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The following article was originally published in the (now defunct) travel blog Visit MTL on June 4, 2016. UPDATE: After 2 years of petitioning city officials, the Plateau Mont-Royal borough approved North Star’s request to change the outdated pinball bylaws. The now fully legal pinball bar posted a press release on March 7 2017 announcing their massive celebration party, which was held a month later on April 7 and had the legendary Roger Sharpe in attendance as a guest of honour.
MONTREAL’S PINBALL RENAISSANCE
When it comes to nightlife, Montreal has a vibrant history as “party central”. While the United States was going through its awkward Prohibition era, Montreal was the sin city hub of all vices from jazz clubs to burlesque shows and gambling attractions. And yet this past January, St. Laurent Boulevard opened its doors to a new “speakeasy”.
Unlike other bootleg bars, however, where the nostalgic drawback to history’s dry spell is only a simulated theme, there is something genuinely illicit about this new establishment, and chances are this will come as a surprise:
That’s right, the North Star Machines À Piastres bar is home to an impressive collection of expertly restored vintage pinball machines. So what’s so taboo about these old school games? Believe it or not, pinball tables were once considered dangerous for their “morally corrupting influence”. The machines became heavily regulated by lawmakers across most major North American cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and yes – even Montreal.
After lobbying with city officials for over a year, the founders of North Star finally got the green light to open their bar while the borough of Plateau Mont-Royal begins work on amending its outdated bylaws. The arcade-slash-tavern is now operating under the agreement that the city will not enforce these laws during the year and a half or two it will take to scrap them from the books.
In the meantime, North Star’s patrons can enjoy the thrill of taking part in the last chapter of pinball’s dark ages while it is still an outlawed attraction.
HISTORY OF PINBALL PROHIBITION
How did this seemingly family-friendly game earn such a notorious reputation? The game itself is harmless, and has its roots in Greek culture and later 17th century France where it regained popularity as a royal pastime called bagatelle. But when it was reinvented in the early 20th century as a coin-operated contraption, it was quickly tied to gambling and organized crime.
The first pinball machine ever built did not have flippers. It was a game of chance created by the Bally Manufacturing Corporation, which operated under the Lion Manufacturing Company, and in the 1930’s they were best known for their line of bingo games and other gambling devices. Essentially, this new Ballyhoo pinball game was no different than a slot machine.
Pinball was feared to cause a gambling addiction that threatened to steer youth and upstanding citizens into a life of crime, and every tier of the pinball industry was suspected of having ties to the mob.
After Bally failed to patent the device there were hundreds of pinball manufacturers, but two reigned supreme in the decades that followed: Gottlieb and Williams. While Gottlieb’s pinball games were popular with children, Williams’ machines were usually found in bars and taverns. Why? Both brands allowed players to earn free credits so they could play again, but Gottlieb’s replays usually capped off at 5, or a max of 26, while Williams’ machines could get you up to 200 credits in one game, and their credit wheel could go as high as 999. Realistically, no one has the time to hang back long enough to play 200 free games, so these credits could be exchanged for either free drinks or their cash value at the bar!
Gottlieb made several efforts to shed pinball’s association with organized crime. They invented the flippers in the late 40s to rebrand their machine as a game of skill, and instead of winning replays, the reward was to earn extra balls that made the game last longer. But by then it was too late, since lawmakers across the United States coming out of World War II were already bent on winning the war against pinball, and banned the game entirely in 1942.
Any municipalities that did not outlaw pinball entirely still required heavily taxed licensing, and many locations that used them needed to print custom tokens that could not be exchanged with real currency after purchase. The pinball ban forced the machines into sleazier establishments like dive bars and porn shops.
Throughout the 50s, the fastest way for a teen to earn their rebel status was to be seen near a pinball machine!
Pinball did not become legalized again until 1976, when a legendary player named Roger Sharpe proved that it was indeed a game of skill. He performed a demonstration in the courtroom for the City Council of New York that lasted 15 minutes during which he reached an impressive high score. Even then, leftover regulations remained concerning the number of pinball machines allowed per venue, and it was not until 2010 that Mayor Bloomberg increased the threshold from four to nine.
These antiquated bylaws have survived long past their reasonable expiration date in many major cities, including Montreal. After Mayor Jean Drapeau banned pinball machines the 1950s as part of his crime-busting efforts to “clean up” the city, they were finally decriminalized in the 70’s, but not without limitations. To this day, no establishment is allowed serve alcohol if it within 25 meters from an amusement hall, which is defined as any space with more than three arcade machines. Even now, only St. Catherine Street is legally zoned to have amusement halls while all other boroughs have strict restraints due to the old-fashioned concerns for “public safety” from decades past.
PINBALL CULTURE IN MONTREAL
Pinball may not have as much of a spotlight in Montreal as Roller Derby or even Ultimate Frisbee, but key groups that have been part of an underground collective of enthusiasts helped keep the love of the game alive, and the successful launch of the North Star bar marks an important milestone in this pinball renaissance.
The International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) is the official organization for competitive pinball players around the world. Not long after their launch, the North Star bar became recognized and endorsed by the IFPA to host official pinball tournaments on the first Wednesday of every month. In these competitions, players will receive World Pinball Player Ranking (WPPR) points so they can earn their place among the 40,000 registered competitive pinball players worldwide.
The next local IFPA sanctioned competitive pinball tournament will be held at North Star this week on May 4th at 7PM. Players of all skill levels are welcome: Free entry and prizes to be won!
One of the bar’s founders, Adam Kiesler (gaming initials AJK) currently holds spot #202 internationally among those 40K global players. In recent years he ranked #1 at both the Montreal and Ottawa Flip Off Hunger tournaments in 2014, where proceeds went to local food drive charities. He also earned the #1 spot in the latest IFPA CPS (Provincial Pinball Championship) for all of Quebec, which took place Feb 13 this year. Adam is a key member of the Montreal Punk Pinball League (MPPL), an organized group of pinball enthusiasts that hosts both casual and IFPA sanctioned tournaments. The MPPL also collaborates with Cineplex-Starburst, Stern Pinball, and IFPA to host launch parties for new pinball machines in the city.
Adam’s romantic partner, Charlotte Fillmore-Handlon, is also a competitive pinball player, and has been breaking new ground by founding the first all-women’s pinball league in Montreal: the Ball Bustin’ Bitches. They meet every Tuesday at the North Star to partake in private match play competitions. Pinball has traditionally been a male-dominated field, so Charlotte formed the league to create an encouraging environment that makes it easier for women to practice their skills and gain the confidence to enter tournaments.
The Ball Bustin’ Bitches Women’s Pinball League is recruiting new members! Join them at North Star bar this Tuesday, May 3rd for the start of Season Two.
While the Montreal Pinball League (MPL) has been around for about eight years as part of the Montreal Arcade and Amusement Collectors Association (MAACA), competitive pinball officially arrived to Montreal in July 2014. The first local IFPA endorsed full WPPR point tournament was held that summer, with entry fees donated to the Project Pinball Charity, a registered non-profit organization that places pinball machines in children’s hospitals across the country to help bring joy to sick kids and their families.
Another big name in the industry is Robert A. Baraké, who runs Montreal Pinball, a vintage pinball machine repair company, and curates an online blog that serves as a resource site for local pinball history. He recently interviewed Jacques Tremblay, the surviving founder of the North Star Coin Machine company, Montreal’s first and only pinball manufacturer which was in operation from the late 40s to early 50s. As you can probably guess, this local pinball institution was the inspiration and namesake for the North Star bar.
Pinball never fully recovered after its long-standing ban was lifted in the 70s, due to the rising popularity of video games which slowly made arcade halls obsolete in the decades that followed. Their controversy was soon forgotten as new debates regarding the morally corrupting influence of violent video games took over as the trendy hot topic for politicians. Nevertheless, pinball machines as cultural icons have never quite disappeared, and their rich history is commemorated at the North Star:
With a combination of electromechanical machines from the 60s and solid-state machines from the 80s, the North Star bar offers a wide selection of vintage pinball tables, which are rotated for variety. One of the first tables on display was the 1950s North Star brand Richelieu. A large prominent sign of the Gottlieb pinball company logo hangs behind the bar counter. A wall-projected supercut of film clips edited by Mark Loeser shows scenes from movies featuring pinball arcades. And Sommelier Julie Richard has created a selection of original cocktails inspired by pinball culture.
Try the Old Chicago original cocktail (rum/vermouth/bee-balm syrup/fernet) and then play a few rounds the Bally pinball table of the same name!
The North Star bar is located at 3908 Boul St-Laurent. Check them out on Facebook for more pinball trivia and upcoming events.
The following article was originally published in the (now defunct) travel blog Visit MTL on July 5, 2016.
FOSSILS, AND BIKES, AND BEERS… OH MY!
What do paleontology, architecture, history, beer, and bicycles have in common? Ingrid Birker. She is the Science Outreach Coordinator at the Redpath Museum, who has been sharing her contagious enthusiasm for invertebrate fossils and plants at McGill since 1981. She is also the creator and official guide of one of the most unique sightseeing excursions ever conceived:
The Stones and Beer Bike Tour
Inspired by Montreal’s local history, Birker’s route highlights little-known secret spots throughout the city and their ancient treasures hiding in plain sight. Starting with marine fossils visible to the naked eye in old stone buildings along Sherbrooke, then up Côte Ste. Antoine road along the old “Indian” trail toward architectural landmarks in Westmount (including Leonard Cohen’s childhood home), and down the hill to Griffintown for local beer tastings and ghost stories.
It’s BYOB – bring your own bike!
The price ($25 regular, $10 students) includes the booklet What Building Stones Tell and 5 different pitchers of micro-brews, to be enjoyed on La Terrasse outside the McAuslan Brewery and Pub along with fresh market bread, fruits, and cheeses while admiring fossils and arrowheads with your group.
There are only 20 spots available, making this an exclusive treat for tourists and locals alike. I was one of those lucky participants last year, and our group took a special detour to see the ruins of Saint-Henri-des-Tanneries, an 18th century village which had been accidentally unearthed by the construction under the Turcot Interchange over the summer.
This year’s tour will be on July 24, 2016. To reserve your spot, call 514-398-409 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
MONTREAL HISTORY, MEMORIES, AND LEGENDS
This unique tour has something for everyone: from science aficionados and history buffs, to celebrity admirers and paranormal activity enthusiasts.
No matter how well you think you know Montreal, you are guaranteed to learn something new. Below are just a few interesting facts spotlighting the landmarks I found most memorable:
Le Château Apartments – 500 million years ago, Montreal (along with a huge chunk of Canada) used to be submerged under a tropical sea, where coral, mollusks, and other forms of ancient invertebrates thrived. Among the brachiopods, gastropods, crinoids, bryozoans, and other ancient marine life, the cephalopods found embedded in the ancient limestone on the exterior walls of Le Chateau Apartments were the largest and most impressive fossils among the urban landscape. To this day, I never walk along that area of Sherbrooke without looking for them.
Le Grand Seminaire – On Sherbrooke and Fort lies the preserved and still functional Grand Seminary, along with its hidden gem shrouded behind stone walls and trees: the Sulpician reflecting pond. This pool was originally built with stone sidings and revamped a number of times throughout the centuries as this piece of land was slowly taken over by the Sulpice priests. They drove out the indigenous tribes that used to have a village near the Seminary’s stone fort with four towers, only two of which remain.
Montreal’s Milestone – A milestone is not an abstract expression. It was once the word for a literal stone that marked a mile along a route. Montreal’s oldest milestone is currently protected behind a sheet of Plexiglass on the original spot where it was first placed back in 1684. It marks one mile from Fort de la Montagne, as a reference to farmers traveling along Côte Ste. Antoine road to let them know that they were nearing the marketplace.
Leonard Cohen’s Childhood Home – His is probably the most famous name on the Stones and Beer tour, and part of the reason it became popular enough for tourists as far as Victoria BC calling in advance to book their reservation. While Leondard no longer lives at his old boyhood Westmount home you may be delighted to find out that his family left behind a great deal of memorabilia when the furnished house was sold (including a tennis racquet, baseball glove, and guitar).
Huburtise Farm – Believe it or not, Westmount was once feared as a substantially dangerous area, referred to by locals who lived closer to Ville Marie as La Haute Folie (the height of madness), since it was miles away from “civilization” in Old Montreal. Among the first settlers on the mountain was the Hurtubise family, whose ancestral home is now a heritage site and an extremely well preserved example of 18th century French-Canadian style architecture.
McAuslan Brewery – If biking along the Lachine Canal wasn’t pleasant enough, the tour also takes you to the McAuslan Brewery’s beer garden for a sampling of 5 different local micro-brews. The brewery was founded by Peter McAuslan in 1989, and their Pale Ale was an immediate success in Quebec. Theirs was the first micro-brewery to offer bottled beer, and their critically acclaimed products have won over 12 medals in international competitions. The pub at La Terrasse St-Ambroise on the brewery’s property is a rejuvenating pause in the tour as the sun begins to set before moving on to ghost stories in Griffintown.
St. Ann’s Church – Griffintown was once Canada’s biggest shantytown. It was a primarily Irish neighbourhood without paved roads or sewers, and perceived by many as cursed due to all the floods, fires, accidents, violent murders, and even a typhus epidemic that gave its poor, starving, diseased residents very short lifespans. At the heart of the neighbourhood was St. Ann’s Church, where final respects were paid to the dead after traditional three-day Irish wakes. Its original site is now home to a park with public benches aligned in rows like church pews, which is an eerie sight to see at night as you picture ghostly funeral processions among the ruins.
Mary Gallagher’s House – By far the grizzliest legend is that of poor Mary Gallagher, a prostitute whose headless body was found at 242 William Street on June 26, 2879. Mary and her fellow prostitute Susan Kennedy went home with two drunken dockworkers, and during the night her neighbours reported hearing a loud thud followed by chopping and chiseling sounds. Although Susan was her best friend, she was tried and convicted for the murder after she was found in bed covered in blood, and the severed head was found in the stove. Local legend has it that Mary’s ghost appears outside her house every seven years on June 26. We’ll have to wait until 2019 for the next sighting to report back.
Lowny Chocolate Factory – The tour ends with a delightful party favor: a Cherry Blossom candy. This was the iconic product of the Walter M. Lowney Company, which had branches in Canada including a Montreal-based factory built in 1905. These chocolate covered maraschino cherry treat were shipped all over Canada and the U.S. And while the Old Lowny Chocolate factory has now been turned into trendy urban condos, and Hershey bought the company’s Canadian branch long ago, you can still find this treat today wrapped in a yellow cardboard box that proudly bears the Lowny name.
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Stones and Beer Will Give Good Cheer
The following post is from an entry in the Artful Advertisement blog which I maintained from 2014 to 2015 as an exploration into the symbiotic relationship between the world of visual arts and modern ad campaigns.
ARTFUL ADVERTISING: FASHION MAKEUP
There are many breeds of makeup artists. Their common thread is the medium of the human body, but beyond this canvas their tools and techniques have endless applications for a wide range of creative industries, from theater, film, and television, to fashion, magazines, and even fine arts.
Online makeup tutorials have seen an increasing surge in popularity in recent years, with social media icons inspiring their viewers and cosmetics enthusiasts to dip their toes (and kabuki brushes) into this art form.
Beyond the everyday application styles shared by YouTube stars like Michelle Phan, a few visionary artists have experimented with far more intricate techniques and made lasting impressions with their unique eye makeup designs. Israeli makeup artist Tal Peleg creates imaginative miniature paintings and portraits with coloured liners and eyeshadows, while Berlin-based artist Svenja Jödicke (also known as Svenja Schmitt and PixieCold) incorporates feathers, buttons, and other accessories to design one-of-a-kind motifs, all immortalized with extreme close-up photographs.
In the world of marketing, this trending art form has introduced a wave of possibilities for visual advertising. The Netherlands Burger King team released this eye-catching promotional poster, which took a novel approach to the usual fast food ads that regularly feature uninspired images of the latest menu items. As intended, it caught the eyes of several beauty-savvy female bloggers and fashion style magazines, including makeup vloggers looking to imitate the burger design in a tutorial.
SEO-FRIENDLY CONTENT WRITING FOR BUSINESSES
While working in the Local Marketing department at LinkNow Media, a website design company based in Montreal, I took on some additional freelance content writing gigs for their clients. These small to medium businesses throughout the US and Canada were targeting new customers in their nearby cities. All of the custom content produced was SEO-friendly and geared towards targeting specific keywords within their local area. Over time, I covered a wide range of industries with each new made-to-order landing page, such as the following:
Garage Body Shop