Largest pinball museum in U.S. to open

BALTIMORE Thu Sep 22, 2011 5:33am EDT

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

The National Pinball Museum will open in November 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 museum will be 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. "We aren't building an arcade, we are building a museum."

The museum 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 kept it in his apartment, where he had no other option but to sleep beneath it.

Soon he married, moved to 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. He now owns 900 pinball machines.

The collection outgrew his property and was moved to a larger space in Washington, D.C. Now, the National Pinball Museum is graduating to the four-story brick and glass building in Baltimore.

POPULARITY RISING

Video games, advancing technology and the decline in arcades have rendered pinball nearly obsolete. There is only one pinball manufacturer left in the United States, Illinois-based Stern Pinball.

But Silverman and other enthusiasts say the game's popularity is rising after early-decade doldrums.

"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, 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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