National Pinball Museum moves to Georgetown

Vintage pinball machines find a new home, and a champion in David Silverman

December 02, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach, Baltimore Sun

Pinball machines can trace their lineage all the way back to 18th-century France and Marie Antoinette. Who knew those pinging flipper games, with the frenetic metal balls and the constantly blinking lights, had a royal bloodline?

David Silverman knew. And beginning Saturday at his new National Pinball Museum in Georgetown, visitors can learn the story of how the Count de Artois invented an early ancestor of pinball, known as bagatelle, on a dare from his sister-in-law, the queen.

As they proceed through the 14,000-square-foot museum, they'll read about how that game was brought to the U.S. on the same ships that carried diplomat Benjamin Franklin back to these shores. They'll see a tabletop version that started showing up in saloons around 1900 (with cigars offered as prizes). And they'll stand inside a replica of a Chicago factory office where game designers added flippers in the 1930s, allowing players to keep the balls in play and turning pinball from a game of chance to one of skill and ensuring its continued popularity.

And then comes the really good part. After hearing about the surprisingly compelling history of pinball, museum visitors will get the opportunity to play some games themselves. The museum includes a pay-to-play area with about 40 games, some dating to the 1940s, set up to be played at 50 cents a pop (deducted from magnetic cards purchased at the museum entrance). Players can experience the joy of scoring enough points to win a free game and the agony of shoving the machine so hard that the "Tilt" sign goes on and the game shuts down.

All that fun, and you learn something, too. That's the experience Silverman has been dreaming of for some 15 years, ever since he came up with the idea of sharing his passion for pinball with the world.

"My concept, almost from the beginning, was to have a walk-through of the history of pinball, the milestones of pinball history, how we got to where it is today," says Silverman, who tells the story of his beloved amusement games with the enthusiasm of a carnival barker. "This is part of American history. This is a true American pastime."

Silverman owns some 800 pinball machines, and until this past spring had about 60 of them set up inside an outbuilding at his Silver Spring home. That version of the National Pinball Museum was open only by appointment on weekends, however, and Silverman dreamed of something bigger. When the owners of a Georgetown shopping center offered him the chance to take over a long-vacant FAO Schwartz toy store, he signed a two-year lease and set to work.

Rooms are dedicated to all aspects of the pinball experience, from the artwork that makes them such a visual feast to the legal challenges that made them contraband in many parts of the country. There's a blown-up photograph of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia gleefully destroying a machine after they were outlawed as gambling devices — although most pinball games offer no reward beyond free games, some have offered payouts (although, ironically, not the one LaGuardia is shown destroying).

There are also special games designed to circumvent a Wisconsin law that once forbade machines where balls were entered into play via any sort of spring device. And there are mounted art prints that demonstrate the silk-screening process used to create the colorful, distinctive back-glasses mounted at the rear of the machines.

For his part, Silverman revels in his position as a custodian of pinball history and dismisses any suggestion that his museum is just a gussied-up arcade. A ceramic artist by education and a landscape designer by profession, he regards the museum as an art project, one preserving an American entertainment innovation that deserves to be taken seriously. Even if it is a lot of fun.

"Fifteen years ago, I said, 'This is what I really want to do, however long it takes me,'" Silverman says. "This is as close to fulfilling a dream as I'll ever come."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

The National Pinball Museum opens Saturday in The Shops At Georgetown, 3222 M St. N.W. in Washington. Admission is $13.50; free for kids under 9. Hours are 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday. Call 202-337-1100 or go to nationalpinballmuseum.org.

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