A visit to Sal Mazzeo's house is like a visit to a turn-of-the-century arcade. Descend into the executive's basement den and you immediately encounter a cacophony of sights and sounds worthy of any carnival midway: buzzes, bells, clamoring gears.

Mazzeo collects antique gaming devices: slot machines, pinball games, and other coin-ops (as in "coin-operated") - dozens and dozens of pieces of vintage equipment.

"I actually got interested while I was in college in 1977," says the hobbyist, whose day job is as Tax Controller at GE Aircraft Engines in Evendale. "One of my girlfriend's neighbors had this huge console slot machine. Slot machines were illegal to own then, but you could get them for $250."

Mazzeo began to comb antique stories and frequent auction houses. "It was at a shop in Over-the-Rhine, the Metropolitan Gallery, where I bought my first slot machine." The collector quickly learned that Newport's storied legacy as a gambling town meant there could be a treasure trove of classic slot machines hidden in the region's attics and basements, waiting for the next estate sale. "I started to find out about the people who ran the business back in the '40s."

Along the way, he began writing professional articles for such trade magazines as GameRoom and COCA Times (COCA standing for the Coin Operated Collectors Association). "There's only a couple of thousand of us around the world; this is a pretty specialized interest.
"I picked up a bunch of slot machines at auctions. This was all before eBay, which has made it a lot more difficult to get machines at a steal," comments the Xavier MBA grad.

"If you were going to collect slot machines in the '80s and '90s, before eBay, the Midwest was the best place to do it." Most of the machines had been manufactured in Chicago or Detroit, and due to strict regulations in some states regarding whether slots could be brought across their borders, the machines didn't always travel far.

Since those early years, Mazze'”who spent 21 years at Procter & Gamble before joining GE six years ag'”has filled the den of his Anderson Township home with colorful, noisy and historically significant gaming machines. One one-armed bandit takes English sixpences. Another is an 1898 Mills Dewey slot. There's a classic barber chair in one corner, a player piano in the other. A pre-WW I brass cash register and a jukebox sit near a huge, finely finished bar. The game room absolutely screams quirky.

Let's be immediately clear about this: Mazzeo is no casino operator. "I'm not a gambler myself. I've been to Las Vegas once and Reno once, and I've never been to the Indiana boats," he laughs. "I restore slot machines, so I know the odds. I know you're not going to win."
These days, slots are legal to possess in Ohio and Kentucky (though not, ironically, in Indiana) "But that's only if you use them as antiques."
So if guests in his game-room play the machines, it's with Mazze'™s nickels. "I provide the money in buckets besides each machine. Since I do that, it's not gambling."

Mazzeo laments that the days of purchasing antique casino equipment at a reasonable price are long gone. "You don't find steals anymore," he says, pointing to the collectors on both coasts"”flush with money thanks to stock options and deferred compensation funds"”who drive the prices up on eBay beyond reason, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

Mazzeo doesn't stop at collecting. He turned an early love for tuning up classic cars into a talent for restoring the workings of these beat-up slots, some that haven't worked in decades. "I like to tinker with the internal mechanics. I always enjoyed working on cars, but got tired of working out in the rain."

Is there a Holy Grail in the world of collection coin-ops? There sure is. "The original three-reel slot machine was invented by a Bavarian immigrant named Charles Fey, around 1898. There are only four or so left in the world, and sell for up to $200,000." The 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed much of the rest of Fey's first machines.

All the original slots were mechanical. In 1963, Bally Co. introduced a machine that integrated both mechanical and electro-magnetic components. Today, "the new slot machines are totally electronic. They are essentially PCs."

Are your odds better or worse on the newer machines? Definitely better, says this expert. "Almost all my slots were tampered with. Those old-time operators were all crooks."

Mazzeo readily acknowledges his is an unusual hobby. But the beauty of it is, in the world of collecting antiques, "these are antiques you can actually play with."