By MARLA R. MILLER
Last Christmas Eve, Matt Hendricks spent the evening driving across Michigan fixing pinball machines so they’d be ready for customers’ family and friends to play on the holiday.
It wasn’t the ideal way to spend the night before Christmas, but Hendricks understands the fun and enjoyment they bring. He also appreciates the artistry and intricacies of the machines.
Hendricks, 36, said he’s loved pinball since age 5. His other love is radio, and he’s happy to be back on the air as a disc jockey on Muskegon’s new 100.9 FM WFFR http://www.muskegonradio.com/.
He turned his pinball hobby into a part-time business, GR Pinball http://grpinball.com/, a few years ago after acquiring and fixing pinball machines for his own collection.
“Ever since I’ve been a child, pinball machines always fascinated me,” he said. “They’re loud, mechanical, bright and flashy. They make noise and hit all the senses. You can feel what you’re doing. Plus, they’re very Americana and beautiful pieces of art. It was just a cool-looking, fun thing I always enjoyed playing as a kid.”
Once he bought a house, he began buying and fixing pinball machines. What started out as just a single pinball game in his basement grew to more than 20. He got his first one from a guy in Detroit and admits he didn’t know much about how they worked.
But with that many games, Hendricks started tinkering around and learned how to restore and repair them. It’s like working on a car. The makes and models might be different, but the general mechanics are the same, he said.
“Once you kind of understand how it all works, it’s not as hard as you think,” he said. “A lot of machines tend to have the same problems over and over. It’s fun. I got to learning about the games, how to fix them, restoring the artwork, and I discovered there’s a whole network of pinball enthusiasts around here. I had people start asking me to get pinball machines, about buying them, ‘hey can you fix them, my buddy’s got one, my grandma’s got one in her basement.’”
His idea for GR Pinball was born when he realized there wasn’t anyone in the area who made house calls. He quickly learned there are a lot of pinball machines in West Michigan, and the Midwest because they were built in Chicago.
“Chicago was the home of pinball,” he said. “Seventy percent of all the machines they built all stayed very close to Chicago. So the demand to fix these things was high; there’s so many around here.”
Many people have older machines sitting unused or out-of-commission in game rooms, garages, and basements. Hendricks takes the hassle out of getting them fixed by going to where they are. He also buys, sells, and trades older, refurbished machines or helps people find particular models.
“If they’re looking for a game, I can always find it,” he said. “More and more, I’d find games that needed to be fixed, sitting in a garage or a barn or wherever it might be, with beautiful backglass and art. They saw the value in them, but didn’t know how to fix them.”
Right now, repairing pinball machines is more a labor of love. He barely gets his money back on refurbished games and fixing them can take several hours, he said. But he does it for the enjoyment and saving a piece of Americana.
Hendricks still has a day job at Berlin Raceway, announcing races every weekend in the summer and handling sales and marketing.
He’s also a familiar voice on local radio. Hendricks does the mid-day show from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on weekdays on 100.9 FM and worked for more than a decade at other stations in West Michigan.
A native of Petoskey, Hendricks moved to Grand Rapids in 1999 to study broadcasting and marketing at Grand Valley State University. He got his start in radio at age 15, visiting the Petoskey station where his former babysitter worked to help out and learn all he could.
“I knew I wanted to be in that business,” he said. “So I basically asked her, ‘can you talk to the owner and see about getting me in here?’ I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”
He did everything from clean vans to paint walls to organizing old records in the basement. He graduated to some short spots on-air and helped with local high school football games, playing commercials and overseeing other technical aspects from the studio while the announcers called the game.
“I was 17 years old, I was no means adult enough,” he said. “But I learned quite a bit about the business, the technology. Towards the end, I was running football games, answering the phones. I had to learn and I understood that.”
Hendricks landed in Grand Rapids and graduated from Grand Valley in 2003. He was hired on as a part-time producer while in college and worked in various roles until being laid off in 2010. He was a disc jockey for many formats of music, but was always a fan of what was called “oldies” back then, he said.
He even created the Classic Hit or Miss http://www.classichitormiss.com which features long-lost classic tunes from the ’60s, 70’s, and 80’s that radio and others have forgotten.
He worked with Andy O’Riley, WFFR’s general manager, at another station until 2013 when they both fell victim to corporate downsizing. Deregulation led to the demise of many local stations, he said.
“Radio was always designed to be, in general, a community service,” he said. “The FCC approves them to serve the community, that’s why it’s regulated. FCC controls who can go on the air. When things got deregulated, all of the little stations and independently owned stations were sold and bought out and you no longer had local ownership or local people on the radio.”
Hendricks is excited to be at 100.9 FM because it’s a nonprofit radio station for the community, with a local owner.
“Everyone who is on the station is local and part of the community,” he said. “There are very, very, very few stations left that do that. It’s a great privilege to be a part of it, because most of us got into radio to do what we’re doing in Muskegon, to play good music, inform people, be part of the community and make an impact. The public service aspect is a very important part of it.”