Nation's largest pinball museum to open in Baltimore

BALTIMORE Wed Sep 21, 2011 5:05pm EDT

BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Decades after he slept under a beloved first pinball machine wedged into his cramped apartment, David Silverman will open the nation's largest museum dedicated to speeding silver balls and fast-motion flippers.

The National Pinball Museum will open this fall in a 12,000 square foot space in the heart of Baltimore's tourist district and will include exhibits on the history of pinball - its beginnings in 18th-century France, its move to America, the advent of the flipper in 1946 and, later, digital technology.

The vast space will stocked with up to 900 pinball machines from Silverman's collection, ranging from an original French bagatelle game with pins and no flippers to a Stars Wars-type game, one of just 15 ever made.

"Pinball is more than a game," Silverman said from the museum's new home as movers bustled by. "We aren't building an arcade, we are building a museum."

The museum, when it opens in November, will also feature space for private parties, educational programs and two floors of "pay-to-play" pinball machines.

Silverman, in his 60s, a landscape designer from suburban Washington, D.C., got his first pinball machine when he was in his 20s. He shoehorned it into his apartment, where he had no other option but to sleep beneath it.

Soon he married, living in larger quarters, and his collection grew to 300 machines that he kept in a backyard storage building.

At his wife Mimi's suggestion, Silverman opened the space as a museum. But to truly illustrate pinball's long history, he needed more machines. He now owns 900.

Predictably, the collection outgrew his property. It was moved to a larger space in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Now, the National Pinball Museum is graduating to the four-story brick and glass building in Baltimore, the nation's largest space dedicated to the arcade game.

POPULARITY RISING

It may seem like a difficult time to open a pinball museum. Video games, advancing technology and the decline in arcades have rendered pinball nearly obsolete. There is only one pinball manufacturer left, Illinois-based Stern Pinball, which releases only a few new titles per year.

But Silverman and other like-minded enthusiasts say the game's popularity is rising after early-decade doldrums, perhaps due to nostalgia for simpler times.

"For many of us, the interest in pinball is still there," said Bernie Kelm, 42, a co-founder of the Free State Pinball Association.

Free State began in the 1980s and operates three pinball leagues in the mid-Atlantic, with an active roster of about 120 players. The organization also provides an online database of every operating pinball machine in the region.

Among some of the other pinball museums in the United States are the Silver Ball Museum in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California. This weekend, Pacific Pinball will hold its annual pinball exposition in San Rafael, California, which draws thousands of attendees and offers 400 playable games.

Prior to moving to Baltimore, the National Pinball Museum drew 6,000 visitors over nine months to its Georgetown location before a change in leasing agency forced it to relocate.

Silverman hopes the game's resurgence, the foot traffic and Baltimore's quirkier image, will allow the museum to be financially sustainable. The Georgetown location cost $300,000 to open and operate; Baltimore would cost considerably more, he said.

Despite a modest staff of five and humble beginnings in a backyard, Silverman hopes his museum will spark the next generation of pinball enthusiasts.

"We're different," Silverman said of pinball loyalists. "But we're all in it to make everyone aware that pinball is still alive."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston)

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