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Dolly Parton Pinball Machine in the Appalachian Collections

The Appalachian Center's 1979 Dolly Parton pinball machine and its backstory—one Appalachian woman's wrestling with fame, her image, and her mountain identity.

An Interesting Backstory

The development of Bally's Dolly Parton themed pinball machine during 1978-79 presents an interesting case study in Appalachian and rural identity.

Imagining a Dolly Parton Pinball Machine in 1977-78

Bally Manufacturing made pinball machines, slot machines, and arcade games from 1931 to 1983.  In 1974, Bally employee Tom Nieman suggested the company design a pinball machine around the hit the record album and upcoming movie Tommy featuring music by The Who.  The project was a huge success and kicked off a string of  Bally pinball machines with themes licensed from celebrities and movies.

In 1977, Neiman, now a Bally Vice-President, decided to pursue a pinball machine based on the rising country music star Dolly Parton.  He believed this would be a good fit for rural and country bars, arcades, and convenience stores.  He contacted Parton's publicist and arranged a licensing contract by mid-1978.  In 1978, Parton had just won The Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award, its highest honor.  Bally assigned well-known pinball artist Dave Christensen to develop the artwork, instructing him to design the machine around Parton’s country star persona.  

           

Dave Christensen's initial design for the machine's backglass appears to be based on Parton's official 1977 Public Relations photograph.  

 

But, as the pinball design progressed, Parton’s career was developing and taking a new direction. Her recordings were topping the pop music charts and her appeal was broadening. Her style, her music, and her dress were all changing.  She had a new publicity team.  

"That's not who Dolly is..."

In late 1978, Bally asked for approval of the pinball machine artwork, but Parton’s publicists rejected it, unhappy with the country girl image. They told Bally, “That’s not who Dolly is.” They asked for a redesign with a “Las Vegas” style. Having already invested a lot in the design, Bally proposed a compromise — keep the playfield the same but redesign the backglass. They argued it would show “both sides” of Parton. Parton’s people reluctantly agreed.  Nieman remembers:

“We did the whole game country-western. I showed them the artwork and the backglass, and they said, ‘Oh, no, Dolly is Vegas.’ I said, ‘really?’ And they said, ‘She’s gowns and lights. She’s everything in Vegas.’”  —  Tom Nieman, former Bally executive

Christensen was asked to revise the backglass artwork.  This delayed the project for several months.  Christensen also remembers a specific request, late in the project, for butterflies.  The revised version is what finally made it onto the machines.

The redesigned backglass depicts the Las Vegas Parton: A gown replaced the denim.  Stars replaced the roses.  A microphone replaced the guitar.  Butterflies were added, by request.  

The original country-girl depiction of Parton remained on the playfield, including denim and bare feet.  

A Letter from Dave Christensen

In July 2013, Appalachian Center Curator Christopher Miller wrote a letter to artist Dave Christensen, inquiring about his work on the Dolly pinball machine.  Christensen responded with his memories:

"The initial finished prototype showed Dolly in a typical Blue Ridge country setting.  She was wearing a sexy, low cut plaid gingham blouse, cut-off blue jean shorts, a big fancy hair-do, playing a country guitar.  It was approved by Dolly herself.  Just as it was scheduled for production her new 'Hollywood Ca.' MGR.  . . .  wanted her to be portrayed more 'cosmopolitan,' a crossover artist, (new image).  . . .  In the end, I didn’t think this new image would appeal to the younger men who are the bulk of our pinball players -- and I was right!  It was a poor seller.  . . .  I am including a pic of myself and the 'Dolly' backglass."

Dave Christensen with his personal copy of the "Dolly" backglass