A Passion For Pinball

David Silverman Believes His Vintage Arcade Machines Should Be Admired - And Played

August 23, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

The quarter goes in, and then the magic begins. Lights flash, bells ring, balls roll, flippers flip.

David Silverman is in pinball heaven. And he barely had to walk out his back door.

For some 25 years, Silverman has been buying arcade pinball machines, those gaudily colored, delightfully cacophonic games of skill that involve a steel ball, a bunch of rubber bumpers amid a sea of flashing lights and a pair of electronic flippers that serve as the only thing between million-point success and hole-in-the-floor oblivion. Staples at amusement arcades for more than seven decades, their pinging bells have provided the soundtrack for many a summer night, in arcades and amusement centers from Ocean City to Coney Island, Virginia Beach to Las Vegas. The Who even recorded a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy named Tommy, whose senses came alive only when he played pinball.

Silverman owns approximately 800 of these machines. And if a roomful of these babies doesn't constitute pop-culture heaven, then nothing does.

"Even as a kid, I was fascinated," says Silverman, a landscape designer by day whose Silver Spring home - or, more specifically, several outbuildings in back of his Silver Spring home - serves as the temporary quarters for his National Pinball Museum, which he hopes to expand someday into a facility complete with a research library, themed restaurant (he's even got a name for it, The Flipper) and gift shop. "There was just something about the games. They've always been a fascination to me, and not just to get the high scores. I can remember, as a child, looking at the letters, at the artwork, at the flashing lights.

"When I was 4 or 5, and we'd go to Lake George for vacation, I just remember always playing pinball. We were supposed to be on vacation, but I was always playing pinball."

Step inside Silverman's showplace, where about 50 machines are on display, nearly all of them operational, and you can understand why. If someone's playing, the ping-ping of steel ball bouncing against rubber bumpers, amassing 10 points for each bounce (100 when lit), is downright intoxicating.

Earlier this summer, Silverman took nine of his pinball machines, all with music themes, to Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion. There, the newly opened Music Pinball Hall of Fame - the nine machines, lined up in part of a building off to the side of the pavilion - offers concertgoers the chance to slip a quarter into some vintage machines from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and get some idea of what got Tommy so excited. There's a 1980 Rolling Stones game, a 1976 Captain Fantastic game (inspired by Elton John's appearance in the movie version of "Tommy"), even a coveted 1967 Beat Time game, featuring The Bootles, so named to avoid paying royalties to a certain Fab Four hailing from Liverpool.

Lording over it all - and he makes it a point to attend every Merriweather concert, so he can both baby-sit his games and explain something about their history to the players - is Silverman, 61. When he talks about pinball, Silverman's eyes tend to light up in ways not unlike his beloved machines. He's a man with a passion, one requiring four storage buildings just to hold it all.

Silverman wasn't always a pinball junkie. Sure, he played them as a kid, even had one in the apartment he shared with two roommates while teaching at Ohio University in the early 1970s. "I literally had to sleep underneath it," he says with a longing smile. "I learned really quickly not to get up fast, or I'd bang my head."

But he sold that machine after school was over (for the same $200 he paid for it) and managed to keep his passion at bay for several years. He would eventually earn a master of fine arts degree (in ceramics) from Alfred University in New York and a landscape design degree from George Washington University in Washington. Pinball was a pleasant memory, an occasional diversion, nothing more.

Then, around 1975, shortly after moving to Silver Spring, he made a stop at a business called Rockville Home Amusements. Things would never be the same.

He looked around and soon spied an old friend: a Fireball machine from 1972, one that he had become attached to during a trip to Spain. He'd never forgotten the game, or that glorious graphic of a flaming, fireball-hurling red devil. "That game blew my mind!" he says. "And here I was seeing it again. I was like, 'Oh, my God!' So I bought that game."

Thus was a passion rekindled, a mission born. Things moved slowly at first. "There was no real methodical progress," Silverman says. "I finally got bored with that game, so I got another one."

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