burned my pants and my clothes," he says. "I got out and luckily two truckers came by with their fire extinguishers and put out the fire. So I'm sitting there waiting for another tow truck that took me in the direction I was headed to the next town. I looked around and got another truck and then I loaded everything by hand, from the one truck to the other truck and trailer, and got home with it."
Once he had the purchase at home, he starting selling parts for the Capcom pinballs. Soon he started hearing from people who were looking for Big Bang Bar parts.
The requests got him thinking about that machine again and he started hunting around for one to try.
"I finally found one up in a little town in northern Illinois," he says. "There was a professor who had it in his basement, and I went and played it and asked if he wanted to sell it. And he didn't want to sell it. He liked it too much."
Cunningham eventually convinced the professor to sell.
He says he believes he ended up paying about $18,000 for the machine, then rushed it back home to spend more time with it.
The more he looked into the machine and its history, the more he asked about it online, the more he realized that there was a genuine interest by aficionados to get their hands on the machine, he tells me.
After digging around through the stock he purchased, Cunningham discovered that he had a decent collection of the game's parts, including circuit boards. So he started talking to some other friends about the possibility of using the parts to reproduce the game himself.
Finally settling into the idea, Cunningham attended an expo in 2004 and told the gathered collectors his plans. He just needed a deposit from enough people to show interest. By the end of the show, he says he had orders from 110 people.
To recreate the machine, Cunningham had to rely on the circuit boards he picked up from Capcom. Those were, he tells me, the things he couldn't get remade.
For the rest, he used parts he had and recreated others. To do that, he took the machine he purchased and tore it apart.
"We measured everything," he says. "We copied the artwork."
Next, Cunningham went about tracking down most of the original part creators for the machine. Often companies will use other manufacturers to create parts for a pinball machine. Cunningham was able to find many of them and get them to recreate the originals for his new table.
While the process seemed to be fraught with obstacles, Cunningham went into the details of just one of them: the dancing girl.
The back of Big Bang Bar's playfield is occupied, in part, by a big, plastic, see-through tube. Inside the tube is what appears to be either a nude or bikini-clad dancing girl. But Cunningham couldn't figure out how to recreate the showpiece toy or where they were made.
The problem was that he needed the original cast to make a mold of the figure, which could then be used to create the rubber figures.
"I looked around and around and I couldn't find anybody," he says as he pulls out the figure from a pocket. "I don't remember the name of the company, but I found one that made toys. So I took the one out of my machine, the green one like this; this might even be the original one I took with me. I don't know. Because, see, she danced; she wiggled. So I went to different companies. 'No we can't do that.' So I went to another toy company. Finally the third toy company I went to, I sat at the guy's desk and I said, 'I understand you make molds' and I showed him one like this in the green. And I said, 'I want to make these, but everyone says they can't make them.' He said, 'Well, Gene, just wait a bit' and he went back in his back room and came out with the solid one, not the mold but the solid one and said, 'Will this help you?' I said, 'Yes, thank you very much.' I didn't ask anymore."
Cast of the figure in hand, Cunningham was able to get a mold made and eventually create all of those wiggly, rubber tube dancers.
He's so proud of the result that he stops our interview to hunt two up from somewhere inside his home. Throughout the rest of the interview the two figures lay on the table between us, or in Cunningham's hands as he absentmindedly plays with them.
Those rubber dancers were one of countless hurdles Cunningham and his team had to overcome while making the machines. Cunningham estimates that the entire process from beginning to end probably took about two years. Much longer than anyone expected it would take.
"I had a lot of phone calls from people [asking] 'When are they going to be ready,'" he tells me. "I said, 'We're working on it.' Because all these people trusted me with their money. Then word got out that I was running way over and some of them said, 'Let us pay you more,' and I said, 'No.' I gave my word that I'd make them for $4,500 and that's what it was."
Cunningham gathered a crew of people together and built a makeshift assembly line at the warehouse that shared the parking lot with his skating rink. He finally completed the machines in two waves, and then went back and made a third round of machines from extra parts.
The entire thing wrapped up as the party at the warehouse. Cunningham says people came from all over the country to celebrate and pick up their pinballs. They came to celebrate not just the launch of a pinball machine lost to time but the achievement of what nearly everyone thought at one time was the impossible. Everyone, that is, but Cunningham.
"I made my mind up that it was going to happen," he says. "It cost me a lot of money, but I knew I could do it."
Cunningham estimates he spent about $7,200 on each machine, selling them for the promised $4,500.
"It cost a lot more than that for a lot of them because we made some special ones for some people — gold trim, brass trim, sidebar and legs, and in the case of my daughter's machine, which is probably the most valuable one, it's all done in metallic green and all the employees and the guests that day signed it. It's probably got 500 or more signatures written under the boards, inside the cabinet," he says.
Despite the cost and loss of personal time, Cunningham says it was worth it.
"For the personal satisfaction," he says. "It also gave me a good name around the business."
Eventually we get around to the remnants of the warehouse in his backyard. The discussion of the blaze that tore through the remains of his life comes after a long pause, after I finally broach the subject of his years-long bankruptcy and he declines to discuss it.
But he's more than willing to talk about the fire.
"See that mess down there?" he says pointing over my shoulder to the melted wreckage. "See the yellow cord hanging down the door down there?"
It was the cord, a battery cable that was plugged into an outlet inside the building and was being used to charge an old pickup truck's battery, that started the fire, he tells me.
He was out at the time. The wind picked up, knocking loose a rock that held the door to the warehouse open. Over time, as the door opened and closed on the cord, it began to fray and eventually cut it. A small fire started, and Cunningham's 13-year-old grandson called in a panic to tell him his warehouse was on fire.
"The fire started inside that door," Cunningham tells me.
He says he lost everything in the warehouse, including 28 pinball machines and schematics of other machines like Big Bang Bar, in the blaze.
"Now the insurance company says they won't pay anything," he tells me.
The Aug. 17 fire was so intense, according to a local paper, that firefighters from four surrounding towns joined in to douse it.
The 20,000-square-foot steel warehouse was home to a personal exercise gym, hair studio, tool warehouse, storage area and several antique pinball machines, according to the paper.
Bloomington township's fire chief, Tom Willan, said at the time that the cause of the blaze was under investigation. When I called him a month later, the fire chief declined to tell me the outcome. Instead he directed me to the insurance investigator, who didn't return my calls.
I stare at the gutted warehouse for a moment, tell Cunningham that it must have been hard losing so much in such a short period of time.
I ask him about the bankruptcy again and he tells me that it is finally over, after three years. That the federal court-appointed trustees in the case "milked all of the money out of it they could."
But when I press him about its connection to Big Bang Bar, the money he lost by making them and the subsequent business deal that became two lawsuits, Cunningham asks to go off the record.
After chatting for a bit, he agrees to talk on the record again.
"Are you asking if I think the bankruptcy was justified," he says. "If someone took your business, how would you feel?"
"What are you left with?" I ask him.
"Well, when we went through the bankruptcy, I called a man in California — I'm not going to tell you his name — and I told him what was going on, and I said if you call the trustee and make a half a million dollar offer you'll own the company," Cunningham tells me. "He called and made an offer of $500,000 cash and he owns the company now.
"I can work through his company and do whatever I want, but I'm nearly 80 years old. I turn 79 in a couple of days."
But, he finally adds, the bankruptcy is done.
Later Cunningham goes back into his house to bring out a magazine. He opens it up to an ad for a Big Bang Bar. It's selling for $17,000.
"One of the rarest and highest sought-after machines ever produced," according to the text under a picture. "This futuristic, space bar themed pinball machine is one of only 200 in existence."
Cunningham picks up the Big Bang Bar's rubbery dolls again, one in each hand, each held delicately by a leg, as he seems to look at them through me.
"It was," he says, "probably the best game ever made."
Players of Big Bang Bar seem to universally enjoy Cunningham's recreation of the game. But not everyone involved shares the same feelings about Cunningham and what place, if any, he holds in the history of the game.
Skate rink owner Overholser described his former father figure as the sort of guy he'd still shake hands with but then would need to stop and count his fingers.
Gary Stern regards the pinball recreations as an accomplishment but nothing historical, and George Gomez describes Cunningham as a "collector and a dreamer," though he sees the machine itself as not that big of a deal.
Pinball designer Mark Ritchie says that Cunningham's impact on the pinball industry at a time when it appeared to be approaching death was significant.
"Gene Cunningham broke the ice for all of these companies to sell directly into homes," Ritchie said. "He did a huge favor to the industry."
Pinball historian Gary Flower agrees.
"It's quite possible that if Gene hadn't set the ball rolling by doing the first ever remake, maybe the Medieval Madness table wouldn't have been made," he said. "That's worthy of mention. He should get credit for showing the pinball world you could go out and make pinball machines on a relatively small budget."
It was raining, just this side of sleeting, when I finally found the address in Brooklyn, New York — a train ride and two subway trips from my home. The glass door is so cluttered with signs I can't see in: "No Hunting," "Try our gourmet vegetarian washing machines and vegan dryers," "There will be a 100% surcharge for full-service orders which include garments bearing the Trump brand name." Four matching stickers, each one for a different year's award for Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, line the top of the glass door above the signs.
Inside, silver washing machines and dryers cover one wall. The other is cluttered with unplugged pinball machines and a vending machine packed with a mix of snacks and other oddities, like a real $2 bill, a DNA paternity test and cans of Gillette shaving cream. In between the two walls is a pathway just wide enough to walk. It leads me back to the rear wall and a woman sitting guard in a chair. Next to her, built into the back wall is a washing machine and dryer combo. Through the glass of the washing machine's door I can see a wonderland of pinball machines and beer.
Pushing through the makeshift door, I find myself in the backroom of the Sunshine Laundry, a sort of laundromat, bar, pinball speakeasy.
The backroom is packed, nearly button to button, with pinball machines of all types. There's a solid selection of Stern machines, but I also find oddities like Taxi and World Cup. There's also a fabled machine built out of a boutique pinball design shop in the Netherlands based on the movie "The Big Lebowski." The table features clips from the movie, a mini bowling alley and even a replica of Lebowski's trademark drink, a white russian on the rocks, attached to the playfield glass in the corner of the table.
The dusty wooden flooring creaks as I walk over to the bar and order a beer. I ignore the chimp making predictions from a nearby machine and walk back toward the entrance, soaking in the jangle of play, the occasional pop of a free game and the small but boisterous clientele that make the place feel busy even on a random Tuesday night.
In a corner, lost next to the arc of the Sunshine's laundry machine entrance, stands the product of one of pinball's strangest little stories. Big Bang Bar sits next to Cirqus Voltaire and Theater of Magic tables. Its aqua blues and greens beckon me. A small brass plate tells me this is #2.
It's been nine years since I first heard the legend of Big Bang Bar — nine years filled with countless court files, interviews, phone calls, a plane trip, a road trip and now, one story.
But this moment is what matters now.
I slip in three quarters, tap the start button, pull back the plunger and roll into the welcoming world of Big Bang Bar.