Meet the Houston Power Couple Spurring a Pinball Renaissance (2024)

Tim Hood is standing inside a building he calls the Vault, giving me a tour on a warm spring day in Houston, when there’s a knock at the door. He isn’t expecting anyone, and as a man and woman step inside, they’re also taken by surprise.

“Is this the embroidery shop?” the man asks. Clearly it’s not, but the pair are not really sure what they’re looking at.

That’s because the Vault is filled with pinball machines in various states of assembly. There are several dozen here, some set up and ready to play but many still wrapped in shipping plastic, their back boxes separated from the cabinets or opened to reveal their electronic and mechanical guts.

There are valuable rarities alongside popular titles you’d see in many modern-day pinball bars and arcades. Hood has bought some of these machines from other collectors, and many are rare European models purchased at auction. It is an embarrassment of silver-ball riches.

Hood, age 54, who with his wife Christine, who is 56, may own the biggest private pinball machine collection in Texas, politely tells the couple that the embroidery business has moved, and they step outside to google a revised destination.

“That happens sometimes,” Hood says. The building that holds the pinball Vault has been many things, including at one point a meatpacking facility. It’s nestled on a cozy residential street in the historic Houston Heights, where Hood owns several properties, including the house next door.

And yeah, that house is also full of pinball machines.

In fact, the Hoods have stashed almost two hundred tables in four buildings around town. They save their best machines for a game room in their River Oaks home. More prime and rare titles are at Wormhole, a semisecret speakeasy that has become the nexus for Houston’s robust, growing pinball community. Others are on loan to friends, while still more are set up at bars and other venues.

And the Hoods just closed on yet another building, a shuttered fraternal lodge also in the Heights, where they plan to consolidate the machines from the Vault and the house next to it.

But all this real estate is nothing compared with what’s coming next.

Last year the Hoods spent north of $2 million to buy a 14,000-square-foot 130-year-old building east of downtown Houston that they plan to convert into a pinball museum. They believe it is likely one of the oldest freestanding brick structures in town. Like the Vault, it has been many things: home to a succession of printing businesses, a flophouse hotel, a commercial laundry equipment seller, and, quite possibly, a brothel.

Its facade is painted a moody cerulean blue, and from its front step you can see both Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Astros play ball, and Shell Energy Stadium, where the Houston Dynamo kick balls.

On blueprints spread acrossthe Hoods’ kitchen island, the building, at 2215 Congress, is called Wormhole East. It’s intended to be a shrine to pinball’s past and present as well as a playground. Most of the machines—or “pins,” as enthusiasts call them—on display at the future museum will be in working order, Tim Hood vows. Given how often both old and new pinball machines need repairs, that promise will be an engineering feat unto itself.

The Hoods’ blueprints show spaces for 120 pins, as well as a multimedia studio and control center for streaming tournaments online, recording podcasts, and more. A good chunk of the couple’s collection of pinball machines will be available to admire and, most importantly, play.

Christine Hood says the project will likely take eighteen months and “millions of dollars” to complete. Standing inside 2215 Congress, which has been stripped to its brick walls and old-timber studs, both the enormity of the work and the audacity of the Hoods’ vision becomes clear. There are holes in rotten floorboards. Tar rendered soft in the Texas heat drips from slats in the second floor ceiling. Out back, a metal staircase is rusting away. The northwest corner of the building has a visible, lightning-like crack running from the roof to the foundation where the structure’s since-demolished neighbor once collapsed against it.

“Watch out for the poo,” Christine says, pointing to dark patches as she leads a visitor up a set of stairs to the second floor. She speculates it was probably just dog poop until one of the contractors working on the building says something to her in Spanish. “Oh, I don’t believe that,” she replies. She declines to elaborate on their conversation, and at this point I don’t want to know.

The structure at 2215 Congress appears to have sat vacant for quite a while, becoming a target for vandals and squatters, who sometimes still occupy the building. “This is new,” Christine says, pointing at a bit of indecipherable graffiti in red paint.

Turning this into a state-of-the-art museum showcasing the relatively short history of pinball, a place where Houston and Texas pinheads can gather for competitions and celebrations, and a destination where the monied can rent out VIP rooms and play the machines of their choosing is a daunting task. “It’s a huge project,” Tim says, and when asked about its current status, he pauses, laughs, and says only half-joking: “We’re at the ‘we are so f—ed’ stage.”

Meet the Houston Power Couple Spurring a Pinball Renaissance (1)

Unless you’re familiar with the Houston pinball scene, you wouldn’t think that a museum devoted to the game would fit with the city’s medical center/NASA/oil-and-gas-loving reputation. Space City’s pinball renaissance is a relatively new phenomenon, willed into existence by the Hoods and others who made it their mission to spread awareness of the game.

Some credit for building Houston’s pinball scene goes to Phil Grimaldi, a data scientist who moved to Houston in 2014 from Indiana. A highly regarded competitive player, he went looking for fellow pinheads but found them few and far between. “Honestly, the pinball scene back then was like a ghost town,” he says. There were occasional tournaments but not much organization. He and others in the community spun up the Space City Pinball League, which he estimates now has about two hundred committed members and many more intermittent followers in its orbit.

“There are different segments of the scene in Houston,” Grimaldi says. “There’s the collector community and the player community. There’s a large portion of people who are just collecting games, but they don’t come out to tournaments. And then there is a contingent of people who are just really into playing.”

Wormhole opened in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, originally as a place for the Hoods and those in their COVID pod to play and safely socialize. It has become the unofficial headquarters for the Space City league and the local chapter of Belles & Chimes, an international women’s pinball association. Wormhole also fills a hyperlocal need: There weren’t many places to play pinball in Houston’s Inner Loop, and of the establishments that offered the game, many had machines that were frequently out-of-order or flat-out dead. Most big arcades, with decent tables, operated in the northern and southern burbs, the embodiment of the old local joke that “Houston is an hour away from Houston.”

Wormhole’s address is not public, but if you’re a regular pinball player in Houston or you know how to navigate websites that list local tournaments, you maybe could find it. The venue rests closer to “If you know, you know” than “If I told you I’d have to kill you” on the secrecy spectrum. The Hoods like to say Wormhole is located at “parts unknown in Houston, Texas.” The building used to be an independent insurance office, and from the outside it remains nondescript.

Once the height of the pandemic had passed and Texans’ appetite for social events returned to normal, the Hoods reconceived Wormhole as a gathering spot for the pinball community and a place to show off their collection. They added bathrooms and a bar, though there’s no license to sell alcohol, so Wormhole qualifies as a private club.

With their friends, known collectively as the Wormhole5, the Hoods run the place as a cooperative. With old gas station signs and backlight panels from pins as decor, it feels more like someone’s rec room or man cave than an arcade, right down to the disembodied fiberglass heads of Ronald McDonald and the Burger King, the latter being a super-nerdy in-joke among competitive pinball players. (And it’s a joke worth explaining: the International Flipper Pinball Association’s competitive player list is ranked by points, which are called WPPRs and pronounced “whoppers.” Nyuk nyuk.)

Jammed into this 1,225-square-foot space are 23 pins, some of which are from the collection of Wormhole manager John Speights. Hood and Speights rotate tables often, so the machines you play in May aren’t necessarily what you’ll play come June.

Wormhole hosts three tournaments each month. On Wednesday evenings, those who know—or want to learn—how to repair pinball machines converge for a repair night. Written on a whiteboard by the bar is a set of issues dubbed “The List of Grievances,” and as the machines are fixed, the list gets shorter. Tinkerers who excel at whittling down the grievances get invited to the Hoods’ Vault to work on the couple’s unseen gems.

Wormhole is also available for rent, to individuals, corporations, and sometimes celebrities. In March 2023, Wolfgang Van Halen—son of the late guitar legend Eddie Van Halen—celebrated his birthday at Wormhole with his mom, Valerie Bertinelli. Van Halen had been in town to perform with his band, Mammoth WVH, and one of his friends booked Wormhole as a present. The venue’s Facebook account memorialized the event with photos of the starstruck staff.

For a private club, Wormhole hasn’t been shy about growing its reach online. Jamie Burchell—one of the Wormhole5 along with the Hoods, Speights, and Burchell’s wife Genine—streams competitions, interviews with pinball luminaries, and hosts in-depth looks at classic and new games on Twitch and YouTube. He built a pair of three-camera rigs designed to straddle machines and capture multiple views at once, including the player’s face.

The club had its own booth at the Texas Pinball Festival’s twentieth anniversary expo in Frisco in March, and Christine Hood said attendees dropped by to say they’d heard of Wormhole, often citing Twitch and YouTube. For a place with a semisecret location, it’s very well-known online.

Until recently, Speights and the Burchells volunteered their Wormhole efforts, receiving no pay. Now they get a cut of revenue from events, such as the Van Halen party. Money from tournament entrance fees go into a fund to operate Wormhole. Christine Hood adds that the Wormhole5 will make up the board of directors for the museum, once it opens. The Hoods are seeking 501(c)3 nonprofit status for the facility.

Meet the Houston Power Couple Spurring a Pinball Renaissance (2)

Tim Hood is careful to emphasize that both he and Christine are owners of the pinball collection that will be on exhibit at Wormhole East. But Tim is more openly obsessed with the game. Give him an opportunity, and he’ll buy another machine. At the Pinball Festival in March, he picked up a few more, bringing the total in his collection to 199 at this writing. By the time you read this, that number might be even bigger.

And it was Christine who got him hooked.

“It was 2010 and Christine and the boys bought me a Fish Tales and a Twilight Zone for Father’s Day, two pinball machines,” Tim says. “And then she was like, ‘Hey, I met this guy, Charlie Kalas [owner of the Houston arcade-game dealership Joystix]. She’s like, ‘He owns a bunch of pinball machines.’

“So within two weeks, I had gone down to Joystix and bought two more machines,” he adds. “And so now I had four and then I had another one on order. So it was now five. And immediately I was just addicted.”

Collecting pinball machines is an expensive obsession. A common machine from the earliest days of pinball, known as the electro-mechanical era, can cost in the low to mid four figures, but the price can skyrocket if a machine is rare, in great shape, or still in its original box, unplayed.

A new machine that’s as much a computer as it is a collection of bumpers, flippers, rails, and switches can price out near $15,000. The most desirable titles are based on some kind of intellectual property—a movie, a musician, a hit TV show. One of the hottest titles at this year’s festival was Jersey Jack Pinball’s Elton John game, which starts at $12,000 but jumps to $15,000 for the Collector’s Edition.

On top of that, Tim estimated that shipping costs $500 per machine. And he knows a thing or two about shipping. The Hood collection went next-level when, about eighteen months ago, a strong U.S. dollar became equal in value to the euro. Tim saw an opportunity to add dozens of rare European tables to his collection, many of which were largely unavailable in the United States.

“I had a list of a hundred European games that I gave to two different guys that I’d been working with over there,” he says. “I was like, ‘Find me these games.’ And over a six-month window, I bought and imported probably seventy games from Europe, in eight different shipments. We knocked out a ton of games that I had not really thought I could ever find.”

Those games make up the bulk of the inventory now housed at the Vault, awaiting unpacking, reassembly, troubleshooting, and, if needed, resurrection. After that, they may wind up on display at Wormhole East.

Tim and Christine describe their partnership this way: He’s the idea guy, the collector, the dreamer. She’s got the real estate and construction chops to make a museum spring from a dilapidated husk of a building. Physically, they look their parts. He’s tall and lanky with long, swept-back white hair and a beard, and piercing blue eyes. Tim is best described as chill, while Christine is, um, not. Shorter, with curly hair and a rapid-fire way of talking, she can be all energy, all the time.

The couple met in the nineties, when they were studying at the University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduating, both landed corporate jobs—he as an accountant, she as a foreign-trade consultant. Although pinball consumes much of their life together, Tim and Christine each still have day jobs. He’s a commodities trader, while she’s a real estate agent with a homebuilding business on the side.

Christine’s work means she has experience managing renovation projects on older buildings, but nothing she’s done before compares to the task of turning 2215 Congress into Wormhole East.

“This is brand-new for me,” she says. “I’ve done foundations. Yes, I’ve done new construction. Yes, I’ve done remodels. All of that, a lot of the concepts are the same. However, a lot of this is specialty, requires specialized masons and things like that, that I’m in the process of trying to find.” She pauses.

“You got any contacts?”

Although Wormhole East is expected to provide a major boost to the region’s pinball scene, the museum will not be the first of its kind in the area. For years, Dan Ferguson ran the Lone Star Pinball Museum, located in the small town of Hockley, about forty miles northwest of Houston. The collection of pinball machines, tabletop games, peep-show stereopticons, and other coin-operated machines was open by appointment only until Ferguson died in December 2019.

A well-known Houston-area collector with the same passion for pins as Hood, Ferguson was a cofounder of the Texas Pinball Festival. After his death, Hood and other Houston collectors reached out to Ferguson’s next of kin about buying some or all of his collection, but the family wasn’t interested in selling. When I called Ferguson’s widow, she declined to be interviewed but said she plans to use the museum building in Hockley for family gatherings and that she has no current plans to reopen Ferguson’s pinball collection to the public.

The loss of the Lone Star museum means that Wormhole East will have the Houston area to itself, once the Hoods’ space opens. But even without obvious competitors, there’s no guarantee that a pinball museum will be a commercial success. Paul McKinney, another cofounder of the Pinball Festival, noted that a Dallas-area museum closed after just a year of operation. “It will be good to see a museum spin up again,” McKinney says. “Someone tried to do it here, but it was in a horrible location and it just fell apart. What you need is community support, and the group there seems to have that.”

The Hoods are determined to open Wormhole East, to the point that they likely overpaid for the building. Christine knows they spent a pretty penny on the property, but she also thinks she and her husband might get more for it if they put it on the market today. But why were they willing to overpay in the first place?

“Because I like to win,” she says. “Because we saw this and we knew, and that’s how Tim and I have ended up with lots of things that we’ve done together—houses that we bought, land that we’ve owned. We walk in and we just know. We look at each other and it’s like, ‘This feels right.’ ”

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