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Women’s pinball league gives positive tilt to Bay Area scene

Ellen Frankel slips the last of her quarters into the Medieval Madness pinball machine and wipes the sweat off her forehead. It’s her second game of the night, and she’s trying to get a new high score. Although she is shy to admit it, Frankel is a real pinball wizard.

“I kind of do have a pinball claim to fame. I was female world champion in 1994, and so I was top ten in the world at one point,” she says.

Frankel actually holds the only female national pinball champion title.

Tonight, she’s joined by a dozen other women at the Hi-Life Bar in Oakland. They’re all members of Belles and Chimes, a women’s only pinball league.

“Everybody knows that they have this one thing in common and it’s a starting point to forge new friendships and also have a little bit of fun at the same time,” says Frankel.

The league started in 2013, when Echa Schneider – who’s a nationally ranked pinball player – noticed that she was just about the only woman to show up at tournaments.

“I thought it would be a nice way to encourage more women to get into pinball if I had a women’s only league,” Schneider says.

So, she founded Belles and Chimes. Schneider tells me that pinball’s gender issues run deeper than the images of bikini-clad women plastered over many of the machines.

“There are boobs, boobs, boobs. There are just boobs all over pinball machines,” says Schneider. “All of them.”

It’s about access. The top 25 players in the world, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association, are men. At a national competition in the fall of 2013 that attracted 400 players, Schneider said fewer than 40 women competed. Two of them were members of Belles and Chimes. For female pinball players in the Bay Area, the male-dominated pastime isn’t always the most welcoming.

“It can be pretty intimidating to walk into a room full of 60 dudes and you’re the only girl and you don’t know anybody,” Schneider says. Not to mention the assumptions that exist before you even walk in the room.

“There’s a lot of assumptions on the part of male pinball players that women don’t know what they’re doing,” says Schneider. “I’m not the greatest pinball player in the world, but I’m quite good at pinball. And when I’m playing on location I’m constantly having men approach me and try to tell me really basic things about how to play pinball.”

At Belles and Chimes, Schneider tries to create an environment that stresses fun over top scores. When someone does well, everyone celebrates.

“It’s good just to have more women playing and being visible about playing,” Schneider says.

The league’s success has even led to the opening of a second chapter in New York City.

“In the past year or two I’ve seen so many more women at tournaments and competitive events, so women in pinball are becoming a lot more visible than they have been in the past,” says Schneider.

Back at the Medieval Madness Game, Ellen Frankel has already racked up millions of points. She’s knocked down castles, rescued princesses, and fought off a pack of trolls. She scored enough points to get a replay, or a free game. In fact, she got way more than she needed. Her final score is 62 million points. For Frankel, the score is just another number. What’s more important is the feeling she gets from playing.

“Each pinball game is different. It’s not just each machine being different; every game that you play is different. It’s controlled carom. It’s lovely,” Frankel says.

To be playing with a group of women that all feel the same way, she says, is even better than winning.

This story originally aired on November 11, 2014. For more information about the Belles and Chimes pinball league, click here

Crosscurrents Oakland
Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.