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Called into Question

 

Today I’ve got a great story that you probably know nothing about, and that’s the best kind, right? This story is about the man who had the chance to end the thirty-year prohibition of pinball in new york city with one machine, one ball, and one amazing shot. Did he make it? Well, before we get to that, let’s set the way-back machine for the 1930s and see how we got to this moment.

 

The first commercially produced, coin operated pinball machine in the U.S. came on the scene in 1931 and caused an immediate stir for two reasons. One, people really loved pinball. And, two, people really hated pinball. Of course, when I say people, I’m talking about the usual suspects…churches, civic groups, alarmist educators, “concerned parents”, etc. The same people who thought electricity, the novel, and waltzing would cause the end of moral society. Those people. Their ire toward pinball had mainly to do with the fact that they thought it was a form of gambling, and in the early days, they weren’t far wrong.

 

You see, until 1947, pinball machines didn’t have any flippers…and so the player was very much at the mercy of the machine in regards to the outcome of a game. The only control at all that you had over these early machines was either through finesse with your shot of the ball or by physically moving and shaking the machine. Of course the latter problem was quickly dealt with when the “tilt” mechanism was invented in 1934, preventing players from picking up, shaking, or moving the machines.  So, as you can see, with no flippers or other means of control, early pinball machines really did resemble games of chance rather than skill and, in most states, games of chance were illegal.

 

Fast forward to January 21, 1942. Mayor (and notorious buzzkill) Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City makes a case to the city council that pinball is a scourge that is stealing money from the “pockets of school children in the form of nickels and dimes given to them as lunch money.” and that these “insidious nickel stealers” should be banned. So, the city council agrees and passes a city-wide ban on pinball machines in public spaces and starts to conduct prohibition-style raids on businesses who do not comply…smashing machines with sledgehammers for photo-ops with the press, or simply confiscating them when the cameras weren’t around.

 

Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles soon follow suit with bans of their own and pinball’s reputation as a low brow, dirty, criminal activity is cemented in history. Or is it?

 

Three decades pass, during which time pinball’s reputation remains suspect, and even after the advent of flippers which gave the player much more control over the game, the ban in New York stays in place. That is, of course, until one morning in 1976 when the city council crowded into a courtroom in Manhattan to watch a writer-turned pinball wizard demonstrate his skill at the game. The wizard’s name…was Roger Sharpe.

 

Roger Sharpe developed his love for pinball at University of Wisconsin when he and his friends would kill time by playing the game in spots like The Pub or The Kollege Klub. After college, Sharpe moved to New York, taking an editor position at GQ magazine. His desire to play pinball, which had been banned, as we know, led him to pursue a feature story that eventually evolved into a book, Pinball!, establishing him as the expert who could save the game.

 

So, in 1976, the Amusement and Music Operators Association came calling and recruited Sharpe to be their, uh, sharp-shooter in order to demonstrate to the city council that pinball was a game of skill, not chance, and that the ban should be overturned. When the day came, several machines were delivered to the courtroom, the city council filed in, and Roger Sharpe, with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders, walked up to the pinball machine, and like some latter-day Babe Ruth, called his shot. He tells the city council that based on his skill, he will pull back the plunger and shoot the ball into the middle lane at the top of the playing field, and what happens next absolutely secures Roger Sharpe’s reputation as one of the most important men in pinball.. With palms dripping sweat, Sharpe pulls back the plunger and lets the ball fly. It bounces of one bumper, then another, and after teetering in between lanes, it tips into the center lane, just as he had claimed it would. And Roger Sharpe becomes the unlikely hero at the end of a thirty-four year battle.

 

Moments later, the councilmen said they had seen enough. Sharpe’s legendary shot had changed their minds and the ban on pinball in NYC was soon overturned. Shortly after NYC repealed its ban, other cities followed suit and pinball was again legal in all 50 states.

 

And that is how one man, with literal balls of steel, saved the game of pinball.

 

Epilogue

 

Since his feat, Sharpe has remained involved in the pinball scene as a writer, speaker, collector, and player. His is currently ranked as the 277th best player in the world. His sons, Zach and Josh are #5 and #19 respectively. They are often referred to as the first family of pinball.

 

Today, only a handful of manufacturers of pinball machines remain. The game, however, has seen a resurgence in recent years. According to the International Flipper Pinball Association, which operates the World Pinball Player Ranking, there are more than 1,800 pinball tournaments a year across the country that offer more than $1 million in cash and prizes—a payout that would, no doubt, piss off Fiorello LaGuardia to no end.

 

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On August 22, 1911, there was no joy at the Louvre. Sometime in the two previous days, someone had slipped in and made off with the Mona Lisa. There were no clues. There were no suspects. Security for the museum in those days was being handled by an understaffed and mostly ineffectual crew of 150 woefully underpaid guards that were in charge of the entirety of the collection totalling over 250,000 pieces so, of course, no one had seen anything.

So bad was the security at the Louvre that this was only the latest occurrence in a long litany of other embarrassments. Just months before the heist, a reporter had stayed after closing and hid in a sarcophagus overnight to expose the museum’s lack of any true security measures. This dearth of security is evidenced again by the fact that the Mona Lisa’s disappearance wasn’t identified as a theft until over 24 hrs after it was stolen (the staff assumed it was taken down for either maintenance or to be photographed).

Even after the discovery, clues were nearly non-existent. Days turned into weeks and the police were beginning to panic. They needed a break to appease the thousands of distraught art lovers that padded their way through the Louvre to look at the empty space where da Vinci’s work had  hung.

Enter Picasso, or rather, enter Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire was a writer, playwright, columnist, and poet…one of the more famous ones of the first half of the twentieth century. He was also and ardent defender of Cubism and is credited with coining the name, as well as the term: “surrealism”. He was also a good friend of Picasso’s and was part of Picasso’s gang in Montmarte, which also included the likes of Max Jacob and André Salmon.

For a number of years in Paris, Apollinaire had a secretary named Joseph Géry Pieret. In addition to his secretarial duties, at times Pieret would also sell artworks to Apollinaire that he had pilfered from museums, including two iberian statues from the Louvre that became the inspiration for Picasso’s “Mademoiselles de Avignon”.

Eight days after the painting went missing, Pieret walked into a police station and started talking…and talking…and talking. About not only his criminal exploits, but those of some “artist friends” he had sold artwork to. With this admission, it didn’t take long for the police to figure out that one of these “friends” was Apollinaire and shortly thereafter, he and Picasso were named as suspects.

Feeling the heat and suffering under the fear of deportation, Picasso and Apollinaire decided to put the stolen Iberian statues they were still in possession of into a suitcase and throw it in the Seine. But their artistic hearts betrayed them and, in the end, they couldn’t bring themselves to destroy the statues but, instead, turned them anonymously over to a local newspaper. A little later, Apollinaire was arrested, as was Picasso.

At the trial, Apollinaire confessed to everything having to do with Pieret and the stolen statues, but faced with a deluge of contradictory evidence, the judge threw the case out with little more than a stern warning for the two men and declared them innocent of the theft of the Mona Lisa.

Two years later, the painting was recovered in Italy when a former security guard from the Louvre named Vincenzo Peruggia tried to sell the painting to the director of the Uffizi Museum in Florence. He claimed at the time that the theft was an act of patriotism and that he only wished that Italy would again be in the possession of a national treasure that had been stolen by France. Peruggia was arrested in a sting operation by the police and Uffizi officials at his hotel in Florence, once the painting had been authenticated. Upon its recovery, the art world breathed a sigh of relief and the painting toured Italy to adoring crowds before returning to its place in the Louvre.

As for Picasso, this was far from his only brush with the law while he lived in France. The authorities had always shown contempt for the artist due to his unorthodox lifestyle and anarcho-communist views, even denying him citizenship on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, saying:  ”As a result of all the information gathered, this foreigner has no qualification to obtain naturalization. Further, in the light of the above, he should be considered suspect from a national point of view.” Of course, this is now seen as a great, historical loss for France and a missed opportunity to claim Picasso as one of its own.

Sources for this story:

The New York Times – Picasso in Paris (a suspect but never a citizen) by Alan Riding 2003

Artsy. Com – When Picasso Went on Trial by Ian Shank 2017

Bonjourparis.com – Introducing Picasso’s Gang by Beth Gersh-Nesic 2016

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Biography of Guillaume Apollinaire – Sean O’Hanlan 2018

Mental Floss – When Pablo Picasso was suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa – Lucas Reilly – 2019

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In 1916, the town of Umatilla, Oregon (population 198) seemed to be going backwards instead of forwards. The incumbent town government had let the town slip into disrepair, failed to enforce the laws, and made baffling anti-public safety decisions like removing the electric streetlights that had been installed. To make matters worse, there didn’t seem to be any end in sight. Voter turnout for the town was abysmal as everyone believed the incumbent government would retain their positions and so, as the thinking went, there was no point in voting. And this fact…is what the women of the town were counting on.

For years, the women of Umatilla had watched their inept and sometimes downright lazy husbands make a shambles of the town’s governance and they had finally reached a breaking point. Laura Starcher, wife of current mayor at the time, EE Starcher, was one of the women who had had enough. During a meeting of the town’s women, disguised as a tea party, Starcher made her case for what would become known as The Petticoat Rebellion of 1916.

The plan was simple. The women would run for office. And because there was no law in Umatilla that required a candidate to declare before the day of the election, they could keep their plan completely secret. Before the tea party had ended, the women discussed the particulars of who would run for which office and agreed to quietly canvas for support.

When election day came on December 5th, 1916, to no one’s surprise, the polls were empty…and stayed that way for most of the morning. This was a particularly slow election day, even by Umatilla standards, and the men at the polls commented on how it was strange that they had not seen any women come to vote. But that was about to change.

At 2pm, the agreed upon time, the women of Umatilla put down whatever they were doing and marched to the polls. They had kept their secret so well that none of the sitting city officials had any idea that they were about to be unceremoniously thrown out of office by the town’s women and, in EE Starcher’s case, by his own wife.

On the day of the election,  38 votes were cast in total for the mayoral position (other offices received slightly more) with Laura Starcher beating her husband 26-8 (it’s not clear who received the other four votes). Other women who won their races that day were: Treasurer: Lola Merrick, Auditor: Betha Cherry, Councilor: Florence Brownell, Councilor: H.C. Means, Councilor: Gladys Spinning, and Councilor: Stella Paulu

The new administration took office in January 1917 and undertook several reforms aimed at cleaning up the town, opened a library, and appointed women to several law-enforcement posts.

An East Oregonian article from December 11, 1916 described the political atmosphere in the city that fostered the feminine coup:

”The present administration had been letting city affairs run along the lines of least resistance. Laws were slackly enforced, city improvement was at a standstill and Umatilla was rapidly retrograding back into the sagebrush stage of years ago … [A] change of administration was needed for Umatilla if that town is to grow, the need was realized and the woman of Umatilla arose to the occasion.”

Upon her inauguration Starcher proclaimed:  “Umatilla will be given a business administration and a progressive administration. We believe the women can do many things and effect many reforms in this town that the men did not dare do. We propose to replace the electric street lights, which the present administration removed, clean up and improve the streets, lay sewers and do everything we can to improve the physical and moral health of Umatilla. We shall enforce the laws strictly.”

She also promised that a new female police marshal would be appointed, saying “[w]e will not leave the enforcement of our laws to any man, because past experience has proven the laws will not be strictly enforced.”

As you would expect, news of the coup spread quickly and met with a mostly positive response. The move did have its detractors however, and they were vocal in their skepticism as to the suitability of women for public office. Starcher, for her part, would have none of it. In a rebuttal to such accusations, she said:

“There has been a great deal said about the so-called petticoat government and many wild speculations made as to how we would manage the city affairs, being mere women. However, we will manage the affairs of this municipality without a shadow of a doubt. And if I did not believe that any woman on this council was not as competent and capable as any man who ever occupied a chair in this council I would resign right now.”

Starcher served eight months before suffering a nervous breakdown and leaving office. The city council appointed a new woman as mayor, H.T. Duncan, only for her to resign after a month, and then appointed the newly elected councilwoman Stella Paulu to serve the remainder of Starcher’s original term. Paulu was reelected in her own right with about 80% of the vote in an open campaign in 1918 for a full two-year term. By 1920, the town had returned to an all-male city government…but the women had made a lasting impact and ensured the future of the town. Without them, as the East Oregonian put it, Umatilla probably would have “rapidly retrograded back into the sagebrush stage of years ago.”

A side note if you’re wondering how old EE Starcher took to being replaced as mayor by his wife…the answer is: not well. Despite losing by 26-8, he asked for a recount directly after the election. A fact which, although no one is sure, may have been a deciding factor in their divorce shortly after.

SOURCES:

Damn Interesting Blog

Wikipedia

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