Meet Elvira and the Makers of Her Hit Pinball Machines at the Texas Pinball Festival

Cassandra Peterson, Greg Freres and Dennis Nordman will speak at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Frisco Conference Center

Many actors setting out in their careers dream of someday tearfully accepting a shiny golden Oscar statue. But Cassandra Peterson, who became a pop culture icon in the early '80s when she invented the character Elvira, was excited by the prospect of a different milestone.

"When I was a little kid, my dad used to take me to bars and play pinball with me," says Peterson, who reconnected with the game as an adult when she dated another pinball freak for four years. "When I finally got a pinball machine it was like getting an Academy Award."

Not only did she get one, she got two. Peterson had created Elvira, a goth Valley girl who bared lots of cleavage, for the television show Movie Macabre, where she'd present B-grade horror movies with humorous commentary. By '88 she had enough of a following that NBC Productions gave her her own movie, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.

Around that time, Bally approached her with the idea for an Elvira pinball machine. Peterson's first pinball machine, "Elvira and the Party Monsters," came out in '89, and it was so well received that seven years later Bally followed it up with "Scared Stiff."

This weekend, Peterson will be on a panel at the three-day Texas Pinball Festival at the Frisco Conference Center with the game artist and designer who worked on her machines, Greg Freres and Dennis Nordman.

Bally thought Elvira would be a good theme for a pinball machine because she appealed to both men and women.

"In my show my main demographic was female. The advertising would be more for female products, which I was blown away by," Peterson says. "But as I have gotten older I understand better that Elvira represents, as cooky as she is, a strong woman who doesn’t take any bullshit from guys. She’s sexy but not a bimbo. Women really appreciate the character. I’ve kind of become a strange role model."

Freres, who has produced art for a number of popular pinball machines, including Medieval Madness, says the two Elvira machines are his favorite. "Elvira and the Party Monsters won an award at the industry trade show, Best New Equipment in '89. It was the first time pinball had won in years. Video games were king."

Like Peterson, Freres' parents inadvertently introduced him to pinball. He grew up in Chicago, when pinball was still illegal there. But it was legal in Wisconsin, where his family would travel on vacations. "I would see these interesting games with flashing lights and I'd have to drop a coin in. I was just amazed," Freres says. "My parents would have a drink at the bar and give me money, and I’d go over and play a pinball machine."

After graduating art school, Freres went to work for Bally, and he's since had a long career in pinball, going on to work for other companies such as Williams and now Stern. He says the reason the Elvira machines were so fun to work on is because they reflect a time before restrictive licensing laws.

"Way back in the day when we didn’t have licensing we could just make up anything that the game designer or sales and marketing people thought was a good idea and go for it," Freres says. "With a license you have to fit the mold of how they want to portray their property."

He always starts with the pinball machine's backglass, often creating the art before the details of the playfield have been established. "Someone has to be attracted by the illuminated back glass from across the room and say, 'OK, that looks like something I'd want to play.'"

Nordman, who designed the playfield, compares the process of designing a pinball machine — creating the artwork, the playfield, mechanical toys, writing scripts for speech, developing light shows, rules of play and completing the voice overs — to directing a movie. The end product has to be cohesive and durable, and to achieve this end he worked closely with Peterson and Freres.

The party theme for the machine was inspired by ads Peterson was appearing in at the time. "At the time she was pitching Coors Beer ... so she thought maybe that was a good tie-in," Freres says. Both machines also played on Elvira's penchant for double entendres and sexual innuendoes.

Peterson got to add in quite a few personal touches. "On the backglass [of Elvira and the Party Monsters] I had all kinds of secret messages to my then-husband and my-ex boyfriend, to my mom, my dad. I had my cat in there, all kinds of things. Little messages."

The designers' mark is left on the machines as well. During development of Elvira and the Party Monsters, Nordman had just gotten into a bad motocross accident, so there are a lot of broken bones in the playfield.

Saturday he plans to show some pictures of him standing next to Peterson during his recovery. "I'm standing next to Elvira and she sticks her leg out of her dress, so I stick my big cast out," he says. Freres will bring his original thumbnail sketches for the machines.

Throughout the years, Peterson has kept several of each machine in her home, but recently she sold all but two, which she keeps in their original boxes. "The ones that I took out I used to have in my office and it really cut down on productivity," says Peterson, who is currently working on her autobiography as well as a pilot for an animated show. "I would be sitting there trying to write and I’d jump up and I’d play a game and say, 'When I get to this score, then I’ll go back and write.'"

Because of the secret messages encoded in the artwork for Elvira and the Party Monsters, that machine is dearer to Peterson's heart, but she says the later game, Scared Stiff, is more fun to play because of the advancements between '89 and '96. The main ones, according to Freres, were the introduction of the dot matrix display, which allowed for crude animations of Elvira, and a larger software capacity that meant more speech, music and sound effects that brought the character to life.

Nordman says Elvira and the Party Monsters did innovate in its own way. Until that point pinball ramps had always been flat. "I had the idea that it might work if I could make the ball roll back up hill, so that was the first game that had a downhill-uphill ramp on it," he says.

Freres and Nordman have both attended a number of pinball conventions over the years. Freres has traveled as far as Germany to speak at them, and says he's seen them really take off in the last eight years. The Texas Pinball Fest will have over 400 machines to play, including the two Elvira games.

Peterson attends as many as a dozen horror conventions every year and used to travel to promote the pinball machines, but this will be her first time at a pinball convention. She says she's aware of a lot of overlap between her core fan group and pinball lovers. "I’m asked a lot about my pinball machine," she says. "I’m also brought items; different [pinball machine] parts that people take off and ask me to sign."

Freres compares pinball machine collectors to car collectors, who are passionate about refurbishing machines and even adding modifications. However, a decade ago, when video games were still hitting the pinball industry hard, they were a much more niche group. Now the barcade trend — which we have plenty of evidence of in Dallas, with Free Play, Barcadia and the Cidercade — is reintroducing pinball to its audience. "Now the 20-somethings are discovering that what’s great about pinball is that it’s mechanical and it’s unpredictable," Freres says.

There were many years where he was unsure whether pinball would come back. "Back in '99 when Williams went down, my father-in-law said, 'Don’t worry, it’ll come back someday,' and I said, 'No, I don't think so this time.' And he was right. It did come back."

Texas Pinball Festival, Friday through Sunday, March 24-26, Frisco Conference Center, 7600 John Q Hammons Drive, passes $10-$65 at texaspinball.com.


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