Md. man with 867 pinball machines dreams of opening museum

Pinball aficionado David Silverman has hundreds of pinball machines in a warehouse behind his home in Silver Spring. His goal is to open a pinball museum in the D.C. metro area.
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 2010

David Silverman has 867 pinball machines and a $2 million dream.

By day, Silverman is a landscaper who specializes in Japanese gardens, but in his spare hours, he is a full-time pinball fanatic. Over the past 30 years, he has amassed a collection of machines that dates to the 1920s. They are housed in a specially constructed building in Silverman's Silver Spring back yard where, on Saturdays, he often has people over to play the games for free.

That's fine for now, but his big dream is to open a museum to share his collection with the world and to educate people about pinball and its history.

In his vision, the National Pinball Museum would be 10,000 square feet of pinhead heaven (pinhead is the term for pinball lovers). It would showcase all facets of pinball, including the game's history (it was a French invention) and the ways in which pinball reflects American culture and history. It also would showcase the artists behind the machines.

"This is America, and we're losing more and more of" our history, he said. "We need a place where we can keep [pinball] as a permanent record. A museum is a way to do that."

In a building roughly the size of the National Zoo's panda enclosure, there also would be classrooms where people could learn about the game and be trained in pinball repair. The museum would even have a restaurant that would serve "an elegant array of foods and pinball-related snacks." Silverman wants to call it "The Flipper."

Pinball's heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, but the arrival of video games spelled the end of the game's reign. Only one company, Illinois-based Stern Pinball, still makes pinball machines.

But the game remains big business among collectors, who pay upward of $5,000 for a machine at conventions or online sites such as eBay.

The Pinball Expo, which celebrates its 26th anniversary this year, attracts more than 1,000 pinheads annually to Chicago. The machines have even gained favor among contemporary artists. The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently included a pinball machine as part of a retrospective of the work of William T. Wiley, a California-based artist who used a pinball machine as his "canvas" for a piece that focused on global warming. Museum officials invited Silverman to give a talk about the game's history in October.

"We love having it in the show," said Joann Moser, the Smithsonian's senior curator. "It's so different from anything else. It shows an artist not fussy about the definition of art."

Silverman is a genial dark-haired man whose beard shows just a bit of gray. On a recent day, he is dressed casually in bluejeans and a cream-colored T-shirt with his pinball museum's logo, two flippers and a ball, over his heart. He chats amiably about the weather and his home, which resembles a Japanese country house. But turn the conversation to pinball, and he really gets going. Backglass, the rise of the flipper, the evolution of the bumper, Silverman is a one-man database of all things pinball.

Silverman knows that pinball was banned in New York until 1974 and that machines popular in the 1950s often depicted voluptuous women in various states of undress. That's because pinball was then a man's game, he said. The idea of women playing? Scandalous!

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