Electronic Sound Corp history

By Larry Rosenzweig, president of Electronic Sound Corp (ESC).

This is an extension of my article about pinball playfield manufacturers.

History of ESC

My dad originally started the business as Midwest Cabinet Corp in the early 1950s. He grew up in New York and came to Chicago looking for work after WW2 in Europe. He worked some jobs and finally borrowed money from my grandpa to buy a small for-sale wood working plant.
He slowly built it up with Sears a main customer. In the mid-1960s it was purchased by a division of Sears though he continued to run it for them. The company made TV cabinets and console stereo cabinets for Sears. In the late 1960s Sears decided to liquidate it so my dad bought it back and, since business was slow, he merged with another similar company, Wellcor, that made product for Montgomery Wards.

One of the products was and early electronic keyboard/organ. The cabinets were shipped to Pacific Mercury, a company that made the electronics in California. My dad convinced Sears to ship the less bulky keyboards to Chicago. Then we made the amplifiers and expression pedals, and did the final assembly. The combined company was called Electronic Sound Corp since they also made guitar amps. The partnership dissolved around the time I finished college at Stanford in 1970.

In 1972, with not much work but several small jobs, I came to the company. We still made reed (acoustic) organs for Sears and some had electronic voicing, as well as guitar amps which were, by then, solid state rather than tube products. We also made cabinets for Zenith Radio and Lowrey organ.
Then we started with the pinball cabinets. I bought my dad out in 1979, keeping the name, and eventually liquidated the business in 1997, selling the physical assets to the owner of Churchill Cabinet who, later bought Lenc-Smith. They called the building we were in Chicago Gaming Cabinet Co., which no longer exists. The physical building(s) from the early 1912-1927 vintage, are now a self-storage facility.

In 1996 as the only supplier to Premier Technology (formerly Gottlieb) I kept the plant open to try to help them get back on their feet. We had other business from a point-of-purchase display company so, while we were losing money, it was manageable.

Pinball cabinets

In the early 1970s pinball was looking to take off. Bally bought Lenc-Smith (which supplied wood parts to both Bally and Williams) we were brought in by Sam Stern to learn the cabinet business since Williams felt that within a year of so L-S would be too busy supplying Bally and would cut them off. The cabinets and parts were pretty easy but playfields had a difficult learning curve. Of course once that curve was mastered it was difficult for other competitors to enter the field.

A couple of years later probably early 1970 or early 1980s, we were contacted by David Gottlieb who had a single source for all their wood products and didn't know if they were being charged a fair price. We started supplying them with complete wood products including playboards. About a year later their former supplier had difficulties due to mismanagement and we had to almost overnight double our production.
We had to completely segregate one customers product from the others due to confidentiality issues. On a plant visit we could never let Williams engineers or designers see Gottlieb product and the other way too. We worked very closely with engineers and designers at Williams and Gottlieb, people like Steve and Mark Ritchie, John Trudeau, Barry Oursler, Steve Kordek. It was a very high pressure manufacturing operation since changes were constant and time was always short.

Building video games for the Japanese clients, specifically Konami, was equally pressure filled since the games had a very short shelf life. In the late 1980s we did a game for Konami called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which was a big hit. We ramped production up to 100 games a day, then 150 and topped out at 200 per day. Product like PCBs, monitors, cable harnesses, and coin doors would be shipped into our factory by Konami, get installed, tested and leave as completed product the same day. Other times we would warehouse finished product until their distribution could get it sold. Luckily we had inexpensive space and a very flexible plant and workforce.
I had a lot of sleepless nights when things weren't going exactly right as product from our factory went directly to the assembly line at our customers with no cushion. It was just-in-time manufacturing before the Japanese gave it a name !

Initially there was only 1 supplier of playboard plywood, Larson Plywood from Sheboygan, Wisconsin (Ed. - which existed as of May 1957 as a company, but is dissolved now. The company at its start made water skis and bowling pins and even provided plywood for the worlds largest guitar .).
It was a custom made panel cut to exact size. And while it looks to be 1/2" thick it is really 17/32" to allow for sanding after the plastic lenses were inserted. Later another vendor got some of the business. We, as the board fabricator, also inserted the plastics.
Originally the playboards were machined on pin routers by hand, from steel templates to guide the blades. Later, in the late 1980s we switched, over time, to CNC routers. The biggest problem with the wood was having it stay flat without warping or bending. Sometimes those defects would not show up until after machining, a very labor intensive operation.

We also did screen printing for both Williams and Gottlieb when business got great (believe it or not at times over 1000 games per day were manufactured in Chicago !) The original screen printer was a company called Advertising Poster. They did it for a long time. During one of the down times they closed up and that's when Sun Process started printing. It was some of the same people who worked at Ad Poster, just with a new company.

We originally supplied cabinets and playfields to Williams when, in the 1970s, Lenc-Smith was being acquired by Bally. Sam Stern (Gary's dad) called my dad and asked him to get into the business. We continued machining playfields for Williams into the 1990s. We started making product for Gottlieb in 1975, I think Quick Draw/Fast Draw was the first game we made parts for. At that time Gottlieb was single sourced for wood parts with an old family owned firm called August Johnson. Gottlieb was their only customer and they were not progressive regarding manufacturing or material utilization. Rather than purchasing standard 4'x8' sheets of plywood they would purchase cut-to-size panels in sets. For example 1000 pair of cabinet sides, 1000 pair of backbox sides, 1000 cabinet fronts and 1000 cabinet backs. Over the years their spoilage rate for various parts caused their inventory to get way out of balance and I guess they never noticed it. One day a year or so after we started supplying Gottlieb (presumable at much better price points) they went to Gottlieb asking for a $500,000 loan to buy inventory and keep their doors open. Within a week we were asked to double our production from 1/3 of the total to 2/3 of the total. Within a year AJ ceased operations. There was another cabinet shop, Anton Clemetson, who made product for Chicago Coin. They closed in the 1970s as well. There were always little companies popping up to make peripheral parts like backbox inserts and power panels.

About painting cabinets

Decorating the cabinets evolved in several stages. This corresponded to the complexity of the art. When we first started doing cabinets in the early 1970's the designs were fairly simple, usually two colors, sometimes 3.
We would get full size drawings of the parts to be painted, usually the front and 2 sides of the cabinet and the two sides of the back box (sometimes called the light box). Our engineers would create color separations and make full size copies, one for each color and cabinet panes. If there were no words on the side panels the would be mirror images. If there were words then those panels would be only one way.
Our stencil technician would perfectly align the paper with the line drawing of the pattern onto a pressboard panel, usually 1/8" Masonite. He would then spray on clear lacquer which would soak through the paper causing it to stick to the Masonite. He would then take a jig saw and cut out all the areas which were to be painted. He had to allow for alignment of colors. Then he would install blocks on the top edge to hang the stencil on the cabinet and install a block on one side for lateral alignment. The set had to match.
Sometimes the amount of Masonite that was left would be very thin, or perhaps an island surrounded by paint, in that case he would need to add structural support or stiffeners, usually 1/ x 1/4 aluminum, sometimes he would need to bridge a 'floating' piece between other areas.
Then the painter would hold the stencil flat against the cabinet part and, using a low pressure air spray gun, fill in the color. As he or she sprayed different areas the pressure would need to be moved along with the spray gun to minimize 'overspray' which made the edges fuzzy.

Over time as the designs became more complicated requiring a stronger material for the stencils we started using high strength aluminum sheet. I don't remember the gauge but it was pretty thick and hard so it wouldn't bend. Those were much more difficult to produce.

Also, as the sprayer was painting all day, paint that didn't go on the cabinet slowly build up on the stencils. That paint had to be scraped off, especially in the openings. Eventually we created several sets of stencils so one set could be cleaned while the other was being used. To do that we pinned 4 or more sheets of the Masonite or aluminum together for the cutting process and separated them after.

Eventually even that became unworkable and we switched to using a silk screening process for the cabinet artwork. We build the cabinet and then did the painting and screening using a purpose built machine that our engineers designed and built.
Other companies screened the sides in the flat and then assembled the cabinet after. Bally's cabinet shop, Lenc-Smith Mfg, which was owned by Bally, make a huge investment in a UV printing line. They bought plywood covered in white vinyl and ran the panels through a long printing line with four or five stations. The rectangles were subsequently machined to the various cabinet parts.
We always felt that the problem with that was the rate of spoilage was high and the defective parts could not be reclaimed. The UV screening process was also used for their video games as it was able to handle full size sheets of material.

So what we did was to fabricate all the wooden parts, cabinets, back boxes, light insert panels, transformer panels, various other components. We painted or decorated the cabinets and back box, and usually put a coat of white paint on the light back box light panel (this is the panel that sits behind the back glass and has holes for score units and light bulbs for illumination.

We would have all the items ready on our shipping dock. At 6:30 in the morning the cabinet buyer would walk out on the assembly floor at Williams, count how much was in front of the assembly line and call us to tell us what we needed to put on the truck that would arrive at their plant at 7:30 when the line started up.
Then we would communicate through the day to coordinate our fabricating with their production. Sometimes they would run out of a metal or plastic fabricated part and we would need to hold off shipment. Sometimes another cabinet supplier would fail to ship something or the items they shipped were out of specification and were rejected. Then we would be asked to ship extra until things could get corrected.

Gottlieb had their own truck for pick up and their driver knew what to take off our shipping dock. Still, we kept in constant communication with their production coordinators. With Gottlieb we usually worked directly with the plant superintendent. We 'saved his bacon' enough that we became good friends.

Pinball was way ahead of auto manufacturing in the concept of 'Just in Time' assembly. Very little inventory was kept on hand in front of the line both for reasons of limited space and for reasons of cost. A major shift for both Williams and Gottlieb was when they sold off their in-house metal fabricating equipment to make room for higher production rates. Various suppliers bought all the tools and received contracts to produce parts on those tools.

One time in the mid 1980's after a several month shut down due to slow orders Williams was going to re open the plant. They hired a new buyer for cabinets and mechanical parts. This woman had an engineering degree and some buying experience but not in the game industry. I was called into a meeting at Williams with the VP of Manufacturing, the VP of purchasing, and this new buyer. The two older guys who I had worked with for over 10 years let her have the floor.
She proceeded to tell me about the start up of production and gave me a detailed schedule of what I was to deliver throughout the day for the first several weeks. I took the papers, looked at them, looked at the two VPs, then looked at her. I crumpled the papers and threw them in the trash can. She got red in the face and asked me why I did that. I told her that's not the schedule. She said that, yes it was because the production manager said so. I said no, that's not how it works. She was really mad when I told her about the floor count at 6:30 and the phone call.
Three weeks later I was her best buddy because since production schedules NEVER work out she was constantly dealing with shortages and varying production. If I had shipped per her schedule they would have had no room to store the goods.
The point of the meeting was that she never would have believed the two VPs and they wanted me to be the bad guy. I didn't mind because I knew we would take care to make her successful because that was a value added part of a supplier to the game industry. Whenever they would go for suppliers who low bid the things we made, they always came back to us because we weren't just selling a cabinet, we were selling the service that went along with it. Being able to provide the required service allowed us to have pricing that was higher because they could trust us.

Pinball playfields

Regarding playfields we started with Williams doing just cabinets and parts. The first game I can remember working on was OXO in 1973, probably just the cabinet parts. There is a pretty steep learning curve to making playfields so we probably started a year later on them. I know we did the machining but don't remember if we inserted the plastic inserts (by the way, Gottlieb called them hats).
Before things slowed down with the introduction of video in the early and mid 1980s we were making up to 100 sets of parts, including playfields, for Williams and Gottlieb, though not usually both at the same time. When pinball started up again with High Speed in 1986. In between we made a version of Pong and other arcade games for the same clients. We also picked up some Japanese customers like Taito and Konami.

About DiamondPlate and clearcoats

The original hardcoat that Ad Posters used was, I believe, banned by the EPA as being very toxic. In any event Ad Posters moved from their facility on N. Halsted in Chicago to their larger Diversey Ave location, both near where I still live on the Northside of Chicago. Tommy Grant (son of the founder) ran it. DiamondPlate was a catalyzed auto finish (I think trade name Imron) that was modified. The deal with Sun Process and DuPont was that that product wouldn’t be sold to other pinball manufacturers.

We used other finishing products trying to get close but it was not easy due to the aggressive acidic nature of the finish. It attacked the plastic inserts and caused some colors to bleach out. What our finishing supplier came up with was good but not great. So for Williams we shipped machined playfields to Sun as did the other cabinet manufacturers for the DiamondPlate.

To tell the truth, I didn't want that stuff in my plant as it was really bad for people to be around. If we could have come up with a product that matched DiamondPlate I’m sure Gottlieb would have used it. We silk screened finished playfields for Gottlieb/Premier through 1996.

About Vitrigraph

Eventually Mike Vrettos, Gottlieb production superintendent, wanted to try a pre-printed plastic overlay which he eventually trademarked as Vitrigraph. We machined the playfields, put a coat of sealer, and laminated the Vitrigraph using industry standard laminating machinery. The problem with Vitrigraph was that it didn't always adhere perfectly, especially around the 'hats' that were lit more often than not. This caused them to bubble and lift off the wood. We did it for a couple of games in parallel to standard finishing and the project was dropped. I think that Diamond Lady may have been the only game that tried it, I don’t remember to clearly. There was probably one other game as well but I don’t remember what it was called (Ed. - Victory and TX-Sector).