Tim Fabian first became interested in pinball as a kid growing up in Princeton, New Jersey. He brought his love of the game with him when he moved to Pittsburgh to attend the Art Institute in the late ’70s.
Fabian initially lived at a rooming house on Northumberland Avenue where he met his wife, then moved with her to an apartment above the former Silberberg Bakery on Murray Avenue.
The pair and their friends often found themselves at a Squirrel Hill landmark, The Squirrel Hill Café — also known as “The Cage” — or The Corner Pocket on the corner of Hobart Street and Murray Avenue.
“It was cheaper to go drink and play pinball at The Cage than it was to eat at the house,” he laughed.
Fabian, a photographer, was one of the founders of Silver Eye Center for Photography, which by the late ’80s was located on East Carson Street on the city’s South Side. He is just one link in a little-known connection between Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and the city’s pinball history.
Like others on the South Side at the time, Fabian was a regular at the Beehive Coffeehouse, which opened in 1991 and soon became a central hub for pinball.
Beehive co-owner Steve Zumoff grew up in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. Sometime between the ages of 8 and 10, he discovered pinball at a corner restaurant and market.
“I always liked pinball,” he said.
The first game that caught his attention was “Black Knight.” Zumoff fell in love with the mechanical and analog nature of the game, he said.
“It’s more of a skill game versus video games,” he said. “Video games require skill, but they’re programmed games.”
Zumoff moved to Pittsburgh to study at the University of Pittsburgh and brought his love of pinball with him, often playing at Doc’s Place on Walnut Street in Shadyside.
After graduation, Zumoff and his business partner, Scott Kramer, opened the Beehive. The café was one of the first coffeehouses in Pittsburgh and catered to the artistic community that found a home on the South Side.
From the beginning, pinball played a large part in the café’s activities.
“We started with our first game — I think it was Police Force — and then we had two, and that was in the regular coffeehouse,” Zumoff said. “When we got more space I wanted to have a pinball room, so we had six games in the back and that was the start of the pinball universe. Pinball had a big resurgence and Pittsburgh had a big presence in the pinball world.”
Pittsburgher Dale Lazar provided the coffeehouse with its games, Zumoff said.
Lazar is better known these days as a photographer, capturing images at many Union for Reform Judaism events, but in the ’90s he was a local supplier of pinball games.
A third-generation owner, Lazar joined the business — a jukebox supplier that added pinball games to its offerings — in the late ’70s, after working as a teacher.
“The success of pinball at the Beehive was remarkable,” Lazar said. “I would suspect that, at the time, it was both the most popular venue and record-setting in terms of revenues for pinball.”
His relationship with Zumoff, he said, was unique.
“Pinball games are not reliable,” Lazar said. “There’s a lot of service and Steve was able to do some of that basic service, so he had keys to the games to reduce downtime and increase revenue. Prior to meeting Steve, I never thought I would have given the keys to anybody, but he was so uniquely special and committed and exuded incredible integrity that it was very easy to give him keys to the games.”
The games proved so popular at the South Side location that when Zumoff and Kramer opened a second location at the old Kings Court Theater on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, they made sure to include pinball there as well.
“It’s hard to believe,” Lazar said, “but we carried the games up the steps. Now I can’t even carry a ball, but he had designed a special room.”
Eventually, Zumoff branched out and partnered with Kevin Martin to help create a pinball league in the city.
“I was very much a player. I always have been,” Martin said. “I met the Pittsburgh crew in 1993 when I was in Chicago at the AMOA tournament. Steve was a big part of that, as well as Dave Stewart, who was an electrical engineering student.”
As luck would have it, Martin began dating a woman from Pittsburgh, and he moved to the city. He recalled that Zumoff and Stewart were working then to bring competitive pinball to Pittsburgh.
“Dave was pushing hard,” Martin said. “He originally created the Three Rivers Pinball Association and then later the Steel City Pinball Association, but I might have the order reversed. Now there’s a thriving scene with all sorts of leagues and locations. At the time, the two Beehives were the only place to play.”
Martin was the founder of Pair Networks, a large host of internet websites. It allowed him to follow his passion, which was pinball.
He started to create events with Zumoff, first at the Beehive, later at a hotel in Oakland, before moving them to the Best Western at Parkway Center. The competitions proved a hit.
“We had the top floor and could fit about 25 or 30 machines,” Martin said. “The air conditioning couldn’t keep up. The elevators were overwhelmed. It was hot and messy, and things were breaking down all the time, but people loved the format. We had a huge turnout and trouble shutting down by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. each day.”
When Martin heard New York City’s Broadway Arcade owner and founder of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association, Steve Epstein, was retiring, he bought the league name.
Epstein is credited with popularizing the concept of pinball leagues and tournaments, so the name carried a certain weight, Martin said.
In the early 2000s, Martin bought a space in Carnegie that contained more than 200 pinball games. A week after the first tournament, PAPA 7, Carnegie experienced extreme storms which flooded Martin’s location.
Zumoff and Martin moved the tournament to the David Lawrence Convention Center. The tournament was so popular, Martin said, that it ranked third in attendance after the Home & Garden Show and the Auto Show.
Martin started a nonprofit, Replay FX, that ran the tournaments and was focused on securing pinball for future generations.
“We were really punching above our weight,” he said.
COVID changed all that.
The organic growth that started at the Beehive in the late ’90s, which led to the creation of a pinball league and record-breaking tournaments, was stopped in its tracks by the virus.
“The first Replay FX event had 3,000 people, and four years later we had 30,000,” Martin said. “You just can’t start that cold again.”
And while the large tournaments with tens of thousands of people may have ended, Pittsburgh’s connection to pinball is as strong as ever. Kickback Pinball Café in Lawrenceville and Pinball Perfection in the North Hills are just two locations Pittsburghers can visit to hit some flippers.
As for Fabian, he’s taken his love of the game home. He now owns a 1994 edition of Bally’s Popeye Saves the Earth, bought for him by his wife, Karen.
“It was the first multi-level with flippers game at the time,” he said with pride. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.