On October 27th-30th, 2021 the Pinball Expo entered its 37th year since the start in 1984. One of the founders and promoters of this event from Day 1 is Rob Berk. Lets look back at the interview I did with him back in 2019 when the event was located in Wheeling, IL. This year it will be in Schaumburg, IL at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel. For more information on the event, go to https://pinballexpo.com/.
Our next Trading Card Spotlight features Rob Berk, who is displayed on card number 260, from the Superstars of 2012. Rob is also featured on card numbers 782 and 1702. Next weekend (October 27th-30th) is the annual Pinball Expo is at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel. Robert is one of the founders and promoters of this event and has for the last 30 years. Rob collects pinball games as far back as the 1930's. His passion for pinball is and his expo keep the pinball world alive and well. With special guest speakers and tournament the Pinball Expo in Illinois has become the worlds largest .
When did you first get involved in the pinball or gaming industry?
I wouldn’t necessarily say I am involved in it, it’s more or less a hobby. So I think it started off with my interest in playing games from the mid-60s that I grew up playing. Then seeing the pinball books that came out from either Michael Colmer or Roger Sharpe and learning who the people were behind the scenes, the designers and artists and just having a fascination and a real intense interest in these people to the point where in 1984 I had the idea of having this Pinball Expo show. The pure purpose of that show was to honor my heroes, the pinball designers’ and artists. I always felt that they were kind of behind the scenes, they were 9 to 5 guys, they never got the accolades. It was always the big shots on top that were always the ones you heard about or read about but now the guys behind the scenes so I figured to myself, “These are the guys I really want to meet, these are my heroes that made the games I love to play”.
What is your involvement with the Pinball expo?
It was my brain child to do the show and my main function is to do the seminars. We divide the functions between myself and Mike Pacak and he is more exhibits and general operations of the show.
Where did you grow up?
In Warren, Ohio. It’s a steel town. They have pack electric plant there and very little signs of pinball or video or anything of the sorts. Just a small town of about 45,000 people.
What schools did you go to and what did you major in?
High school was Warren Hardy. Went to college at Ohio State majoring in political science, something my parents wanted me to do. I had a minor in Entomology, the study of insects, because our family had an exterminating business back home, but even though I had those majors never really did much with Political science as major even though my parents really wanted me to do so. After I got out of college I ended up working for the family business.
What business was that?
We had three companies. One was a pest control company, also known as an exterminating business. We also had a janitorial supply, buckets and ringer and so forth. Also, food service disposable, so we sold cups and napkins and throw away things you use for food service.
Do you remember when you played your first pinball game and where was it at?
My parents would often take myself and my sister to Florida to visit my aunt in Miami Beach and that was the first time I was truly introduced to arcades in the sense, because it was just pinball back then, no video. “Man, I loved that pinball, boy was that fun”. My dad was a kid at heart, so he enjoyed playing so we played to our hearts content. At least once a year when we went on these vacations he made a point to go to the arcade to play pinball.
Do you have a memory of a game back then, one that stuck out?
I remember Stop ‘N’ Go, for some reason, it has never left my mind and Willams 'A Go-Go'. I noticed I had a more of a fascination to Williams’ games more so than Gottlieb for whatever reason. When I got out of high school and went to college, pinball was still evident throughout the college campus. Pinball machines were everywhere, on the college scene. For some reason, because Ohio did not allow free games or add-a-balls, I started seeking out, as I got older, machines I remember playing as a kid, by that I mean my mid-teens, so I ran an ad in Playmate or Replay, “wanting to buy old pinball machines”. I got a call from a guy in Wisconsin saying they had a ton of pinball machines, but they are add-a-ball. So I am thinking to myself, “add-a-ball”? I have never heard of add-a-ball. Which I thought they either give you a free game or nothing. So it was a whole new scene I got introduced to and then next thing I knew I began collecting single player add-a-ball pinball machines.
How many would you say you had a one point?
I was close to 500. Then I decided to get married. When I got married I realized I needed money to live.
Not so much space because I stored my machines in the company warehouse. I sold off a lot of games at that time because I needed the cash. Later on in my life, I had a son, my one and only son. He for some reason had an interest in pinball. He is 18 now but he had an interest in pinball, to the point where I started rebuying pinball machines.
What is your son’s name?
Is your immediate family involved in the industry today?
You have mentioned industry; I really wouldn’t call it an industry. I would say I am just a promoter of a trade show, pinball expo being a trade show, or hobby show, which is more exact. If your involved in the industry it would be 24-7 where you make a living on it. I got two locations where I operate but it is really more for fun.
What is your career outside the pinball trade shows?
I am the CEO of our company called Berk Enterprises. We are an importer of products overseas. We sell from coast to coast, food service disposables, which encompasses like plastic cutlery, plastic drinking straws and any other food packaging. We are located in Warren, Ohio.
Where did you first meet your partner Mike Pacak?
When I was collecting and playing pinball in the mid-70s, I would go to a game room or a mall called Fun and Games, and I mentioned to the lady working there, “Hey, I have a game that needs service, do you have anyone like that? Who do you use to serve your machines”? She mentioned Mike Pacak. He is the director of operations of this Fun and Games chain of arcades. At one time I believe there was like 50 of them scattered in U.S. We hooked up and we connected and the more I saw him, the more we connected and spent time at each other’s home. At the time he was a jukebox lover. The majority of his collection was jukeboxes. Pinball was sort of secondary but now it’s become a primary interest of his as well.
What year did the Pinball Expo start and where was it located?
The first year I started was 1985. In 1984 I put together a questionnaire than ran in Steve Young’s publication called Silverball Quarterly. The questionnaire basically said, ‘We are considering doing a national pinball convention, are you interested, would you come? The resounding answer was yes; it would be a good idea. It has always been in the Chicagoland area or Chicago suburb.
Why did you choose the Chicagoland area?
Chicago is the home of Pinball. So I figured I need the industry to be a part of the show in one form or the other and I figured if I want anyone in the industry speak or be involved it’s easier to have it here in their back yard. Half hour drive versus who is going to fly to my small town to be at a pinball show.
Who has been your influence in your career of the pinball world?
Depends on the aspect of it. Of the designers, it would be Norm Clark because I always gravitated to his designs, his games and found him to be a really likeable guy. Today, I am so involved with my family and my family business that I give about a month of my energy into putting the show off and its back to business.
Would you hold this expo more than one time a year?
Once would be about it. Some of the guys we get to speak, they will speak once a year. Sometimes I will ask about next year and they say “Let’s give it a couple years” They just say they have nothing more to share, they told me everything these is to know about themselves. So I am at the mercy of how much involvement the guys want to give me and sometime they don’t want to get involved at all. Not too often, but occasionally.
Why do you think pinball is popular in today’s generation of gamers?
I ask that question to a lot of people today because there is a resurgence and I recall Steve Kordick would always say that pinball runs in cycles of ups and downs, ups and downs but Video gaming came out no one though pinball would be in such a down trend as long as it was. Even I am a bit surprised. I am guessing that all the PR work the pinball manufactures are doing today to get the pinball concept idea into the people’s minds, especially the younger generation are getting people to play them and new people to collect them.
What is your opinion of today’s generation of the Digital pinball boards and different video pinball game machines?
I hate it. Right in the garbage can. Not a true pinball game at all. I am surprised people like them. I mean, it its convenient because it has all the pinball games ever made, but nothing beats the real thing.
Do you think there should be more pinball expos around, not necessarily from you but other collectors as well?
Well there are shows everywhere now. You have to realize we were the very first show, from us all the other shows came from us, the ideas sprung from us. So, there is a lot of shows. Almost every moth there is a show. In one respect, I miss some of the huge crowds we used to have because we were the only show. But not, if someone from lives in Dallas, they will go to the Dallas show, if they live in Michigan, they will go to the Michigan show, they don’t need to come to our show anymore because they have a local show.
What are your favorite pinball machines either past or present?
I think either Post Time, which was a Williams game, or Smarty, both add-a-ball games. I also like Target Pool a lot. One of my favorites growing up which I finally got a hold of, which most of your readership has never even seen is a game called “Texan”. It was made by Gottlieb in 1960. I have a guy who works for me, his name is Tony Torisk. Tony has been in the car industry all his life selling cars. He always dabbled at pinball games. He tuned up that “Texan” to the point where it plays like it came out of the warehouse. It plays so fast. People would not believe that a game of that vintage could play so fast and can be so much fun. Even my son plays it and says how fun it is. As far as newer games, probably the Theater Magic or Medieval Madness.
What do you think the best era of pinball has been?
Well the modern era has always had incredible innovations, that is a given. I come from a time where things were simpler so I am happy with the simpler games. First of all, they play slower and a little bit easier to understand and easier to follow the ball.
Are you technical with the games, do you fix and repair pinball games?
I dabble at them to a degree but to too much.
Do you prefer playing pinball alone or with someone?
Mostly in a tournament competition with someone.
What does it take to really run a pinball expo successfully?
It changes over the years. The early conventions you had to try hard to have something unique and special that no one else has so you can draw people in. Once you have proven yourself it is a little bit easier because people have certain expectation and they know what to expect. They come to our show because we offer so much, I used to use the motto “We are the everything for everyone show”. If you are into the tour, we have tours, if you are into seminars, we have seminars, playing machines, we have the machines. The events we do are our ideas. The autograph session was something I remember I came up with, thinking people would like it and it became very popular; but again, here in Chicago it’s much easier for us to do it then guys to have a show in other states because they are at the mercy of flying every person in that they want to be in the autograph session. It takes a certain amount of patience to deal with the people, issues and problems as they arise. It takes a bit of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and see what you want to do and see it through. This includes even the seminars, for me, this is my main focus and I work hard to try to find something that will be interesting. I work hard at that and trying to find something unique you would not see at the other show. Some of the other show have pretty much the same speakers and titles and I try to bring the oddball things in there too. Trying to find some of the sleeping dogs you don’t hear much about very often and guys retired from the industry to get the involved again. We try to do that as well. Plus, we are the only show that has a tour of the pinball factory.
I noticed you started an arcade expo this year? This is your first arcade expo. How do you think it went and what was your first thoughts of the convention?
I put so much time and energy and effort in it. I am amazed that more people did not show up. However, my expectation was not that high because I am a realist and know that any show the first year or two years are the most difficult. For those who came I thought they probably got their money’s worth. I am very fortunate to have had fantastic support in the arcade community. Mostly form Doc Mack and Jim Zespy. In order to have a show be successful I felt you need to have a lot of games there and between those two gentlemen they helped me fill up the exhibit hall with games. I will forever be indented to those guys. I was a complete stranger to those guys. I bared my heart to them and told them what I wanted to do and they were incredibly receptive that I could not believe it. A lot of these hobbyist groups, they give the short off their back and they certainly did.
Would you ever consider combining the conventions together? Having both the Arcade and pinball expo as one?
That is my hope for next year. I don’t know if we can do it, perhaps on a small-scale year to year and we will gradually expand on it as see where it goes. Time will tell.
Tell me something about yourself that someone may not necessarily know about you?
I collect political campaign buttons. I enjoy fireworks and like to go to the fireworks shows. As a matter affect they had a fireworks convention and because of that show, I base a lot of my ideas for the pinball expo to the same format of these fireworks expos. Basically, seminars and some of the ideas they had as well. I like to travel, eat good food. I am people person, like to meet people. Like to enjoy life.
When you stop running pinball conventions and retire form the industry, what you like people to remember about you?
Someone that was so focused on a hobby that I took it to another level. In this case, I turned a hobby of collecting and playing machines into an opportunity or forum to honor friends. That is kind of how it started. It is also an opportunity to get people together. It is like my partner calls it, a “family reunion” where people get together and talk and look forward to seeing everyone again the next year. Maybe at the next show I will see that Todd guy.
Where do you see the pinball world in the next 20 years?
It’s amazing how much it has exploded already, at least year in the number of manufacturers who are showing their wares or attempting to show their wares. Some have more product than others, some are more on the talking stage. it seems form that alone the industry is coming back, bouncing back. You see amazing games coming out now, who would have guessed the game you see now with the features that they have. It seems there is no end in sight. But like anything else, the strong survive. You have deep pockets to weather the storms in the bad days. So only the strongest guys can do that, the weak guys will perhaps fold up. So, that remains to be seen. The interaction with the phones and digital age that I am not up to date with, it’s hard for me to relate to it. If we start using our mind waves and other elements may take the fun out of it. As far as 10, 20 years down the road, that remains to be seen. Who knows how goofy things will be. I know Python Angelo was always into these deals about having the pinball and person as one, and you are part of machine and all these wild ideas he had. That remains to be seen. As long as we have fingers that we can press a button, pinball will be fun.