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Ladies League Keeps Milwaukee's Pinball Tradition Alive

Fifty years ago this month, the rock band The Who made rock and roll history with a rock opera called “Tommy.”  The concept album introduced a “deaf-dumb-and-blind kid” who would become the world’s most famous pinball player ever.

While electronic video games now dominate the game world, a group of Milwaukee women is helping keep pinball alive here. On the first Thursday of the month, the Ladies Pinball League gathers at Bremen Cafe in Riverwest — a Milwaukee neighborhood whose DIY, analog-friendly culture fits well with pinball. Anywhere from five-10 women get together, with a range of ages and experience.

Alice, who describes herself as “40-mmmmrumph years old,” is emblematic of the group’s membership. “The first time I ever played pinball,” she recalls, “I was a wee child back in the early days of arcade land. And the pinball was the main game that I could actually get at because the boys were not constantly monopolizing it.”

But the Ladies Pinball League is also the entry point into the game for some, including Liz, a 20-something millennial.

“This is my first time here,” she says, even as Alice coaches her. “I’ve never ever played pinball on a pinball machine.”

Most of the members of the Ladies Pinball League say they’re not crazy about the digital gaming world.

The league has been around for about six years, most of that time led by Jess Anderson, a pinball aficionado who – with her husband even has a few machines in their basement.

“I’m just old enough to remember going to places like Woolworths or even like Goldman’s,” she says, “and sitting in the diner, and there being a pinball machine in a pharmacy, or a candy shop.”

Anderson says while competition isn’t the league’s reason for being, the best players do get rewards – formerly beer, but now candy, the perfect accompaniment to an evening in the arcade.

Barbara Miner is Milwaukee-based journalist, photographer and producer. Her work has appeared in news outlets ranging from WUWM to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee Magazine and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.