The NEW issue of PINBALL MAGAZINE will be here before we know it...AND it will contain a Feature Interview with DENNIS NORDMAN! Just click on the PINBALL MAGAZINE text to go right to the website!
DENNIS NORDMAN & THE PARTY MONSTERS!
TED: Hi Dennis...Why don't we just start off by having you talk a little about how you got into pinball and how you eventually started working in the business. I take it you played pinball when you were younger?
DENNIS: Well, that's a long story how I got into pinball...I did NOT play a lot of pinball when I was younger. My first exposure to a pinball machine was when a friend of my father's had one and I saw it, I was probably eight years old at the time, I just thought it was so cool, but at that time, pinball seemed a little bit risque. My father wasn't interested in it at all and it wasn't until I turned about 18 or 19 that I rediscovered pinball and back then, they were all EM games and I just really liked playing a lot. I'd go to arcades in the mid 70's. At some point I decided I didn't like my career, I was in Data Processing. I just changed my whole life, went back to college and majored in Industrial Design and when I was a senior, they let me design a new, modern-looking pinball cabinet cause' they haven't changed in forever and they STILL haven't changed in forever. During my second quarter as a senior I injured my back and had to have surgery, so I couldn't take my courses again for another year. During my recovery, I went into my grandmothers garage where I had a radial arm saw and I built a full size version of the cabinet I designed. I brought it to Bally, and they hired me.
TED: What was different about the cabinet?
DENNIS: I'll send you a picture of it. It was on a pedestal...at the time, scoring reels were located all over the backglass and I reasoned that if the scoring was all in one area for all four players it would be easier for people to watch their score increase. It would be better if it was closer down to the playfield. It had that and it had speakers actually facing the player because at the time all the speakers were in the bottom of the cabinet. It had a modern futuristic look to it. It was designed to be made of fiberglass so that's one of the reasons it never got made.
TED: Some of those things they actually use now...
DENNIS: A lot of the elements of that cabinet were in the Rapid Fire cabinet. They built so many Rapid Fire cabinets that they had an excess and so they had a Centaur II they put in that cabinet and an Eight Ball Deluxe Limited Edition they put in there as well.
TED: So Bally saw this and offered you a job.
DENNIS: Yeah, I went to Shaffer Distributing in Columbus to do my research and show them the game. A guy that used to work at Shaffer was president of Bally Pinball at the time, his name was Chuck Farmer, and he was from Ohio, so when I went out to Bally, maybe that had something to do with him hiring another Ohio boy.
TED: So what was the first game you worked on at Bally?
DENNIS: The first game I worked on was Rapid Fire. I designed the cabinet and vac-u-formed little tanks on each side, I came up with the Force Field idea...and then I got laid off and worked at Mylstar for a while doing video game concepts. I created a game called Us vs Them, a laser-disc game, but the laser-disc games didn't do very well because the laser machines kept breaking down...and then I got laid off from there. I finally decided I wanted to try to design a pinball game and I came up with idea for Special Force because the Rambo movie was popular at the time. So I just got an Army brochure with Ranger information on it and pictures and I cut that all up and made a poster...and I sold that to Bally. And then I designed the game.
TED: So, back at Bally, Special Force was your first game?
TED: The first Elvira game was Party Monsters. Take me through the process from concept, to contacting Cassandra, to getting the rights...to getting the game done.
DENNIS: Well, that was shortly after Williams bought the Bally pinball division and I was working on a game with this feature that finally ended up in Dr. Dude...it was the spinning disc with the targets all around it, so the ball would spin on the disk and hit the targets and eventually fall out, but they were not real crazy about that idea. But then Roger (Sharpe) came to the designers and made a presentation that he could get the Elvira license. Greg (Freres) and I thought that would be so much fun to do that. We made a presentation of some of the ideas we wanted to do...I think I had thought of the Boogie Men at that time because I went to a Halloween store and I found these little finger puppets with the wiggly hands and I thought wow, wouldn't that be fun if I could put that in a pinball game somehow.
TED: So after you got the Elvira license, you just tried to come up with monster and haunted house ideas.
DENNIS: Yeah, some kind of haunted house type stuff because she was the hostess and it was a cool character you can do whatever you wanted with the theme. She was very receptive to all of our ideas for Party Monsters and Scared Stiff. We probably did Party Monsters because I had done Party Animals before, that was the game I did after Special Force and this kind of “party thing” was popular at the time. What was that...1980's?
TED: I think Party Monsters was 1989...
DENNIS: Wow! (laughter)
TED: How did you finally decide what to put in the game?
DENNIS: Well, Greg and I would get together in my office and discuss things and figure out what would go in the game, as I've said, about that time I had the Boogie Men idea, Greg came up with the Deadheads. The Monster Slide evolved from my Black Water 100 game where I had the ball go downhill then back uphill on the ramp, and so I did the same thing on the Monster Slide. And then we thought we'd make it like a whole party scene with all kinds of party Monsters...and that's about it.
TED: How much was Elvira involved in the process? Did she come by to see stuff?
DENNIS: I don't remember her coming by a lot, maybe once to see what we were doin' and she loved it and thought it was great. And then she came back to record all the speech for the game. She was great to work with because she liked everything and wasn't picky about this or that. You might have to talk to Greg to find out about if she was difficult to work with about the art, but I don't remember her being difficult at all.
TED: So, Party Monsters came out and was a hit. How did Scared Stiff happen?
DENNIS: When Elvira & the Party Monsters was introduced at the trade show, it won Best New Product of the Show and that's the first time a pinball machine had done that in seven or eight years. We were pretty proud of that! But they only sold a little over four thousand of those and Greg and I always thought for a game to win Best New Product of the Show and to be as popular as it was, it should have sold more. For some reason, they didn't produce a lot, so as the technology got better and our sound system got better we wanted to do another Elvira game. That's how Scared Stiff came about. There were people that weren't too thrilled with it because we already did Elvira and they thought we should have done something else. We thought we could do a much better job with Scared Stiff...and I think we did. Better music, better sounds, more speech...a more modern game.
TED: So it was as easy as calling her up and saying we want to do another one?
DENNIS: Yeah, and I'm sure Roger handled all that again. I do remember she came out with her husband a couple times and we went out for lunch together. She's just a nice, regular person.
TED: You’re right! My friend Kevin runs the Chiller Theatre Conventions here in Jersey and I've met her a few times. Always very nice.
DENNIS: It's interesting to hear that because I used to watch Chiller Theater in Columbus, Ohio where I grew up!
TED: How did the ideas for the cool toys on Scared Stiff come about...such as the Spider Spinner. I'm sure you wanted to make it different from party Monsters.
DENNIS: Lets see...the Monster Slide is what I started with and I wanted to do something more visually interesting, so that's how I came up with the skull and the ribs idea and I'm fortunate they let me spend that much money on the game. I'm a visual person being an industrial designer I wanted to try and do something to make the game look more interesting, so that's the first thing I drew into the game was the new Monster Slide with the skull and the ribs on it.
TED: The Spider Spinner?
DENNIS: The Spider Spinner...at that time we were trying to do more to attract people to pinball games. They wanted us to do something in the backbox, so we came up with the Spinning Spider idea.
TED: I've played a lot of the top games such as Attack From Mars and Medieval Madness and I still think Scared Stiff gives a big bang for the buck...Spider Spinner, Coffin Multiball, Stiff-O-Meter, Crate Multiball...
DENNIS: Oh yeah...The Crate! You know, people complain that the rules are not very deep, but at the time, we weren't designing games for the home, so really super deep games didn't matter in the arcade. We just wanted people to have fun and not be intimidated. And the surprising thing to me was that most women love the Elvira games.
TED: Who came up with the Crate idea?
DENNIS: I came up with it, but HOW I came up with it, I don't remember. I just thought, wouldn't it be cool to have a crate that would open up and there would be monsters or something in there so I put the LED eyes in it that would light up. And then we had fun with all the things that could be in there...what did she say...Spiders, Snakes...oh no...Lawyers! (laughter) We had a lot of fun with all those jokes. I heard a Scared Stiff recently and was surprised at all the risque speech that we got away with.
TED: Yes, and I really like the way the game guides your eyes where to go. When the Spider Spinner comes on, all the lights on the game go out except for those.
DENNIS: Yeah, that was the idea.
TED: Was Scared Stiff more popular than party Monsters?
DENNIS: I think it was more popular, I forget the sales numbers, but the crazy thing about Scared Stiff was I got laid off again right before it was finished to go to the trade show. I went through the whole process and that's when Williams laid off three different design teams, so I didn't even get to go to the trade show to see the reception to that game.
TED: Didn't you also have an accident of some kind because I saw pictures of you in a cast.
DENNIS: Yeah, that was during Elvira and the Party Monsters. I used to race motocrossa lot back in Ohio. When I went back to collage I sold all my bikes, so I was out of riding for a long time. When I came out here and started to earn a little money again I bought another dirt bike and when Williams bought Bally, that's when I met Steve and Mark Richie and they were into riding a little bit. We went down to a riding area and that's when I crashed and broke my leg and my ribs and my collarbone and bone in my hand. That's why there are so many broken bones all over the backglass in Party Monsters.
TED: What was the story about the various toys and things that were supposed to be on Scared Stiff, but didn't make it. The Dancing Boogie Men...
DENNIS: That all happened after I left. First of all there's an interesting story about the name of the game...Scared Stiff. Greg and I had a hard time figuring out what the name of this game was going to be. And we kept coming up with Elvira and the, things...Elvira and the Spooky House or Elvira and the Haunted House. Finally we thought we had one we loved and we went in to our programmer, Mike Boon...and we were all excited and Mike went...ehhh, that's not so great. So Greg and I went back to my office all dejected and we were sittin' there trying to figure out what the hell are we gonna’ call this game. Suddenly Greg looked up and said...Scared Stiff! It was perfect for Elvira! (laughter) Now what was the question again?
TED: The things that were cut because of cost....
DENNIS: Yeah! The Skull Pile, that came about because I'd gone to Disney World before I started Scared Stiff and when I came out of Pirates of the Caribbean there was a little shop there and I saw this pile of skulls and I thought that might be fun to use in a haunted house or the Elvira game. So I bought that, and it was made out of plaster, so I drilled out all their eyes and stuck LED's in them and it looked pretty cool. So, the Skull Pile was originally supposed to have LED's so you could light them one at a time, so the goal was to get the whole Skull Pile lit up. That feature was taken out. The Boogie Men on the slingshots were taken out. The glow ribs, skull and flippers…the glow material just ended costing too much so that was taken out.
TED: Wasn't there some kind of ball return from the left side that was removed?
DENNIS: Oh yeah, I think that was a kicker in the left lane that would kick the ball back on the playfield if you had it lit. Yeah, they took that out.
TED: There was actually quite a bit they took out!
DENNIS: Yeah there was! And I think Robert Winter might have been the first guy to make LED's for the Skull Pile, so I understand those kits are available now and then there's the Boogie Men Kits for the slingshots...
TED: And the flickering candle lights for the side of the Skull Pile...
DENNIS: Yes, the flickering candle lights...the machine looks cool with all that stuff on there...
TED: Yeah! The machine I just got, my second, was stock and I had to buy all that stuff! By the way...which games do you have?
DENNIS: I have no games. I did have some for a while and when I got laid off from Williams for the last time when I was building Scared Stiff, I eventually had to sell them all, but they never got played anyway. It's like when I would go to work every day for sometimes 12 hours a day, six days a week, working on pinball, playing pinball...I didn't want to play pinball when I came home...I had the Honey-Do List to finish. My thrill is in creating and designing the games. I play once in a while, but I don't need to have them at home to play. By the time I'm done with the game, I'm so tired of playing it, I just want to get away from it for a year or so.
TED: You just don't feel the need to have a copy of each of your machines.
DENNIS: It would be nice...I really don't have the space now...
TED: What's your favorite game...of your own?
DENNIS: That's a tough question...everybody asks, but each one is a favorite for certain reasons, I mean, they're all my children so I love em' all, but Scared Stiff is one of my favorites, White Water is another of my favorites and I have to include Pirates as one of my favorites because that was my first time doing a pinball game in eight or 10 years. So I would say those are my three favorites.
TED: Which games do you like that aren't your own? Attack from Mars? Medieval Madness? They seem to be the most popular right now.
DENNIS: Actually I haven't played a lot of Medieval Madness because I was out of pinball for a long time...what I remember, my favorites, back in the day when I was doing research for my cabinet design, I used to play Steve Ritchie's Flash all the time, I loved that game. I played Wizard a lot...and then I remember Steve’s High Speed, I thought the story line in that game was just incredible. I don't have a lot of modern favorites.
TED: Here's the big question...when are we gonna’ do the third Elvira machine....EATME?
DENNIS: (laughter) Yeah! Who's idea was that?
TED: That was mine. Elvira And The Monster Entourage (EATME) I actually even bought the web address.
DENNIS: That's the greatest name! I don't know, on the Pinside Poll there were about 175 Very Positive responses to a new Elvira game and one of the reasons I did that poll was to try and help convince a manufacturer that another Elvira license would be a good idea. I even called her agent myself to see what's involved in getting a license to maybe make a boutique version of Elvira, but that won't happen because the agent wants a guarantee of x number of games and upfront money.
TED: Wow...that's a little crazy by today's standards. I heard that Cassandra had a conversation with Jersey Jack about a possible pinball game, but he didn't call her back...
DENNIS: I heard Jack just thought the license was too expensive.
TED: But you would be interested in getting involved with a small production run?
DENNIS: Yes, I would like to do Elvira–Zombie Hunter...
TED: Hey...what happened to Elvira and the Monster Entourage??
DENNIS: (laughter) Ok, that will be my second choice...but Greg and I would love to do the machine. If 175 people on Pinside said they'd buy it, then how many other hundreds would there be that would like to have it as well?
TED: Predator is a boutique game...what do you think of that?
DENNIS: You know, I didn't get a chance to play it very much because even though they were in a booth right next to us at the last Expo, we were just too busy with the Whoa Nellie stuff. People like to talk with the guy who designed the games that they love, so I lost my voice by the end of the show. I never get to look around the show because I'm talkin' all day long.
TED: I thought the game was pretty cool and the price point is right at around $4,750. They're making 250.
DENNIS: I don't know how they're going to do it for that.
TED: We didn't talk much about this Whoa Nellie game. What's the story about that?
DENNIS: Well, that's me and Greg and a few people we have working with us. Greg and I met again after eight or 10 years because he was doing video games for Midway. We reconnected at a Pinball Show in Seattle. We were both invited out there to speak and Greg learned there were some people doing custom games, so he said, we're game designers, we should be able to do that. And so, on the plane trip home we just wrote down hundreds of ideas and themes that we'd have fun doing. When we got back home, I was thinking, one of the ideas we wrote down was old fruit crate labels because we both have an appreciation for the beauty and the colorfulness of those old labels. I wanted to do something like that and combine it with Roy Parker 1950's art... what with I call, Happy People all over the backglass. If you look at any of Roy Parker's work, it's just a bunch of people all over doin' crazy stuff. So I sketch up this cabinet that looks like a stack of old crates and I said, Greg, what if we combine fruit crate art and 50's pin up art and we'll call it Sweet Juicy Melons...and he loved the idea, so that's how that got started. We eventually changed it to Big Juicy Melons.
TED: How many games are you going to make?
DENNIS: Well, I said, Greg, I have a game we can start with. We didn't know any programmers that were available to work with us. It was an old EM game, so we thought it would be easy for us, we'll just take all the parts off, sand down the playfield, get it screened and we're done. Then, when we were workin' on it, we thought, wait a minute, we're game designers, we should change this playfield around. So we started with this old Continental Cafe machine and I re-drew the playfield and changed all the components around, but we were still stuck with the rules of the electromechanical game. We built one electromechanical version and then we met Kerry Imming from Minnesota who designed a solid state system for us. So, we eventually found four Continental Cafe games because we needed those games for all of our parts. We had to stick with the original rules still. We did do some enhanced rules on the solid state games. We built three solid state games and one electromechanical. They all sold, two have been delivered and we're waiting on final payment on the last one. The cool thing that will make this all worthwhile is that, while Greg and I figured we made about a buck an hour for this game... but Stern is thinking seriously about manufacturing it.
DENNIS: Yeah! Whoa Nellie! And they allowed us to say that at the last Expo. They want to keep it as true to the original as possible meaning they'll still want to go with the fruit crate looking cabinet.
TED: I think this is a great, fun idea! To be honest, I'm getting burnt out on all the Super Hero games.
DENNIS: Oh, I know...we approached Whoa Nellie as an art piece, it wasn't a game with super deep rules and the thing is, people love playing this game because it's just simple fun. If you score 2,000, you're doin' great!
TED: If Stern makes it, it would only be the solid state version?
DENNIS: Yes, solid state and we'll try to keep the cabinet looking as much like my original cabinet as possible. It will have a coin door and automatic ball lift as the original Continental Cafe had a manual ball lift and a lot of people would walk up to the game, push start and not know what to do because they're not familiar with manual ball lifts from the 50's.
TED: The game sounds really cool, love the theme, who wouldn't, and I hope Stern picks it up. So, what happened with Jersey Jack? I heard you were working on the Wizard of Oz machine.
DENNIS: I was working as an employee for Jersey Jack and the idea was that I would help out with Wizard of Oz, which I did. I built the first little model house and I built a version of the Witch mechanism of how I thought it might work and contributed some other ideas to the playfield, just some refinements of things that I had learned over the years. We just didn't come to an agreement on a theme for the next game.
TED: So, what are you doing now?
DENNIS: One of our buyers of the Whoa Nellie game wants another custom game, so I'm working on that for him. " I'm working with Gerry Stellenberg from Multimorphic and his P3 platform. It contains a huge , interactive LCD in the center of the p/f. I've created an original theme that I'm very excited about. It's a humorous sci-fi theme that features, of course, a hot space babe and a couple of her crazy companions. And, for the first time in pinball, the art is all original 3-D art. The artist we have is very talented and his work is fantastic. That's all I can say now, everything will be revealed at the TPF in March."
TED: Well, thanks for the chat and making Elvira & the Party Monsters and scared Stiff, some of MY favorite, fun games.
DENNIS: Just simple, fun games, we knew they weren't serious, deep games when we did em'. That's more like Greg and my personalities...just simple and fun...actually my games are far more interesting than I am!
TED: (laughter) Now THERE'S a quote to go out on!