Pinball Outreach Project – Interview with Greg Dunlap

Before I was visiting Portland, Oregon, for a few days in late March this year, I wasn’t aware of how friendly and diverse this city is. I just heared and read about the unusual vibe that Portland supposedly has, of course watched some “Portlandia” episodes and knew that it’s a good place for pinball. I did some basic online searches and sure enough contacted pinheads via social media and on the wonderful Tilt Forums to get a first heads up on the local pinball community in Portland. I got some interesting responses, most of them recommending Pinball Outreach Project (POP for short), a small non-profit organization that helps bringing pinball to kids. Or, as the official Mission Statement reads: To improve the lives of children by sharing the history and excitement of the game of pinball.

One of the nice people who reacted to my Tilt post was Greg Dunlap, senior member of Pinball Outreach Project and boyfriend of founder and executive director Nicole Anne Reik. POP is a public charity but not only that. Located in Northeast Portland, the Pinball Outreach Project also has it’s own space: POP HQ, a small, family-friendly arcade with twelve pinball machines on display, mostly tables from the 70ies or early 80ies. It was a no-brainer for me to visit this place and so I asked Greg to meet me there for an interview. This way I not only could see the place, play some games and talk to the staff but also get to know a little bit more about this unusual project.

Could you please briefly introduce yourself?

I’m Greg Dunlap, I live in Portland, Oregon, and I help to run the Pinball Outreach Project.

What is the Pinball Outreach Project?

The POP is a non-profit that’s dedicated to bringing pinball to kids. And so we run a location here in Portland where we have between ten and 13 games – depending on how things are going. And we are open to the public, we give free play to kids 13 and under, two hours a day. Any other time, kids can play for five dollars for unlimited play. And we rent out for birthday parties and all of those sorts of things. But the other thing we do at the space is that we run outreach events. We had some events for a local group called “Footprints” which is a group for kids with Autism. We’ve been running some events for school kids having classes coming here. We’ve done some events with the Children’s Cancer Association here. And then we also have other events where we take our games out to other places: We have two games at a children’s hospital here in Portland, Randall Children’s Hospital. We have a game in the house of an autistic child right now and his social worker is using it to work into his program for him to learn hand-eye coordination and other things like that. We originally started focused on children’s hospitals but we really broadened our things to anything involving children and youth and pinball.

How do children react to the idea of the Pinball Outreach Project?

The really like it! There is a lot of science in pinball: There is electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering, art and music and sound. And so it’s really interesting to show the kids the ways that these kind of abstract theories that they learn in school can be brought to live in really cool ways.

What’s your personal history with pinball?

I grew up in Chicago. A little over 20 years ago, I got addicted to “Twilight Zone”. And Chicago being the area where all of the pinball manufacturing used to happen is also where all of the pinball games would go on test first before they got played. And so, one time I was at a location playing the test game of “World Cup Soccer”. Then a guy came in and he said: “Oh hi, I work with this company. I need to check on the game and get the statistics out of it”, and things like that. It turned out to be Larry DeMar who’s a really famous figure in the pinball and videogame industry. Him and his partner Eugene Jarvis created “Defender” and “Robotron”. And on the pinball side, he worked on “Black Knight”, “High Speed”, “Banzai Run”, “Funhouse”, “Addams Family”, “Twilight Zone”, “Road Show”, “Jackbot”, “World Cup Soccer”. The Greatest Hits of Pinball live under this guy’s belt. Through him I started meeting some of the other pinball manufacturers at pinball expos in Chicago and other test game locations and stuff like that. I started getting more and more into the competitive pinball scene at that time, way before there was a ranking system or anything like that. And a big tournament would draw 30 people. I just started getting more and more into pinball and the pinball community and travelling to tournaments and to PAPA events and meeting more and more people. It’s always been a big part of my life ever since then. I’ve worked at the pinball manufacturers: I worked at William’s for a while and then I worked for Pat Lawlor Design, helping him on some games. A few years ago, I moved to Portland and I met my girlfriend Nicole and she is the one who started Pinball Outreach Project. She moved up to Portland so that we could move in together. She always had the dream of running a location to fund the project and so we found this space and that’s what we’re doing.

Some kids have never seen, touched or played a pinball machine before. What is their reaction when they start playing their first games?

It’s interesting because Portland has more pinball machines than any other city in the world. But they’re almost all in places where kids can’t go to play because they are in places like bars or pubs where they sell liquor. And the kids have to be 21 to get into them. And you’re right, a lot of them have never played pinball before. And it’s funny because some of them just walk up to it and they don’t get it. But some of them, from the moment they plunge that first ball … you can just see it in their eyes: They’re so into it! And we have a seperate high score table here, just for kids scores that we run on a little chalkboard. Some kids get so into it, they play a game and they run over, they check the scores, and they get so excited. And I get their initials and they write it up and their parents take their picture next to their score and put it on Instagram and all of that kind of stuff. So we do have a lot of kids who have gotten really into it. And it’s also something that their parents can do with them together – because the parents remember it from when they were kids. And so that whole aspect of it being a real family thing is really fun to watch.

Here at POP, most of the machines are from the 70ies and the early 80ies. I understand that these machines are donations that you fix and then put them here on display?

Probably about a third of the machines are machines we actually bought and then about a third are donations that I’ve had to fix up in varying extense and about a third are on loan from the local pinball community. The local pinball collector community has a real deep love of solid state and electromechanical games and so there is a really big collection of those here in Portland. And some of those are here right now on loan from those people. And I’m the one who maintains the games in the space, yes.

The electromechanical and early electronics machines are also those which are not so fast in terms of gameplay. Is this a good thing when it comes to kids?

A lot of them like them because of the sounds, just like the chimes. They really react to that and they think it’s really fun. The electromechanical games are definitely very popular with kids. The other thing that they like is that they’re set to five balls instead of three so that they can play a little longer. But there is definitely something about the chimes and the sounds on those games that they really appreciate. And then on the other end: We have a “World Cup Soccer” machine here, and the kids all love that game. As soon as they shoot goals, they’re like “GOOOOOAL!!”, and then their hands are in the air and then they drain their ball because they’re not paying attention. It’s really fun to watch.

What about your education, did you study engineering in some way?

No [laughs] … I have a degree in photo journalism and fine art photography. So I have no formal engineering background at all, I’m completely self-taught on all of it.

Pinball Outreach Project is quite a unique project. Do you encourage others within the pinball community to maybe start something similar in different cities?

I don’t know! We’ve only had the space opened for about a year. So we’re just sort of starting to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t and how we can keep the place sustainable. So until we feel comfortable with where the space is and we feel like it’s running itself really well, it’s hard to think of expanding it anymore. We’ve even talked about expanding it into more space and we even have a hard time with that. I work a real fulltime job and barely have time to keep the machines running as it is on the side. We want to keep the project going and we want to keep the charity going but as far as expanding the space or doing things in other cities … If it inspires other people to do that, that’s great, but we don’t have any plans to do it ourselves.

So Pinball Outreach Project is still just about a year old?

The charity has existed for four years but the space here opened up in April of 2015.

What is the feedback to POP so far, from people who are not into pinball and from the pinball community?

A lot of people who come in here are amazed, they haven’t seen pinball in so long, and especially not the older games. We often get people in their 60ies and 70ies who come in here. We’re right across the way from a restaurant so people at the restaurant have to pass by our place to go to the bathroom back and forth. And so a lot of times, after they’ve finished eating, older people are coming here. And they’re amazed and especially love, again, the electromechanicals because it’s such a throwback to when they were kids: the chimes and the noises, it’s just strong feedback for them. And then we have a very active local pinball community and we run tournaments and a league here and stuff like that. There is a team league in Portland where all of the locations feel the team and then the teams play each other and we won the team league last year so that was really fun. I would say that the reaction from the community has been great. As for the local neighborhood, the parents love having us here, they’re super happy to have a family friendly place here in the city. All of it’s been really great.

There is a crowdfunding campaign running right now to raise some funds for both the POP charity as well as the Women’s World Pinball Championship.

On a personal note: I will return to Portland from July 27th to August 13th. If you want to shoot some silver balls at POP or elsewhere in the city, plunge me an email at plunger at theballiswild dot net.