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.
In one room, more modern machines dominate, elaborately designed and endlessly inventive pastiches of pop-art tableaux — complete with pinging. A machine called Big Bang Bar taunts and tantalizes players, mocking those who can't seem to master the game — "That didn't last long," its voicebox squawks when a ball skips right past the flippers and into oblivion — and offering pole-dancing aliens for players who rack-up enough points.
From the 1960s, there's "Slick Chick," with its rabbit-eared ersatz Playboy bunnies, carefully drawn so the game's designers wouldn't have to pay Hugh Hefner any royalties. The '80s are represented by games designed to invoke "The Addams Family" (complete with a hand that emerges from the game floor and snatches unwary balls) and "The Twilight Zone," as well as Indiana Jones.
Silverman, a Silver Spring landscape designer who has been collecting pinball machines since the 1970s, is still trying to catch his breath after moving from Washington; he and his staff had only three days between the date the Baltimore lease was finalized and the day they had to be out of Georgetown. Although the new location offers four floors of space, his initial plans are to use only two. Eventually, however, he hopes to expand into the third and fourth floors, adding a theater, classrooms and additional displays.
"This is part of American history," says Silverman. "This is a true American pastime."
If you go
The National Pinball Museum opens Jan. 14 in the old Chocolate Factory building at 608 Water St. Hours are noon-8 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays and noon-6 p.m. Sundays. Tickets, which include unlimited game play, are $10 for two hours, $15 for four hours, $20 for all day. Call 443-438-1241 or go to nationalpinballmuseum.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun