North of the 49th

Story Date : 1998-2002
Location: Montreal & Toronto
This story was first published in March of 2008 in issue #125 of the American hobby and trade magazine - The PinGameJournal ( Republished here with permission of PGJ editor Jim Schelberg and edited for this website.
First a little history. I bought my first pin game in 1978 at the ripe old age of 13. It was a Williams Liberty Bell from Toronto Coin Machine for 650 Canadian dollars. One of the first things a 13 year old first time pinball owner does is search every square inch of the machine from top to bottom simply out of curiosity and of course fascination. I got down on the floor and crawled under to look at the bottom. If you ever purchased a game originally sold in Canada, chances are high that you would have found "Laniel Automatic Machines" stenciled onto the bottom panel of the body. Laniel (rhymes with Daniel) was also known to attach little metal plates, or crests if you prefer, on the top right hand side of the back box. In the later years, the metal crests which were riveted to the cabinets and backboxes were changed to thick plastic stickers, again on the right hand side of the cabinets. They also had warranty control stickers affixed on all pcbs and major components of solid sate games.
Who was this Laniel Automatic Machines ? Had I not bought my pinball from Toronto Coin Machine Exchange ? Not understanding the pinball distributor model at all, I spent the next few weeks checking local phone books and never found any "Laniel". I finally called Toronto Coin and gruff ol` Frank told me they were in the French Canadian province of Québec and to stop bothering him. End of the line for me. Contrary to what most Americans think, not all Canadians speak French, hence I dropped the search for the mysterious Laniel Automatic.
Fast forward to 1998. I`d been collecting for 20 years and knew all the local operators and distributors. Rumor had it that a new pinball distributor was going to open up, and as luck would have it, they would be five minutes from work. Laniel Automatic opened a branch office in Toronto. By then, I understand the distributor model VERY WELL, and I went in and introduced myself to the staff. I recognize several employees, Margaret Patey, Mark Kupiec and Jerry Power, all from the old Starburst Coin Machines, an established competitor. Jerry introduces me to the parts & service manager, Robert Baraké who recently transferred over from the Montreal office to help with the transition. (Those of you who read Play Meter and/or Canadian CoinBox may recognize Robert`s name as he has contributed many technical articles to those magazines over the years. )
Robert and I start chatting and in 10 minutes I knew he was one of "us". He use to have over 100 machines in his collection ranging from the 30`s to the 80`s. His favorite games included Pokerface, Golden Arrow, Centigrade 37, 8-Ball Deluxe amongst others. He loves woodrails, wedgeheads and bingo machines. Although he had been out of collecting for a few years, I could see the ol` spark in his eyes. At one point, Robert mentioned the mountains of good stuff back at the Montréal head office. Playfields... backglasses...NOS parts...documentation. OK, now I am ready for a road trip !
The Lure of the Silver Ball I casually mention, "I`d love to see it one day."
A few weeks go by and I get a phone call from Robert.
"I spoke to Dominic Laniel and he said ok."
"Great, but ok to what ?"
"Ok for you to visit and look around."
"OH ! Cool ! When do we go?"
Realizing that this outing will be a good subject for PGJ article but also realizing that I have zero experience as a writer, I decide to enlist some help. The first name that comes to mind is Gary Flower, author of the classic pinball book, "Lure of the Silver Ball" and the PinGame Journal`s Foreign Correspondent. That`s right, "Foreign"...Gary lives in London, England. I send him an e-mail asking, "When are you coming over to visit ? Wanna go to Montreal? Laniel says we can snoop around." Apparently that does the trick, Gary is game and books his flight to Toronto.
All the pieces are falling into place nicely. After work on Thursday I pick up Gary and we go straight to Laniel Toronto to get Robert. We grab a quick bite to eat, then set out for Laniel Montreal. It`s a five hour drive on a good day, so if we leave by 7 PM, with traffic and pee breaks, we`ll get in around 12:30 AM. Robert`s mother has graciously offered to allow us to crash at her house, the place that use to house Robert`s collection along with a rented basement & garage next door to handle the overflow.
The trip is good. All the way there, we share pinball memories from our past and then the thought strikes me. Here we are; one guy from French Canadian Montreal, one from English Canadian Toronto and the third from London, England, yet we all have had similar experiences. First we became a pinball addict, then we bought a game and next thing you know there are 10 of these things in the house. It`s all pretty standard stuff.
At 1:00 AM we are routing through the remains of Robert`s pinball stuff. There is a nice Centigrade 37 set up and ready to play, a rare Super Jumbo and a couple of bingos. Also in the group of oddball parts in an old back office are two rare backglasses made by a Canadian pinball company called North Star. The two games they produced were called "Richelieu" and "Sea Breeze", and were very similar in construction to the Gottlieb games produced between 1948 and 1951. I learned through Robert that the company was actually started by two brothers who had previously worked at (you guessed it) Laniel Amusements in the 1940`s. We should get some shut eye, but we are all too excited. I know, I know, time to get a life.
Friday we get up and are on the road by 8AM. We head off to Laniel Automatic`s 30,000 square foot building which use to be the old Simon Cigar Company back in the 1930`s & 40`s. Our plan says we`ll spend the day there, then head back to Toronto at the end of the work day - we`ll be back home by midnight for sure.
We arrive at Laniel at 9:30 am, a half hour late. Well, we decided to stop for hot dogs, a real road trip breakfast ! I know it sounds dumb, but one should not visit Montreal without a stop at the Montreal Pool Room (est. 1912) on St. Lawrence boulevard and enjoy a couple of "steamies." One subject we discussed on the drive down was a comparison between the "dogs" at Portillo`s in Chicagoland and those from LaFleurs` of Montreal. Robert said that he use to play pinball at an old hot dog place near the Montreal Pool Room and we figured we owed it to ourselves to at least see if there were any games there. There were no pins to be found of course, but they did make great hot dogs. I still prefer Portillos`, but that is another story. On to Laniel...
Once there, we are shown around and introduced to the sales staff, the service department staff and then told that we could take a tour. Robert shows us the repair department before going on to the parts department which is huge (about 8,000 square feet) and still considered the best in Canada. The service department is so clean you feel that you could eat off the floor. Then we walk through the large showroom and we just can`t believe how neat and orderly everything is. On display is the latest Stern, "Striker Extreme." Parallel to one wing of the showroom is the electronics department. The rows of benches are incredible ! Lined up are test fixtures for every pinball technology. WPC System 11, Gottlieb system 1& 80, Bally/Stern, basically all of them even an Atari pinball test fixture. Underneath the benches are endless filing cabinets. Robert picks up a telephone directory-type book.
"Name a game," he says.
I fire back, "Stern Nine Ball."
He scrolls down to N, looks up NineBall and tells me to go to cabinet four, number 102. I open the cabinet four and pull out envelope 102. Inside is the NineBall manual, service updates, full set of schematics, score cards and even the flyer, and they have this for every game back to the 1950`s where gaps begin to show up as you move back in time. They also have the game roms on file with no exceptions. I checked three or four more games to see if I could stump them, I could not. It is awesome. Should have asked him if they had a TKO schematic, but that too is another story.
Next we are introduced to Dominic Laniel, president of the company. Dominic is a young man in his late 20`s or early 30`s. His father Pierre had retired in the early 1980`s and later put Dominic in charge when the Vice President for the past 50 years died in 1997. Usually, you would suspect that a young guy in that position would not know alot about the business. Gary and I talked with Dominic for over an hour and he is VERY knowledgeable, not only about pinball, but about all the products they sell. He has done his homework. Dominic explained that Laniel is a distributor only, not an operator, so they do not compete with their customers. The company was started in 1934 by Dominic`s grandfather and great uncle, Romeo and Edouard respectively. The two brothers ran a Machine Exchange Distributorship and Laniel Amusements until 1960 when their sons took over. The cousins (Pierre and Gaetan) had differing ideas as to where the coin-op machine business should go, so they split into two : Laniel Automatic Machines to distribute equipment, and Laniel Canada to operate machines. Laniel Canada has currently moved away from coin-op amusements completely. They now concentrate on, and dominate the vending machine industry in Canada. Laniel Automatic has stayed true to their word and does not operate any amusement equipment.
On to the shipping department, where we find, of all things, the stencil used to label the bottom of games ! It looks 40 years old, is made out metal and has a frame handle build around it in order to hold it in position with one hand, and spray paint with the other. There has been many a person who`s job it was to stencil the bottom of every pin and inside every video game backdoor with the Laniel name. So that would mean opening boxes from the factories, spraying, cresting and re-boxing the games. I also know this because I ordered a brand new pin game from Laniel and had to specify that I wanted them NOT to open the box and "sticker-crest-stencil" the game. I wanted the box to be sealed from the factory when I took delivery. They doubled and triple checked to make sure everyone in the shipping & receiving departments at both Montreal and Toronto offices had been told, so that when I picked up my game it would not be branded. They must have thought I was goofy. But Laniel was always about added value service, and they obliged.
Upstairs in a small wooden dusty loft overlooking the parts department we stumbled on the mother lode: sets of binders jammed full of press photos. There is one picture of David Gottlieb`s son-in-law with Romeo Laniel and Jean Coutu (VP) leaning on a brand new 1952 Skill Pool pinball. Black and white photographs of pingames from the sixities before their release along with machine typed descriptions of the features so that the distributor would be able to promote the game before the official release. Filing cabinets alphabetically classified of advertising flyers for games past. SIGH ! We looked at photos of Fireball, Williams 1957 Deluxe Baseball, Hulk, Space Shuttle, Gigi, and arcade games that seemed out of this world. Even the Sega "Pro Bowler" clone of Williams "Mini-Bowl". Gulp. Amazing.
Well, all good things must come to an end. we expressed our thanks for the hospitality and made our way to the Trans-Canada highway for the long drive home.
Now I intended to end the story there, but then in 2001 everything stared to happen. Dominic`s father Pierre passed away, and Dominic made the decision to sell off the assets of Laniel Automatic and close the historical company. It happened in the span of one year. The Toronto office was shut down first in the summer of 2001 and the employees scrambled to other coin-op distributors in town. Robert, being from Montreal originally, was gladly dispatched back to the head office to work in the parts department. By February 2002 the contents of the Montreal office were sold off, the building torn down and a head office of a Québec drug store chain erected on the cigar and coin-op amusement grounds. That was it. It was all gone. I think about the test fixtures, the brand new 1970`s Seeburg jukeboxes still in the crates in the basement that were never sold, the filing cabinets of schematics, flyers and ofcourse the press photos. But I also think of the employees, many of who had worked there for 20, 25 and even up to 40 years at Laniel. All instantly out of work. Starburst Coin seized the opportunity and opened a Montreal office and hired some of the Laniel parts department staff.
Robert was offered a contract to return to Toronto a few months after the closure. A company called Microplayground Entertainment which was experiencing rapid growth and was soon to be renamed Hip Coin, under a large corporation called Hip Interactive. He was basically asked to create a parts & service department which would resemble Laniel`s and he is still working hard at it. The Hip Coin distributorship is actually not too far from where I work so I try to stop by as often as possible and talk pinball with Robert and buy my parts. The mystery of Laniel for this Toronto native had been solved---then demolished. I can only be glad that Robert, Gary and I ventured out there before the turmoil hit.