National Pinball Museum goes full tilt in Baltimore

Kicked out of Washington, the museum looks to keep the ball rolling at its new downtown location

  • David F. Silverman, the executive director and curator of the National Pinball Museum, is pictured at the museum, which has relocated from Washington D.C to Baltimore.
David F. Silverman, the executive director and curator of the… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
January 01, 2012|By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun

When it comes to pinball, Washington's loss is Baltimore's gain.

The National Pinball Museum, unexpectedly and unceremoniously kicked out of its Georgetown location last summer, opens Jan. 14 next to Power Plant Live. Soon, in addition to checking out Port Discovery, eating a good meal and listening to some live rock 'n' roll, downtown visitors will be able to exercise their wrists and develop the fine art of keeping a metal ball in play without tilting the machine.

In a city where John Waters is king and the delightfully quirky American Visionary Art Museum is one of the most vibrant tourist attractions, a museum devoted to pinball should be right at home. And that's what founder David F. Silverman is counting on.

"Baltimore proved to be the most encouraging location," said Silverman, whose museum was less than six months old when owners of the M Street mall in which it had opened opted out of their lease. "People seem to be really excited, really supportive. They've been coming by, knocking on the windows, giving a thumbs-up. We have all good feelings."

Once the museum opens in the old Chocolate Factory building on Water Street, visitors will be able to purchase two-hour, four-hour or all-day tickets. Visits will begin with a tour of the first-floor history gallery, in which the development of pinball is traced from the 18th century (who knew Marie Antoinette had a hand in pinball's early development?) to the present day. From there, it's up to the second-floor play area, where some 50 games, dating back to the 1940s, will be open for play initially.

Silverman, who owns just under 900 machines, admits he's addicted to pinball machines. But it's a happy addiction, he insists.

"The best part of having so many games," he says, "is that, within a year or two years after I've mastered one game, I can go back to it and it's like starting all over. In a sense, it's like a new game all over again."

For years, Silverman kept his collection at his Silver Spring home, displaying some in a backyard outbuilding that served as the museum until 2010, when he negotiated a lease to move into Georgetown. Crowds there, he said, grew continuously over the 10 months the museum was open, and he hopes that growth will pick up again in Baltimore.

Pinball machines, staples of amusement arcades since at least the 1930s, are noisy, garish, frustrating and delightfully addictive games of skill. Spring-loaded plungers send a steel ball onto a flat play field, where it collides with lighted bumpers, careening madly from one to another. Each hit produces points (and that distinctive pinging sound) as the ball slides down toward a hole at the playfield's base; the player's only protection is a pair of flippers, controlled by buttons on each side of the machine, that propel the ball back toward the bumpers. Unless, of course, the ball heads straight down the middle of the play field, out of the flippers' reach.

"The perfect game can't be too hard, but it can't be too easy, either," Silverman says. "You always want to be able to get further along in the game."

A player's point total is displayed on a lighted, generously decorated backglass. Some display devils; others have bathing beauties. On the second floor of the museum, machines display everything from hillbilly baseball games to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Players win free games for earning enough points.

"Pinball's a great way for working out frustrations," Silverman says, noting that the soundtrack of a room full of pinball machines can include as much human cursing as pinging.

Silverman's goal is a facility that's as informative as it is playful. On the first floor, machines are displayed for their historical value, beginning with a bagatelle, a sort-of cross between billiards and bumper pool that was developed in the 18th-century French court. From there, displays show how the game developed over the years — plungers would shoot the ball onto the play field beginning in the mid-19th century, and flippers were added in 1947.

Pinball's sometimes unsavory reputation is also detailed. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia succeeded in getting them banned in the 1940s, arguing that they promoted gambling. Wisconsin once banned machines where a ball is delivered via any plunger or spring-loaded device, leading resourceful designers to come up with a machine in which the ball was rolled onto the play field by hand.

But as fascinating as the history detailed on the first floor is, the museum's true heart is up on the second. There, visitors will be greeted by a delightful cacophony of pinging, banging, whooshing and clanging sounds. If there's such a thing as a pop-culture heaven, it certainly includes a space like this.

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