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Pinball Wizard Turns Hobby Into a Museum

What does a pinball enthusiast do when his collection grows to 900 pinball games? Start a museum, of course!

David Silverman has been buying and restoring pinball machines for more than 30 years in an effort to preserve the game’s history. Until this month, the only way he could display a fraction of his enormous collection was by building a small exhibit in his Silver Spring, Md., backyard. 

After his home setup got some media attention in early 2010, Silverman started receiving calls asking whether he was interested in moving the museum. Six months ago, he signed a lease, and now the National Pinball Museum is settled into the Shops at Georgetown Park. 

The museum has space to display about 90 games from Silverman’s collection and features games that date from the 1870s to some that just came out last year.

Silverman said he became interested in pinball while on a family vacation when he was about 5 years old. From that point on, he was mesmerized, but he had a difficult time finding information when he wanted to learn about the game’s development.

“I started to realize there was really no written history about it,” Silverman said. “When they built a machine, they threw out all the paperwork. They didn’t see these as pieces of art, pieces of American culture.”

With the opening of the museum, Silverman has more than made up for the previous lack of information on pinball’s history. 

“I got into collecting not because I liked or disliked a game, but because they had significant historical meaning for pinball,” he said.

One of the museum’s exhibits brings visitors up to date on pinball’s story, with a history that starts in France in the late 1700s. 

Pinball evolved from the game Bagatelle, developed at the Château de Bagatelle, an estate owned by the Comte d’Artois, younger brother to King Louis XVI. To play Bagatelle, a player would use a cue to hit ivory balls through wickets on a table and hope that the ball would land in one of the holes on the other side. When the French allied with the colonists during the American Revolution, they brought Bagatelle with them and introduced it to American military officers.

Silverman said early French Bagatelle games are at the top of his wish list to add to the collection, but he may have to make a trip to France if he wants to find one.

“These were substantial pieces of furniture,” Silverman said. “I don’t think people are willing to give them up if they exist.”

A century later, the game evolved when Cincinnati resident Montague Redgrave invented the steel spring shooter, eliminating the need for a cue. By 1900, a tabletop version of the game became popular in Western saloons, where players could win prizes such as cigars or cash depending on how skillfully they played.

By the 1930s, games were being produced as they are known today, with themes and decorative backglass. However, the game-changing addition of the flipper and bumper came in the 1940s.

And that’s where the museum’s “Golden Age of Pinball” exhibit picks up. A room packed with games from the late 1940s to the early 1960s outlines that era. The exhibit draws heavily on games produced by D. Gottlieb and Co., which was known for its creative backglass designs.

Despite the fact that pinball machines were built to be played, visitors can’t play most of the games in the museum. That’s something Silverman knew he wanted when the museum was being built.

“I jumped at the chance to make this a museum, not an arcade,” Silverman said.

But he also recognizes the purpose of his beloved games, so a “Pay to Play” room is packed to capacity with 40 games. Visitors to the museum can pay 50 cents to play games as old as a 1951 Niagara Falls-themed game or more recent pop culture-themed games, including the Twilight Zone, Indiana Jones and Guns N’ Roses.

Though the museum is still getting settled, Silverman has plans to extend what it offers to the public. He hopes in the near future to set up a classroom where kids can learn how to build pinball machines.

The National Pinball Museum is located on the third floor of the Shops at Georgetown Park (3222 M St. NW). It is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $13.50.

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