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From an Imperial Wizard to a Pinball Wizard: An arcade game’s odyssey

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The storied 1949 Million Football Machine at the Pinball Hall of Fame.
Photo: John Katsilometes

What’s the saying? Every pinball machine has a story?

Maybe that’s not a saying, but there is a story behind the 1949 Chicago Coins Million Football machine under restoration by Tim Arnold at the Pinball Hall of Fame on the northwest corner of Pecos Road and East Tropicana Avenue. When the restoration project is finished on the sturdy, wood-laden piece of entertainment furniture, it will be the oldest operating pinball machine among the 200 or so machines in Arnold’s warehouse. But that isn’t the story.

Arnold purchased the machine in 1982 from a collector from Laurel, Miss., named Sam Bowers. This individual owned between 500-600 vintage machines in various states of repair, but was far more famous/infamous outside the small world of pinball aficionados. The name of Bowers’ business in those days might provide a clue: Sam-Bo Amusement. This Samuel Holloway Bowers was the loathsome onetime Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, the man who in 1998 was convicted in the 1966 fire-bombing death of civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer, who was registering blacks to vote in Forrest County, Miss.

The case was unsolved for decades until new evidence surfaced that helped put Bowers away for life. He died in a state penitentiary in November 2006 at age 82. The case is the basis for the 1988 film Mississippi Burning, with Stephen Tobolowsky’s nauseating Clayton Townley character based on Bowers.

But in 1982, Arnold knew nothing about Sam Bowers the Imperial Wizard. He was only interested in Sam Bowers the Pinball Wizard, and his array of old arcade machines. At the time, Arnold was moving his own operation from Michigan out to Las Vegas, and before relocating dovetailed down to Laurel to meet with Bowers. The meeting came about as a result of Bowers’ cultural intolerance. A major collector in Los Angeles was negotiating with Bowers to purchase his entire collection until, as Arnold says, “Bowers found out he was Jewish, and said was a ‘no-good Jew’ and refused to sell them to this guy.” That left an opening for Arnold to cherry-pick Bowers’ huge assortment of games.

“I’d talked to another ‘Pinhead’ about Bowers and he said, ‘He’s too screwy for me,’ but I had my little pinball project and was coming out to Vegas anyway, so I didn’t have much to lose,” Arnold said. “If he’s a total flake, I haven’t wasted an entire trip.”

Bowers’ instructions to Arnold were for Arnold to call him from a pay phone at a gas station that sat across the street from the Ford dealership Bowers’ was using to store all of his machines. “He wanted to find out if I was alone,” Arnold said. “He thought I was some sort of spy, so he talked to me about old machines, stuff only a collector would know about, and he loosened up after about an hour.” Arnold also remembers that Bowers complained that he couldn’t get any “n-words” to help him move any of his machines.

Arnold wound up buying about 40 machines from Bowers, including a Super Jumbo 10-cent machine from 1955, the first four-player machine ever made. The Million Football machine is the only game Arnold purchased from Bowers that is on display in the Hall of Fame, and the hand-written notes on the machine (including the stenciled, red 5-cent sign) were created by Bowers.

“I’ll never forget that trip. I was leaving town and I stopped at a Waffle House, and a guy had just gotten out of his truck and was running around the back of the Waffle House, chasing chickens,” Arnold said, laughing. “He was trying to get these chickens, live chickens, back into his truck. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a grown man chase chickens, but it is bizarre. I thought, ‘I’m really out of my element here.’ ”

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