- Roger Sharpe
For the past 33 years, Rob Berk has delivered countless oohs and aahs to thousands of people—young and old. He has opened their eyes and hearts to the wonders and beauty of pinball machines. But, maybe even more importantly, he has celebrated and paid tribute to the unsung heroes who design, create and craft what has become a timeless, enduring leisure time entertainment artform.
But the story of Rob Berk is a multi-faceted journey that isn’t just his pinball legacy. Taking over the leadership of a 60+ year old family business, Berk has grown the fortunes of a diverse range of companies beginning with Berk Enterprises founded by his parents. It was in 1954 when his father formulated an insecticide that he named "QuicKill” and launched Berk Exterminating Company. His home town of Warren, Ohio was one of the company’s first commercial clients and the product is still marketed today as an over the counter, ready to use insecticide which is sold throughout the state of Ohio.
From this beginning, Berk Enterprises has expanded to include three distinct divisions. There is Berk Paper and Supply, a regional distributor of food service disposables, janitorial and maintenance supplies. Berk Concession Supply services the amusement industry including local and state fairs, carnivals, waterparks, zoos and a host of other outdoor entertainment centers and venues. The company provides stock and custom designed souvenir cups, paper plates, novelty drink ware and a diverse array of other food service products. Rounding out the business is Berkley Square, founded in 1987 with just a few products but it has grown exponentially to include an extensive line up of bulk, wrapped and imported cutlery kits with many featuring custom designs and prints.
It would seem on the surface that Robert Berk is just an extremely successful executive heading up a growing number of businesses. But there is the other side to this wizard, stepping out from behind the curtain to reveal when and how his fascination with pinball started and why it has endured for the majority of his entire life.
Although there was a 1948 United Baby Face pinball machine in his basement, it was during the annual family vacation to visit his aunt in Florida when a very young Rob Berk became completely captivated by the wonders of the silverball. As Berk remembers, “My dad, for whatever reason, always made it a point to take the kids to the arcade. I guess he liked pinball, so it was his way of introducing me to it. And it became our ritual. In fact, there was a bookstore called Alfies on Alton Road in Miami Beach that had two pinball games and we would just play for hours.” The connection and fascination intensified when Berk’s father added a D. Gottlieb Texan, manufactured in 1960 and the last 4-player wood rail game from the company, to the family basement.
Rob Berk’s life was to completely change when he started college at Kent State University in 1972 and discovered as he recalls, “…a room full of pinball machines as far as your eye could see, and that really got me going to the point where I decided I wanted to collect pinball machines from the 1960s.” The first game he purchased was a 1969 Williams Post Time, which also triggered his love affair for add-a-ball pinball machines. His collection has grown to over 750 pinball machines, spanning all eras, with his personal favorite electro-mechanical game still being that very first Post Time and for more modern machines, he counts Williams’ Medieval Madness at the top of the list.
It was this ardent passion for pinball that drew Berk into an entirely different enterprise that has endured far beyond his initial plan. With pinball all around him and reading books on the subject as well as joining a club of collectors who would get together once a month to play games, Berk had a thought that would not only change his life, but also change the fortunes of pinball for more than thirty years and counting.
Berk had an idea as he expressed, “I was such a pinball enthusiast, playing as much as I could and reading about the history of the machines and industry. In doing this I learned the names of the artists and designers responsible for the games and realized they were bringing me a great amount of happiness through what they were creating. And I thought wouldn’t it be something special to recognize them and pay tribute to them”. And so it was that Pinball Expo was born over the November 22nd-24th weekend in Chicago in 1985.
For the first time, there was an exposition dedicated to celebrating individuals, many who were around when pinball was starting out in the early 1930s during the depths of the Depression, and letting collectors, enthusiasts, hobbyists shower their appreciation. Berk established a program of seminars featuring such legendary individuals as Alvin Gottlieb, Steve Kordek, Norm Clark, Wayne Neyens—men who had shaped an industry. There were exhibits of old and new machines, parts and a banquet to top off a weekend pinball love in.
This first Pinball Expo was an overwhelming success and what Rob Berk and his associates thought was going to be just a one-time affair, has endured and thrived for 33 consecutive years. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running pinball exposition in the world, Pinball Expo 2018 continues the tradition of paying homage to the wonders of pinball past, present and a peak into the future.
This year, Pinball Expo 2018 will be staged at the Westin Chicago North Shore in Wheeling, IL on October 17-20th. The festivities will include a tour of the Stern Pinball factory, a full schedule of speakers and seminars, pinball tournaments, a vendor hall to find anything and everything imaginable for the pinball curious, and a host of other activities that, once again, will bring the best of what pinball means to so many. For more information, please contact Rob Berk at (firstname.lastname@example.org); call 330-716-3139 or visit the official website for Pinball Expo 2018 www.pinballexpo.com.