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Pinball Feature Story

Hanging Out At the Stage Door Canteen Pinball Feature Story Number VII

Ball view

Stage Door Canteen was Gottlieb's first post-war game in 1945, being produced well into 1946. If you read Pinball and World War 2, you would also know that Gottlieb may have produced this title during the war too, as early as 1943.

I managed to aquire an example of this attractive and historically significant game at the Pinball Expo in 2001. However, having just moved into a new house, the game was not receive any attention for a long period of time. Finally, with the basement finished off and a couple of days left of my Xmas 2003 vacation, I decided to tackle this game to get it up and running.


I own a few Gottlieb woodrails, and have been fixing them for over 25 years. So the thought of working on another woodrail of this ilk didn't seem like too daunting a task. As I was to discover however, this machine was not as far advanced on the evolutionary scale as its breathern in my house!

To summarize, over a two or three day period I was to be stymied by bad engineering, (ahem) incorrect previous repairs and plain bad luck. I will discuss all elements, but it is really the lack of "polish" in the engineering that I would like to bring to your attention. Not to criticize the Gottlieb engineers - after all this was very early in the electro-mechanical (EM) game evolutionary period, and they can be forgiven for not worrying about the home repair person 59 years into the future - but to point out the some shortcomings compared to their later efforts.

In the Beginning

Let's start with the game's initial condition. I could plug the game in, more or less start a game, and register a few thousand points (all scoring is by units of 1000 only). But many lights did not work, the units were sticky and sometimes coils would stay on such that you had to power the game off.

I had a schematic, so took it out and tried to understand the game. The first problem was that it was difficult to determine what the game rules were and what things should actually happen. So I hoped that I could quickly read the schematic and get a feel for the rules.

Well, problem one on this early effort was that schematic was different than later ones. So it didn't have that Gottlieb "look and feel". Some switches were shown with relays in the tripped position, counter to later conventions to show the game state with the game reset and ready for ball 1.

America's Sweetheart

They also listed all the coils with designations from A-Z. They even refer to the coils and relays with those letters on the circuit drawing. But they didn't actually label any of the coils or relays in the game. I don't know how much cumulative time I had to spend just trying to figure out which relay was which.

Wire colors normally help here but of course after 59 years many wires are covered in carbon, are faded or browned from heat. With not all game aspects working, manual relay activation'didn't always reveal the purpose either. Slowly over time, I did determine the important ones. Thankfully Gottlieb labeled their relays in later games. Also note that they hadn't yet standardized on coil names and purposes, e.g. no "S" relay for start, or "M" and "N" relays for score control.

I never had any big breakthroughs in problem analysis here - all gains were small, incremental ones only (with the occasional step backwards too unfortunately). Found a couple of wires off coil lugs and soldered them on. Cleaned many switches along the way and cleaned all units with bakelite discs/wipers. At least most contacts were properly aligned and did not require adjustment.

To "B" or Not To "B"

One major problem with the game was with the 1-7 trip relay bank. Trip relays 1-7 correspond to the letters of CANTEEN. There are 7 bumpers with the CANTEEN letters. Hit the bumper and trip the relay. Except it never happened. The circuit actually has each of the 7 trip coils in series with the B relay, which is a control relay that should trigger the C relay to score 1000 points.

It is odd to have coils in series in a circuit. You don't see this in later Gottlieb games. The problem is that a problem with the B coil can change it's effective resistance and affect the voltage available to the 1-7 coils. And of course, that was my problem. Someone had subtituted a Williams relay coil for the proper Gottlieb R20-2 coil. The Williams coil had a higher resistance than the Gottlieb coil and didn't leave enough voltage for the 1-7 coils. It probably didn't help that the wiring and soldering job the repair person used was (ahem) less than adequate.

Having acquired a large quantity of old pinball parts recently, I quickly found a good Gottlieb R20-2 coil and assembly. Great, an easy replacement. Guess again. Try 5 (five) hours of misery, a sore back and deep depression. The depression was easiest to fix (two glasses of fine Scotch).

Lower playfield

The B relay was of course placed by Mr. Murphy - at the back bottom of the cabinet. No way to work on this with the hood up so to speak. I would have liked to just stand the playfield straight up and lean it against the backbox, but Gottlieb didn't leave enough slack wiring to make this work well. So I unplugged all and lifted the playfield right out (first zap to the back).

Replaced the old B with the new B, resoldered all and slugged the playfield back in (2nd zap to the back). Fired the game up. Some success - the 1-7 coils seemed to be tripping now. But no score added. Forgot to solder one wire. D'oh! Out comes the playfield again to fix that (back zaps 3 and 4).

Fire the game up and the C relay (1000 pt relay) is locked on solidly. First thought is that a switch is stuck shut (usual case when this sort of thing happens). Can't find any problems. I check the old-style dead bumper scoring rods to make sure they aren't touching the ring edges and completing the circuit (same principle as a pendulum tilt bob and ring).

Extra Special

Much head scratching, wire tracing and schematic checking here. And while this is happening Team Canada blows a 3-1 lead to Team USA at the World Jr Hockey Championship game and loses as our goalie fires the puck off one of our defenseman's arms and into our net (sigh).

In desperation I start unsoldering wires from B to see if that stops C from firing. I do resistance checks across the switch, even take the switch stack apart which seems to help for awhile! I also hooked up an external 24V supply and verify the operation. Playfield comes out for the 3rd time so I can clear up my mess (zaps 5 and 6 ouch!).

Finally sinks in that the problem is not B (even though some actions on B seemed to change the outcome - but that was just to keep me strung along ...). In the end the problem was about as simple as could be - a couple of bumper scoring rods were indeed touching the outer ring and completing a circuit. The rods touched the rings because the playfield was in the raised position and gravity did its job. So even though I would move one bumper at a time to see if it was the problem, I was screwed as there was more than one simultaneous culprit.

Two lessons here - firstly, isolate the damned rods from the rings in these bumpers when the playfield is up. This old-style of bumper scoring detection was thankfully replaced in later games with the "spoon switch". Secondly, even though logic may take you down one path, consider that there may be two simultaneous problems. Most troubleshoting and diagnostic procedures presume that you are only dealing with one problem.

Free Play Jose?

Another problem from the beginning was that the free play step-up coil would only partially complete its action and would buzz loudly until you gave it a push to complete its action.

Standard procedure here would be to disassemble the coil so that the coil sleeve and plunger could be cleaned (in addition to cleaning the toothed cam and re-lubing it). Many problems can be solved by just cleaning and lubing parts. But not here. Two screws were easily removed but did not provide enough room to get the plunger out of the coil sleeve. Instead of having all 4 screws on same side such that they can be taken off, they put two on the other (front side).

Center of playfield

Ok, no problem, remove the 3 screws holding the free play unit in place, flip the unit down, and take out the other two screws. Wrong again. The unit does not flip down (like many later Gottlieb units), and the wires to various coils and switches are so short as to allow only limited movement. As an added bonus, one of the screws was under the plastic replay number projector wheel, which was badly warped down so as to leave almost zero room to access this screw. I say top you, phooey with this design. Couldn't get the wheel off either.

I gave up on my cleaning attempt. I suspected the coil anyway. Did a resistance check on the coil. It was 11.4 ohms. The coil is an A20-4. Again, I was fortunate enough to have a spare A20-4 and it read only 2.4 ohms resistance.

So now I had to get the coil out no matter what. Thankfully my pea brain figured out that if I removed the arm stops on the step-up arm, then I could move it far enough to get the plunger out of the coil sleeve. But wait, the big projector bulb blocked those screws, and I couldn't unscrew it. They actually had a clamp held by a screw around the light bulb. So I had to loosen that screw so I could unscrew the bulb so I could unscrew the arm stops so I could move the arm so I could get the plunger out of the sleeve so I could replace the A20-4 coil.

Amazingly, this all went well and my new A20-4 coil worked beautifully. Turns out the reason the old A20-4 coil didn't work was because it was an A-1318 110V step up coil. Same physical size and appearance as the A20-4, but totally incompatible. Pay homage to the previous repair person once again. Broke one wire off of a switch contact during my fun here and had to resolder that too.

Another Kick At the Can

It's late at night, but I feel good because I finally fixed something. So I decide to keep going and work further. Hey, the Leafs are kicking the crap out of the Penguins too. I now concentrate on the CANTEEN bumpers and relays. For some reason now, the T and second E relays don't trip properly (or very infrequently). After some diagnosis I discover that the relay latches are actually broken on these two relays. Haven't seen that before.

This time my parts supply comes up empty handed. I am beat. Time to stop.

Clean the Canteen

Next day, running out of time on the vacation. Time to abort the electrical repairs and adjustments and clean the playfield. No major incidents here. I strip the posts and rubbers off of the playfield, then vacuum, clean and wax everything. Looks great.

Stripped playfield

The biggest surprise was to see how much the baby blue paint near the playfield bottom has faded. It is almost white. I can see how much it faded by seeing the vibrant paint color under some of the removed posts (see picture).


Never seen a playfield color just disappear like that. It's not like the game was in the sun or anything - the other colors seem good. I should point out that the orange in the backglass has also faded badly and appears almost as a faint yellow (again, with no other colors seemingly affected).

Finished playfield

More Tales of Woe

Size Matters

When I first acquired the game, I needed a new ball plunger and ball elevator plunger. The originals were fine except the plastic ends were weak and had broken off. I found a set from a 50s woodrail from a fellow and bought them. Herein is another caveat - the shooter rods and elevator rods from this time period are not compatible with later games. Gottlieb hadn't standardized on these parts yet either.

The shooter rod was a different diameter. Can't recall if the length was the same or not. The elevator rod hardware was quite different too. I managed to hack something together out of several old pieces. Not perfect but workable.

A Series of Lights

Another odd electrical choice used in this game, and also recently noted in my 1949 Basketball game, is the use of 6V bulbs in series on the 24V circuit.

If you put four 6V bulbs in series, that gives you a 24V voltage drop. So you can chuck some bulbs on the 24V circuit instead of the 6V lighting circuit and get away with it. They did this in two places on Stage Door Canteen (only in one spot on the later Basketball game).


The problem with this design is that if ANY of the four bulbs burns out or is unscrewed from their sockets, then NONE of the bulbs will light. Also, if any socket was shorted, the remaining bulbs would receive more than 6V and one would likely burn out quickly.

It also seems to me to be safety hazard too. If you were working on a game and wanted to grab 6V for a test, you might see one of these bulbs, clip a lead on somewhere, and end up frying a lot of bulbs or zapping yourself as 24V of force is applied rather than the expected 6V. Beware of this!

The funny part of this design on both SDC and Basketball is that they only needed 2 bulbs, not 4, so they have to provide sockets and wiring for 2 useless bulbs! On Basketball, they just doubled the lights up around some playfield inserts (not a bad way to utilize them).

On SDC however, they just stuck them under the playfield in a spot where they would never be seen. In fact, they basically placed them right on top of a wiring loom, so the bulbs can try to fry the game's wiring!!! Useless bulbs on an ill-conceived circuit set to cook the game's wiring.

Hats Held Low

A major restorative activity known to be required from day one was the need to re-seat all playfield inserts, as they have all shrunk/sunken below the playfield level. I performed this activity on my 1956 Gottlieb Auto Race last year, so I was not fazed by the prospect of undertaking this task.

Wrong once more. All inserts have two tabs that are nailed to the underside of the playfield. Try removing a fully hammered nail from a fragile, brittle 59 year old piece of plastic. I think I am going to have to break all the tabs off then re-seat them. Positioning the inserts this way was not a good way to go. Of course these days the inserts are installed flush and (presumably) glued and sanded so as to be even with the surface.

Stage 1 Completed

The game looks nice now, and almost sort of half way scores correctly occasionally. Good enough. All the tools and liquids and meters and paperwork has been put away for now. I will fight with this game on another day to get it working properly, and tackle the inserts too.

Work junk   More work junk

Despite all of the problems experienced, this game is beautiful and worthy of the effort. A commercial product, designed for perhaps a 1-5 year utilitarian life span, still performing and giving pleasure almost 60 years later.

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Reproduction in whole or in part blah blah blah is prohibited. © Terry Cumming and Pinnovations 2004-2005 All rights reserved.

Last updated: May 6, 2005

© Terry Cumming, 2004-2005