Pinball wizard comes to Baltimore

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Carol Sorgen

David Silverman found his life’s passion when he was just 4 years old. On a family vacation in upstate New York, Silverman’s father gave him a handful of nickels to play the pinball machines.

“In New York City, where we lived, pinball machines were outlawed, so I had never seen one before,” the now-63-year-old landscape designer recalled. But all it took was those few nickels, and Silverman was hooked from that moment on.

“The bells, the whistles, the lights…they all just struck a chord with me and have ever since,” said Silverman.

Pinball machines were declared illegal in New York City from 1939 until 1976. The legislation was spearheaded by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who considered pinball to be a form of gambling or “games of chance,” possibly because some operators paid high scorers cash rewards and prizes. At any rate, LaGuardia didn’t want schoolchildren wasting their nickels and dimes in the machines.

But that didn’t deter Silverman, whose family regularly vacationed in upstate New York, where pinball was legit. He not only became an enthusiastic player in his youth, but, later on, an avid collector of pinball machines.

Perhaps the gambling spirit has stayed with him as well, for Silverman is now betting that he can bring his love for pinball — and his extensive collection of the machines — to Baltimore. Soon he plans to open his National Pinball Museum in the Power Plant Live complex at the Inner Harbor.

Amassing a collection

Silverman bought his first pinball machine for $200 while a young art instructor in Ohio, then added another. When he acquired a couple of roommates, he was so short of space for himself that he wound up spending his nights under the machines.

Later, he moved to Rockville, Md., to take up a position teaching art. Due to the difficulty of moving his machines, he sold them and tried to ignore the calling to purchase another one.

The lure was too great, however, and shortly after he got married he brought home “Fireball” — a machine he had first played in Spain and then ran across in a home amusement store.

After that, “all hell broke loose,” Silverman laughed.

Fast forward 30-some years, and Silverman is now the proud owner of nearly 900 pinball machines, spanning the history of the game from the late 18th century to the present.

Among the vintage games he owns are a 1967 Beat Time game, featuring “The Bootles” (a play on the name of the Fab Four to avoid paying royalties), a 1980 Rolling Stones game, and a 1976 Captain Fantastic game (inspired by Elton John’s appearance in the movie version of the rock opera Tommy. That movie told of a blind, deaf and mute boy whose senses are awakened when he plays pinball.)

Silverman has restored many of the machines himself in workshops he built in back of his home. Several years ago, though, it dawned on him that not only was he running out of room, but he had a collection that might be of interest to other pinball enthusiasts as well.

So was born the National Pinball Museum, which opened last year in Washington, D.C.’s tony Georgetown district. Unexpectedly, the property where it was located was sold and is now being redeveloped, resulting in the loss of his lease.

Once he got over the initial disappointment of having to close the D.C. museum after less than a year, Silverman became excited about the prospect of moving it to Baltimore. He thinks the Inner Harbor location will be ideal, drawing in tourists and residents alike.

As of press time, the museum is scheduled to open at the end of November. Check for updates.

The four-story building (the former Chocolate Factory at 608 Water Street) will house more than 100 machines on exhibit, and include an interactive area where visitors can play both vintage and modern machines.

There will also be classrooms, as Silverman wants to share his knowledge about pinball with the public — especially with young kids. “It’s more than a game,” he said. “Pinball machines are a piece of both art and of history.”

How pinball developed

The tradition of pinball dates back to such games as bocce and lawn bowling. Then in France, during the reign of French King Louis XIV from 1643 to 1715, billiard tables were narrowed, and wooden pins or skittles were placed at one end of the table, with players shooting balls with a stick or cue from the other end.

Because pins took a long time to reset by hand after being knocked down, they were eventually affixed to the table, with holes in the bed of the table becoming the targets. Players learned to ricochet balls off the pins to achieve the harder holes. A standardized version of the game eventually became known as bagatelle.

Between the 1750s and 1770s, billard Japonais (Japanese billiards) was invented (despite the name, in Western Europe). In that game, players used thin metal pins and, instead of a cue, a coiled spring and a plunger. With the plunger, players would shoot balls up the inclined playfield toward the scoring targets, just as they do today with most modern machines.

Not only New York, but Los Angeles and Chicago as well once considered pinball so seedy they outlawed the machines. And that was despite the fact that most of the major pinball machine manufacturers were located in Chicago.

But today the games are ubiquitous and well-received (for the most part), drawing in growing audiences as both the artwork — and the electronic bells and whistles — continue to develop.

Silverman says he doesn’t play as often as he used to. “Pinball is a game of concentration and reaction,” he noted, ruefully admitting that his are not what they used to be in his younger days.

But that’s all right, Silverman said. “I have so many other areas of interest when it comes to pinball machines that I don’t miss playing as often or as well as I once did.”

If attendance (close to 5,000 visitors) at his short-lived DC museum is any indication, Silverman knows there are just as many other fans nostalgic for the games of their youth, and as many more interested in joining the fun.

So move over Angry Birds. “Pinball is far from being over,” said Silverman.