Let’s have some flippin’ fun

Curtis Utley and friends recently restored a 1970s era Evel Knievel pinball machine. It now sits prominently at his office at Iola Auto Body.

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February 2, 2022 - 10:34 AM

Curtis Utley plays a game of pinball this week at Utley’s Iola Auto Body on North State Street. Utley recently restored the 1977 machine. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

I thought I was the Bally table king.

But I just handed my pinball crown to him.

— “Pinball Wizard,” The Who

Curtis Utley’s latest addition to his workspace has nothing to do with car restoration.

But it sure is fun.

Utley and friends recently restored a 1970s era pinball machine that now sits prominently in the front office at Utley’s Iola Auto Body on North State Street.

Most notably, the machine features one of Utley’s childhood idols, renowned daredevil Evel Knievel.

“It’s been a joy to get this going,” Utley said. “A lot of people come in just to see it.”

The pinball machine is a perfect pairing of two of Utley’s childhood passions: Playing arcade games, and watching Evel Knievel.

Born Robert Craig Knievel, the motorcycle stunt performer gained worldwide acclaim in the 1970s for his ability to successfully (and occasionally unsuccessfully) clear various obstacles such as cars or trucks.

“My parents spoiled me, and allowed me to get some of his toys,” Utley recalled, such as an Evel Knievel figurine atop a toy motorcycle. (That very toy is now on display at the body shop.)

Not long ago, Utley decided to add another relic, an old motorcycle helmet he painted as an exact replica of the ones Knievel wore during his career.

It was when Utley showed off the helmet to family friend Gary Lang, who sells body shop supplies, that talk about adding to the collection surfaced.

Curtis Utley kept his restored Evel Knievel pinball machine briefly in his garage before putting it on display at Utley’s Iola Auto Body on North State. Street. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

“You really need an Evel Knievel pinball machine,” Lang said. 

“Wouldn’t that be awesome,” Utley said with a grin.

“I’ve got one,” Lang replied.

Utley went over to Lang’s to get a closer look.

“It was a mess,” he said. “Nothing worked on it, but he gave me a good deal, and some buddies of mine helped haul it home.”

Eric Anderson works on an electronic component while helping restore an Evel Knievel pinball machine for Curtis Utley. Courtesy photo

ASSISTING with his labor of love was Iolan Eric Anderson, an electronics wizard who brought the electrical components back to life, most importantly the pinball machine’s power amplifier.

A power amplifier is best described as a pinball machine’s brains and central nervous system all in one, providing power to each circuit board, flipper and light.

And, as Utley noted, this amplifier was toasted long before he purchased the machine from Lang last summer.

Curtis Utley cleans a component to his Evel Knievel pinball machine.Courtesy photo

Utley scoured the internet for a suitable replacement, but found nothing.

Undaunted, Anderson rebuilt the amplifier from scratch, a task easier said than done.

“Eric took it and counted all the copper windings on each of the solenoids,” Utley said. “And then he rewound it as he rebuilt it. I don’t know how many times he had to wind that thing up, but it was a bunch.”

And the rebuild received a big early boost once they opened the machine for the first time, to find the owner’s manual and electrical schematics still intact.

“When I saw the owner’s manual and owner’s schematic, I felt really good about it,” Utley said. “I might not be able to figure this out, but somebody out there could.”

That somebody was Anderson.

“I don’t know much about electronics,” Utley admitted. “But that kid should be working at NASA. I know if it wasn’t for Eric, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get this thing going.”

It took more than a month of evenings and weekends to bring the machine back to life.

With Anderson tackling the electronics, Utley dedicated his energies to repairing any broken pieces.

“And this machine was filthy,” Utley noted.

But beneath the dirt and grime, the machine remained in remarkably good condition, aside from the dried, crumbling rubber bands that wrap around the various bumpers and pinball components. 

“I found an exact kit to replace those,” Utley said.

The 1977 Evel Knievel pinball game recently restored by Iolan Curtis Utley still has its original owner’s manual and electronic schematics. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

THE REBUILD culminated with an eventful evening last fall, when Utley finally had everything reassembled and put together.

“We started about 7 o’clock, and as time went on, the lights would start coming on, and then the bells would start flashing,” Utley said.

Then, once Anderson connected the flippers to the rest of the circuitry, the machine was ready to go.

“We played our first game at about 11 o’clock,” Utley said. “We had a blast.”

Even better, aside from a flickering light on the player 4 scoreboard, every part of the machine works just as well as the day the machine came off the assembly line in 1977.

Utley originally intended to repaint  and fully restore the machine, to make it look like it just came out of the factory, but friends convinced him to do otherwise.

“Just clean it up,” they said, to preserve the aged, rustic appearance.

“I’m glad I listened,” Utley said.

Curtis Utley has several pieces of Evel Knievel memorabilia on display at Utley’s Iola Auto Body, including a replica helmet and a lunch box recently donated by Iolan Ted Noble. Photo by Richard Luken

UTLEY kept the machine in his garage for a few weeks, to let visiting relatives try it out, before agreeing it would be a better fit at the office.

(For the record, daughter Allie regularly beats her father whenever they compete.)

Then, as word spread about Utley’s new acquisition, his memorabilia collection grew as well.

Family friend Ted Noble donated an Evel Knievel lunch box after Allie told him about the family’s project.

“He had it with his display and didn’t bat an eye and gave it to us,” Utley said. “It was pretty neat.”

Even the owners of the Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka have been in town to check out the pinball machine.

They were so impressed that they donated tickets to the museum. Utley, never shy to pay it forward, figures he’ll use them as prizes at the next Farm-City Days car show in October.

Competition aside, Utley has a perfect way to unwind at the end of each day, even though he admits he’s hardly a pinball wizard.

Utley recalls the days of his youth, when he spent many nights down at Krazy Kleaves, the retrofitted rail car that served as a popular arcade in Iola in the early 1980s.

Curtis Utley, left, and Eric Anderson worked together over the summer to restore a 1977 pinball machine.Courtesy photo

Utley also frequented another arcade just off the square when he was in school.

“We’d go down to the arcade, play a game or two, then go to the Self Service grocery store to get something to eat so that we could get back to school before we were tardy,” he recalled. “Those days were great.”

There are no more hurried lunches on his daily to-do list, but it’s still fun to reminisce, he admitted.

Utley also confessed to another secret. He’s really not that good at pinball.

“I’ve found out there’s a certain spot on this game, where the ball will roll straight down dead center, and you have no chance to get it,” he chuckled. “I don’t care what you do. It’s just tough luck, I suppose.”

With his humility comes a dose of humor. 

“I have fun doing it,” he said. “It’s a blast, but somehow even when I play by myself, I still lose.”

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