Tucked away on a dead-end street in Indian Hills, the Lucios’ home holds a basement secret.
Down a flight of carpeted stairs and around a tight corner sits a home arcade featuring several classic pinball machines complete with flashing lights and sound effects. Amid the attention-getting catcalls from the games, Tony Lucio tells the story of how repairing and playing pinball together has brought his family closer.
It all began at an open house in Northern Kentucky that the Lucios — Tony, his wife, Anna, and daughters Bethany, 14, and Beverly, 11 — attended a few years back. After the couple got separated for about an hour, Tony asked the girls where their mom was.
“They told me I couldn’t bother her, she was playing pinball,” recalled Tony, who donned his best poker face on the ride home when Anna casually confessed the family should get a pinball machine. “She was a closet pinball fan, a dream come true. Who knew?”
With two daughters at home, the family didn’t have a lot of disposable income so Tony decided to buy a broken down game and fix it up — something he had never done before. But, he said, that’s the beautiful thing about YouTube, you can learn how to do just about anything.
He enlisted the help of his wife and daughters, who help clean, repaint and restore the machines to their former glory. The Lucios have found that much like the Lay’s potato chip motto, pinball enthusiasts can never seem to have just one.
“We were warned when we got the first one,” said Anna, who works for the state agriculture department. “Once you get one, they multiply.”
In fact, their pinball obsession even played a role in the home they selected, as there had to be adequate space for the games and Tony’s workshop area, where the family works their magic.
According to Anna, the previous owners of the Indian Hills home had collected a time capsule of memories in the basement and the Lucios’ bid on the home was accepted on the condition that they dispose of the basement clutter.
“We got all that stuff out and the first thing we brought into the home when we moved was a pinball machine,” she laughed.
Many of the games that pass through the Lucios’ basement are repair jobs, bound for arcades and shows or are ready to be sold. All of the pinball machines, regardless of whether they are being plugged in or loaded out, receive cupholders.
Tony said there is a saying among the game’s enthusiasts that “if it’s not broke, it’s not pinball.”
“Some of these games are 50-plus years old,” he added. “They wear down and electrically break down.”
Oftentimes aided by Anna or Beverly, Tony does the internal electrical work on the games, and Bethany, the family’s budding artist, repaints the play field.
“She’s fantastic at it,” Tony said of Bethany’s art prowess. “I always tell her, ‘When you paint it, make it ours.’”
Which she does, sometimes simply by changing the color of an object on the field or adding what is known as an Easter egg — an inside joke, hidden message or secret image that wasn’t there before. It’s about subtleties, he added — paying homage to the original design in her own respectful way.
“I’m proud of the work they’ve done to get these things working,” Tony said.
Over time, each member of the family has become a pinball wizard controlling the flippers. At Recbar, a Louisville-area arcade where Tony has occasionally repaired some of the 65-plus pinball machines, adult customers have been known to wait their turn behind Bethany and Beverly for a good 20 minutes before getting the next game.
Having spent a considerable amount of time playing, they usually know the storyline behind each game and what targets to hit and when for maximum points.
The basement arcade is also hit with the girls’ friends, who are often amazed when they come over for impromptu sleepovers.
“All my friends want to hang out here. They think it’s cool,” Bethany, an eighth-grader, explained. “They always say, ‘Why didn’t you ever tell me about this before?’”
Beverly gets the same response from her friends and enjoys having her birthday parties at home, where they host tournaments with Dollar Tree prizes for the top score overall and on each game.
One of Bethany’s friends who was particularly curious about the inner workings of the machines, got a lesson from Tony as he was making repairs in his workshop one day.
“She wanted to know how everything worked and I could literally see the lightbulb go off in her head as I was pointing out what did what,” he said, adding that was something he was pleased to see.
Anna and Tony are hoping that through the repair process their daughters learn a valuable lesson.
“You can be makers or takers, but you’ll get a lot further in life if you are a maker,” Tony said he always tells his girls. “A lot of adults think kids are lazy and just want to throw in the towel. We tell (the girls) to take care of what you’ve got. Fix it. Don’t just throw it away.”
The family makes the whole process fun and each has a few favorite pinball machines. Tony and Beverly enjoy Torpedo Alley, a rare 1988 game, which was controversial for its backglass art and fragile parts and its underrated fun, fantastic soundtrack and hidden JAWS theme.
“It’s fun and silly and I just can’t get mad at it,” Tony said.
But the pair also can’t resist a quick play on the Whirlwind, a 1990 Williams classic complete with a mounted fan.
Anna, who also knows her way around a pinball machine, tends more toward the space games. Known as the game that saved pinball, Williams’ 1984 launch of Space Shuttle was an unexpected hit that ushered in the “golden age” of 1980s-90s pinball. It was also Tony’s first pin and restoration project back five years ago and won Best in Show at the 2016 Louisville Arcade Expo, where the family frequently has entries.
The family’s most recent contender for Best in Show earlier this year — and one of Bethany’s favorites — is a hard-to-find restored 1989 Bad Cats, a Williams System 11 game with fantastic artwork by the legendary Python Angelo, according to Tony.
“It’s the one game I would never get rid of,” he said.
Most of the pinball machines he buys online for a few hundred bucks because new ones can soar into the thousands. Fortunately, the family was able to get into gaming before the resurgence that has occurred in the past few years. Tony said prices of pinball machines, which still appeal to middle-age baby boomers, have doubled.
The pinball community is tight-knit, family-oriented and takes care of one another. In the five years since they started repairing machines, the Lucios have seen many doors open to them. But, most of all, they have cultivated a love of each other and an appreciation of the mechanical, tactical and technical aspects of the game.
“No matter how good you are, you are constantly battling to stay alive,” Tony concluded. “It’s still inevitable that you’ll lose.”