Tilt: The National Pinball Museum closes its doors
Published: March 6, 2013
Blip, bonk-bonk, ring-a-ling-a-krooow, ka-bling, pow, ring!
It’s not often that a death knell is quite so joyously cacophonous. But then, as the silver ball coasts down the board, directly between the frantic flippers, there it is in flashing lights on the backboard of one of the 60 pinball machines buzzing, flashing, and pow-ing: Game Over.
The Nose isn’t a pinball wizard, but we spent a pleasant hour playing Queen of Hearts, Sea Hunt, Big Bang Bar, and Nugent, a game whose backboard features the eponymous rocker wielding a half-guitar, half-machine gun device, in the National Pinball Museum on Sunday, the museum’s last day in operation near the Power Plant Live! complex. It moved barely more than a year ago from Georgetown in Washington, D.C.
The place was packed. At one point, there were 50 people milling about the three-story museum’s second story, where most of the games are.
An older couple came up with their son from northern Virginia. “My husband took our son to a competition last week where people were really good,” said Jackie Davey, while her husband’s eyes focused on the game he was playing. “He used to play in college,” she added. “And we heard it was the last day, so it gave us a good excuse to come up to Baltimore.”
Two young women with glassy eyes and a peculiar odor surrounding them gave the Nose an idea: What if Delegate Curt Anderson’s bill to legalize recreational marijuana had been in effect: Could stoners, the traditional champions of pinball, have saved the museum? The Nose called the delegate, but got no response by press time.
One couple had no idea it was the last day. “We were driving from Philadelphia back to North Carolina,” Collin Ward said. “And we both like pinball and thought we’d stop.”
“There’s a barcade in Asheville,” his traveling companion, Katie Linehan, said. “And one in Brooklyn. They do really well, maybe they’d do better here if they served beer.”
Perhaps she was onto something. The Nose learned that David Silverman, the beleaguered owner of the museum has talked to Joe Edwardsen of Joe Squared about trying to move—with a liquor license—into the first floor of the equally troubled Load of Fun on North Avenue, which closed down last fall when the city learned it was not properly zoned. But right now, it’s only talk, as the Nose learned when we found Silverman looking harried in his office off to the side of the whirring machines. When asked about the business end of the museum, Silverman, in jeans and a rumpled sweatshirt, was obviously aggravated.
“It’s very simple,” he said of the museum’s closing. “The owners decided to increase the rent by $15,000 in one year, based on the bullshit.” The three-story building occupied by the museum is, according to Silverman, the only building nearby not owned by David Cordish! of all things Live! “Maryland Family Network owns it,” Silverman said. “Like us, they’re a nonprofit. It’s amazing that one nonprofit would treat another this way.”
Margaret Williams of Maryland Family Network did not accept the $15,000 figure but acknowledged that the organization had changed its licensing agreement with Silverman. “We based his license on our estimates, but after the year we looked at what it actually cost and adjusted it.”
But the license on the location is only part of Silverman’s problem. He had to charge $15 to enter the museum. “Baltimore City charges $180 per year per coin-operated game,’ he said. “Multiply $180 times 60 games, and see why I couldn’t do that here.” Prince George’s County, Silverman says, doesn’t have any such fee.
Silverman said he has a month to pack up all the machines and put them back into storage and isn’t able to think beyond that right now. “I may very well have to sell the collection to pay the debts,” he said. But as he started to talk about the games themselves, Silverman seemed to forget the bitterness and succumb to the joy that motivated him in the first place, telling the epic story of the invention of the game in France as bagatelle (which means foolishness in Italian), its rise in America, and the crucial invention of the plunger by Montague Redgrave.
Silverman wasn’t shy about naming a favorite game: the legendary Big Bang Bar, which he bought from one of the designers when the company that made it got out of pinball. “It had such a cult following,” he said wistfully. “People would go berserk. The black light—the whole playing field glows—the art work, by Stan Fukuoka, was superior, the playability, the shots, and the humor. That’s the only problem with a place like this,” he adds. “The sound is one-third of the greatness of a game. It gives you the humor and teaches you the game. I wish they made them with headphone jacks. But I had that one in my house, for right in the living room.I could play it 30 times a day without getting tired of it.”
Will it return to his house, or end up stacked 11-high in storage like the rest?
“I don’t know. It has a lot to do with my wife,” Silverman said as another well-wisher came in to offer condolences.