Montreal's Silver Marble Games

The outlook for the week-end was positive. It started taking shape on Thursday afternoon during a particularly productive day at my “square job” in what is left of the Canadian coin operated amusement machine industry. My father in law had dropped in with coffee, and by the same token confirmed a Saturday afternoon meeting with Jacques Tremblay. This made sense, since that night I had booked a service call with a particular collector, one whom I hadn’t seen in over 15 years and who coincidentally had important information about the defunct North Star Coin Machine Company of Montreal. So, before meeting one of the founding brothers, 83 year-old Jacques, I wanted to get part of the “scoop” from Ron Gratton, a somewhat pivotal figure in the telling of this story and the preservation of these machines. The timing and the events were lining up nicely, like a good Krinsky playfield design waiting to be played out.

Driving to Ron’s warehouse that evening, I tried to recall the many service calls I did for him over the years on his ever changing collection. I remembered that his son Tyler was around 15 back then, and now at 33, Ty manages his father’s industrial valve company where Ron keeps the remainder of his collection. So, about 18 years ago, before the internet invaded our lives, Ron and I would buy machines together in lots by word of mouth, and for very little money compared to today. Ofcourse, we now tend to see those times as golden days, but they weren’t really. Out of all those deals, one purchase in particular which Ron had made on his own was of interest to me that evening, and I was anxious, and cautious about getting the details from him. I wanted to know more about those two Montreal made pinball machines he had in his basement gameroom all those years ago, and which at the time generated little interest in me beyond the technical dimension. But now, in the later phases of life, history has gained more importance in the way I tend to look at things. Hence the meaning of things has changed as well, at least in my head.

I got to Ron’s office and found a 59 year old man who hadn’t really changed. We shook hands and updated each other on the pivotal points in and through the years which had gone by. What we choose to mention and not mention after so long spoke volumes. Ron was always a tad ambiguous and obtuse to say the least, - all signs of a shrewd business man. There had been numerous deals between us over those years, some good, some....well, water under the bridge now I would say.

Before finishing the repair, I asked Ron about a story which his girlfriend at the time had done about the Tremblay brothers and their company, - North Star Coin Machines. I asked him if he still had the source documents, but he told me that he had lost the notes through time. OK, next question - what happened to the two North Star machines he had in his collection back then ? These two models produced in Montreal, “Sea Breeze” & “Richelieu” which sat there for years in his Roxboro home. Where were those two machines now, along with the original North Star Coin Machine Company street sign from the old storefront at 6657 St. Urbain street where they were initially sold along with other post-war game conversions back in the late 1940’s.

They had all went to the Musée de la Civilization in Québec City, which is the best thing that could have happened to them. The machines fetched about 5K each he told me, in cash and tax breaks. They are still not worth that, even with internet hype and some added bullshit. Then I remembered that whenever Ron or I would find a buyer who liked to be called “Charles”, we would call him on it, and the sale  was mostly  “gravy”. Ron was nobody’s fool, now or then.

I also asked him how he came to purchase these two machines back in the day. He had snooped around and managed to track down the Tremblay brothers who were still running a small route under the name Tremblay Amusements. Most old time operators we knew back then were usually suspicious of collectors, generally thinking that if they sold an older piece of equipment to them it may end up on location as competition. But Ron had a way of getting through barriers and obstacles like that, and somehow arranged to meet them at their shop near Fleury Street. They sold him a Richelieu for a couple of hundred bucks which they had on consignment in an antique store on St.Denis street called “Je Me Souviens" along with a few N.O.S. backglasses for both models. I vaguely remember seeing a bunch of Richelieu backglasses in that antique shop when they would call me in to fix a pinball for them.

A few years later Ron had given me two Richelieu backglasses and one Sea Breeze as payment for some repairs I did. I also remember that he had more Richelieu backglasses than Sea Breezes set aside. I have managed to keep one of each over the years.

The backglasses for the two pinball machines produced by the North Star Coin Machine Company of Montreal.
The backglasses for the two pinball machines produced by the North Star Coin Machine Company of Montreal.

The extra Richelieu glass I had went to Steve Young of Pinball Resource along with a couple of pinballs he purchased out of a 32 woodrail lot Ron and I had bought together in the early 90’s. I figured Steve was as good a caretaker as one could get for this piece of pinball history which would head south of our border. In fact, the two machines which Steve and John Fetterman bought from me back then were ironically and most likely part of the large quantity of used pinball machines that filled railway boxcars back in the early 50’s destined for Canada when the embargo which helped spur on the North Star company was finally lifted. These thousands of low cost woodrails were part of the “dumping” which the U.S. did after that particular ban on foreign novelty items was lifted in 1951. This flood of inexpensive used pinball machines from the U.S. contributed directly to closing down the North Star Coin Machine Company of Montreal.

The Friday before meeting Jacques Tremblay, I was back at the office and thinking hard about all the questions I wanted to ask. I finally decided to back off since he had told my father in law in passing that he didn’t want to be interviewed, and that the whole story of the North Star Coin Machine company had already been told in Canadian Coinbox magazine. (1993 July-August issue) It sounded to me like Mr.Tremblay just wanted some money for his old paraphernalia and to be left alone in the end. OK then, I would buy whatever he wanted to sell me as long as he would talk. I figured the more stuff I would buy the more he would be prone to tell me stuff, but again I was wrong. He was about something else.

Then I recalled something Steve Young told me when I mentioned in passing that I was meeting Jacques Tremblay in a couple of days. I explained my concern about how to get Mr.Tremblay to talk about the historical facts I needed to get to. Steve simply advised me to let things flow, be social and to make sure to listen attentively. These veterans usually want to talk about what they have accomplished, and they don’t really want to hear our questions or comments about how "cool" it all is. And they don’t necessarily want to hear about what we think about the events we haven’t lived. I tried to keep my mouth shut when I first met Mr. Tremblay, but that didn’t last long. In a way, and as silly as this may sound, he was the rock star, and I was the groupie. How many of us have wanted to design and build our own pinballs, - this guy had done it, commercially, and over 60 years ago right here in Montreal.

So back in our present day coin-op industry, or as I said, what is left of it, I spent the rest of the American Thanksgiving day catching up on several pending issues as our neighbours in the U.S. digested their turkeys and watched the NFL. The phones were ringing, but no crisis situations, in other words nothing terribly urgent. It feels strange to be at the tail ass end of an industry which is having such a hard time re-inventing itself. All the while we keep working in it and lurking in the shadows of a prosperous & glorious past, and look up to the colourful characters which populated it. The industry as it stands will need a boost from somewhere, probably Asia and more international markets I would guess. Well, enough of that non-sense, the week-end was here. Time to live the hobby, not the business.

So that night after driving my son to his grandma’s for a Friday night sleep-over, and with my girlfriend off to Toronto for a holistic health food convention, it was beginning to feel like some well deserved personal time was finally at hand. So off to St.Lazare for a Montreal Pinball League night and some friendly competition. Ian Fitzpatrick, (aka Sparky), one of the bigwigs of the Montreal Arcade Amusement Collectors Association (www.maaca.org) was hosting this grandiose M.P.L. event in his very own man-cave. Driving down the 40, I thought to myself that since everyone close to me was taken care of, it was maybe time to forget about them for a while. I figured a few beers, a few old pinballs and a dose of arrogant male competition and bragging rights was what I needed. We are pretty much all the same when it comes to this silver marble game, we use it to socialize and to be recognized as skillful and lucky, both traits of a good hunter/provider. All part of the pinball experience I would say. Certainly mixing the latter with having a few laughs was important to keep things from getting too fierce, but what a way to end a work week and start a week-end - everything pinball. Then is occurred to me, here we were, a bunch of middle-aged guys still pushing and pumping away at these pin tables, much like the previous generations of men and boys before us. There is something timeless about this marble game that brings us together by having us all focus on that same thing, - a random and affected silverball which mirrors us as it streaks through obstacles, makes targets and has to inevitably end up in a hole. Regardless, we are keeping the collective ball in play by having these tournament nights each month across the country, and hopefully with a little luck, some skill and lots of sharing, we will be able to carry pinball to its 100th birthday through future generations.

The line up for that night were mostly 1st generation Sterns, and a couple of machines from the “big three”. Everyone cherishes those pinball machines that they remember playing when they discovered this common game. If there was an M.P.L. night 40 years ago, (get a fix on 1970 for those who are old enough) there would have been games like Richelieu and Sea Breeze in the line up. The evening was a blast, and went on for hours after I left. The following link tells the story of that Montreal Pinball League night for those who are interested.

http://www.maaca.org/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=1041

THEIR STORY & THEIR GAMES

The first model to be built by brothers Jacques and Gérard Tremblay was Sea Breeze. The planning began in 1947 and the first machine was finished and ready for sale by October/November 1949.

Brothers Jacques & Gérard with the very first “Sea Breeze” 11/49

The design and wiring was done by Jacques (on the left in the  picture), sales and promotion by Gérard (on the right) and the artwork by their brother in law. Apparently only a few hundred were produced. Probably less than 500 is a safe estimate from the information I managed to gather. The North Star machines were distributed by J.C.Boulin in Trois-Rivières and by Laniel Amusements in Montreal on Nôtre-Dame street.

For the next model named “Richelieu”, the brothers knew that they needed parts, hence the exchange program detailed in their sales flyer for Sea Breeze. The shortage of materials after the war was certainly a factor, but I would think that having electro-mechanical devices on hand and ready made cabinets would definitely help to speed up production as opposed to designing each mechanism from scratch.

Regardless, Richelieu came next and was named after the famous park and race track in Pointes-aux-Trembles where the machines were being built. This model went into production in early 1950 and the assembly process continued as more orders came in. Richelieu having a local theme made it more popular and was certainly of a higher production run than Sea Breeze according to Jacques.This claim would certainly be supported by the fact that Richelieus are more easily found and spotted than Sea Breezes to this day.

At first, Jacques told me that they had produced around a thousand machines through both models, and later during our second meeting he said on video that it may have been two thousand machines built in Montreal between 1949 and 1951. Even if that sounds unlikely, it remains difficult to prove either way.

The Richelieu playfieldWhen the embargo on novelty items was finally lifted in 1951, it became nearly impossible to compete with the amount of used pinball machines coming up to Canada from the U.S. The brothers wisely and painfully decided to call it quits and stop production on Richelieu when they could no longer compete with the American distributors flooding the market with cheaper used pinball machines being exported literally by the train load. Jacques told me that used pinball machines were selling for 25 to 40 dollars a piece. U.S. distributors “dumped” thousands of these games into the Canadian market until they pretty much ran out of certain titles. Then, around 1952-53 U.S. manufacturers began selling new machines directly to Laniel and other smaller Canadian distributors. So when those flood gates opened & closed the Tremblay brothers just couldn’t hold on. (For the American perspective on this story, see Part 2 of the Steve Young interview in the Pinball Trader - issue # 21 - February 1990 ). So Jacques and Gérard unwillingly pulled the plug on North Star Coin Machine while Richelieu was still in production. Orders for that model were canceled as more and more used woodrails came across the border. The halted production on the Richelieu model may well explain the surplus of N.O.S. Richelieu backglasses and playfields found to this day. As mentioned above, Jacques Tremblay can’t remember with accuracy the production runs for each model, but once again, we can safely assume that there were less Sea Breezes than Richelieus made during those years. This latter statement I would venture to say is an accurate and a solid deduction for the permanent historical record.

The scarcity of the Sea Breeze model is supported by what I found out the night of my service call with Ron. I asked him where he got his Sea Breeze, and here is what he told me.

He had gone back to see Mr.Tremblay, and asked if there were any Sea Breezes left for sale somewhere. Jacques said yes. There was one left that he knew of. Ron blatantly asked “How much ?”. $400, was the price and Jacques asked for payment. This was a high price to pay for a woodrail back then, but Ron paid up and looked around, but saw no sign of a Sea Breeze anywhere in their shop. After Jacques explained, he wrote a receipt & voucher for $400 along with a note to the custodian in order to release the machine to Ron upon viewing of the said note. So Ron, in his bold and confident manner looked at the address on the voucher, seized the significance of the location, hired a helper and walked right through the front door of 7401 on the Trans-Canada highway service road and picked up the Sea Breeze right out of the showroom. He didn’t look back. When someone tried to stop him, he handed over a copy of  the signed note and kept moving. Apparently Gatean Laniel, (son of founding father Edouard Laniel), was on vacation that week while the machine was being whisked out of Laniel Canada`s showroom in board daylight. It is beyond me how an extremely wealthy family like the Laniels hadn`t given their old employees a few hundred bucks, or more for that particularly rare example of a Montreal built pinball, and rather kept it in “hawk” for all to see in their showroom as if they were responsible for such an accomplishment. Maybe they were in a way, and had a hand in it beyond the distributorship role, I can’t be sure, but one thing I am damn certain about is that the Montreal of the 1930’s and 40’s provided fertile ground to make the Laniels the most powerful amusement machine operator and distributor in Canada. So much so that their empire grew to become known across North America as a standard to aspire to for other North American distributors. And over the years Laniel had become such a well decorated distributor that they pretty well controlled the entirety of the Canadian coin operated industry from coast to coast. So this particular Sea Breeze which Ron whisked away from the Laniel`s grasp is the only example of a North Star “Sea Breeze” that I have ever seen in over 30 years of collecting and fixing EM’s in the greater Montreal area. It is now safely stored in a museum in Québec city, alongside its counterpart Richelieu - largely thanks to Ron Gratton.

Center section of a Sea Breeze unassembled playfeild displaying the company’s name. On their next & last game “Richelieu”, the company name and location follow the declining lines of the apron at the bottom of the playfield.
Center section of a Sea Breeze unassembled playfield displaying the company’s name. On their next & last game “Richelieu”, the company name and location follow the declining lines of the apron at the bottom of the playfield.

Saturday, the second day to this 3 day pinball week-end was really the “big” day for me. We went to Ahuntsic (north of Montreal) to meet and talk with 83 year old Jacques Tremblay. My father in law and my six year old were throwing snowballs at each other when Jacques walked towards us from across the street where he had parked. He had a brown envelope under his arm and approached us quite briskly. Quite agile, and a real gentlemen with old time manners and class. Jacques Tremblay was a sight to be seen and reckoned with to be sure. He proudly led us to a dark and dank garage office under a run down apartment building in this poor section of town. This space was evidently in the process of being cleared out. We learned that he was moving to another garage a few doors down later that month. The first thing I noticed was a parts cabinet, the size of a large wall unit with hand made wooden drawers no doubt from back in the day of the North Star Coin machine company. It was build partially from used pinball playfields of machines they took apart to build their own machines.

A parts cabinet from the North Star Coin Machine company made mostly out of old playfields from machines they used to build their own models.
A parts cabinet from the North Star Coin Machine company made mostly out of old playfields from machines they used to build their own models.

We got talking immediately about the North Star Coin Machine company. (Since all the pertinent and important facts are already in the Canadian CoinBox article, I will try not to repeat them here) What I want to talk about is what the experience of meeting this man represents. I felt a strong connection through his words as he spoke of the time they were engaged in the creative process throughout the pre-production stage. How every detail had to be dealt with, from finding the miles of coded wire to the design of the the plastic parts and some of the electro-mechanical devices. And especially finding the courage and energy for the long hours of hard work that it took to take on such a project from scratch at that time. That in particular really put the hook in my imagination. It was just after the second world war and materials were no doubt in high demand and low supply. Gérard had come back from the service and was looking for something to do when they began to discuss the idea of building their own machines mainly due to the opportunity which the embargo on novelty items provided. They were both working for Laniel as repairmen after the war and decided to branch off on their own. And to hear Jacques speak about the pride he still feels to this day as he recalls being a 22 year-old out of the service and ready to take on new risks, I felt shivers up my spine thinking about the guts it must have taken to go head long into this project. To move forward and push for a future they believed in despite all the limitations which were somewhat off-set at the time by this embargo aimed primarily against Switzerland out of all places. Apparently Canada developed a quarrel after the war with Switzerland and banned the import of novelty items such as wristwatches, and since pinball machines were considered a novelty item , they could not be imported into Canada legally from the U.S. from 1947 to 1951. After a couple of years Switzerland in turn stopped buying Canadian wheat, and since wheat was more important than pinball machines as an industry in Canada, the embargo was lifted in 1951 causing North Star to shut down.

During this first meeting (conducted almost completely in French) Jacques told us about the specific location where they build their pinball machines. The Canadian Government was helping new businesses in getting off the ground after the war by providing their army barracks to be used as shops and warehouses. These were originally unheated he told me since they served mostly as garages for vehicles during the war years, and were build from high quality Canadian lumber. Jacques also proudly told me that their barracks in the north eastern tip of the Montreal island had powerful heaters installed and beautiful hardwood floors. They hired young people from the Pointes-aux-Trembles area to work at building their pinballs. Since few people had cars back then, most people found work close to their homes. At the peak of production they had 125 employees from the surrounding area working for them.

The army barracks which housed the production of pinball machines on the eastern tip of the island of Montreal
The army barracks which housed the production of pinball machines on the eastern tip of the island of Montreal

Before their time ? The Trembley brothers had to find ways to speed up production and move things along. On the left is the underside of the Sea Breeze playfield.. On the right is the clearer and more refined Richelieu wiring aid diagrams for the young employees who worked at assembling these games.
Before their time ? The Tremblay brothers had to find ways to speed up production and move things along. On the left is the underside of the Sea Breeze playfield.. On the right is the clearer and more refined Richelieu wiring aid diagrams for the young employees who worked at assembling these games.

He had also told me that the ink they used for their silk screened backglasses would take over 24 hours to dry as opposed to the ink many of the American companies used at the same period which would take about an hour to dry. Apparently they had to build large racks to let the backglasses dry overnight in their heated barracks. The end result however, was an extremely tough backglass, and the ink clinging for decades even when stored poorly. In fact the North Star backglasses from 1949 are as tough as a mid 70’s Bally to this day. I personally have not sealed my Sea Breeze backglass with triple thick and have no intention or need to do so, it remains pretty much as it was 60 years ago. This is a good example of all the seemingly small details which they had to deal with at the time with no real model of how pinball machines were build. They weren’t always equipped to deal with the many issues that would arise in the development of this enterprise, but they must be given credit for having broken ground in the manufacturing of pinball machines in Canada.

So after a solid ½ hour of talking together, I asked politely if I could purchase one example of each of the unpopulated N.O.S. playfields from the games he designed for North Star. There was a stack of about 10 playfields leaning against a wall. He obliged, and bragged about the high quality of the Canadian lumber these hard plywood playfields were made from. In fact, even stored vertically against a cement wall in a basement office, they were pretty damn straight and certainly not as warped as one would expect.

This man was full of stories and sharp as a tack, and I was ecstatic that he was sharing so much information upon our first encounter. This made me a bit nervous, and hence I talked too much. I knew that I would need a second meeting to ask the questions which I neglected to ask first time around out of sheer fascination and distraction.

The picture below was hanging on the wall of his garage workshop and Jacques told me that after the embargo which shut down North Star was lifted, his brother and himself tried many different variations on existing games. Their new store & workshop near Garnier & Gilford streets showcased many of their creative attempts at creating a different kind of game that would capture the publics thirst for gaming and amusement.  In this picture we can see a prime example of their efforts, a 1954 United Chief puck bowler which the Tremblay brothers converted to a ball bowler in order to create a different feel and interest.

Believed to be The North Star Coin Machine Company showroom at 6657 St.Urbain St. in Montreal in 1954 or thereabouts. United’s “Cheif” shuffle alley is from 11/53. Above is a conversion by the Tremblay brothers to a ball bowler.

THE 2nd MEETING - AN ENGLISH VISIT

So two weeks later we scheduled another meeting with Mr.Tremblay and this time I was accompanied with a long time “pinball brother” & collector buddy Mike Hanley. (www.thechurchofthesilverball.com) He had made the trip from Toronto the night before to meet Mr.Tremblay and by the same token do a trade. Our main goal for this second visit was to scan some photographs so they would be preserved on the web, get some English video of the man telling his story, and ask a few more calculated questions. We both felt quite privileged that Mr. Tremblay came to meet with us despite the excessive snow that fell that morning. Quite a load of the stuff fell rapidly over our city that morning, even by Montreal standards, but Jacques was already in his newly occupied office/ shop/garage when we arrived. He had obviously been waiting for us to show up. He had seen more snow fall than both of us put together through the years I am sure, and asked why we were late, as if the snow was not even a factor.

I set up the scanner and the laptop to digitalize a few pics and docs as Mike automatically began video taping the man and his story by asking the occasional question. Mr. Tremblay pretty well took the floor as they say. Mike began the interview and off he (Jacques) went telling his story. His English was clear and concise since doing business in the Quebec of the 1940’s and 50’s necessitated this second language.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQqF96IHNRQ

I want to take this opportunity to thank Mr.Jacques Tremblay for his disposition to speak with us so openly and kindly about his work with the North Star Coin Machine Company. I feel extremely privileged and proud to have had the chance to spend time with Jacques Tremblay and share part of his story with the many history buffs I know are out there, and with other pinball collectors through this multi-media article. And thanks to Mike Hanley for his continued enthusiasm and especially to my father-in-law Jean-Pierre Gauthier who made this coming together of pinball people possible.

Lastly, a friend of mine wanted me to ask him why the name North Star, apart from the obvious Canadian implication of a bright  Northern country. He told us that the name came from a boat the Tremblays owned called L’Etoile du Nord , so not what one would think right off the bat.

History will always be difficult to know completely without an understanding of the context from which the story stemmed. It remains a hermeneutic problem to say the least, demanding an extremely open mind on the part of those who want to know. Sharing and understanding a past event inevitably becomes more and more complicated to seize mainly due to the passage of time and  the contextual changes affecting the place where the story initially happened. No matter how much we would like to know and understand something from the past, we are all subject to the above condition regarding space and time..