ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Pinball isn’t virtual. It’s physical. You pull the steel plunger on the 1976 game “Evel Knievel” and the tension is pleasurable. The ball clacks against the glass top as it jumps off the hair-trigger flippers, which flick electronically with a fingertip press of the buttons waist-high on the sides of the machine. The jangling bells and blinking lights add to the tactile experience.
At the Asheville Pinball Museum, you pay $15 and play all you want on 80 machines ranging from the 1950s to the latest games, because even though the Internet has all but killed arcades, the pinball industry has not entirely died. Tuned up and ready to go are the “Elton John-Captain Fantastic” game from 1975, “Cherry Bell” from 1978, and from 1979 the bigger “Space Invaders,” with its widebody design and double flippers allowing for a greater range of shots.
You can walk around and just look for free, if you want, and the machines are clustered together era by era so you can track the evolution. But this playable collection and others like it across the country are designed to be immersive and experiential. It’s as if instead of walking through the Baseball Hall of Fame, you get to take batting practice at Ebbets Field.
Is it a museum?
“We can call it an emporium if you want,” T.C. Di Bella, Asheville Pinball Museum owner and former middle school teacher, says with a shrug, even as he adds that insisting it’s not a museum rubs him “the wrong way.”
“It was never about making it sound more sophisticated than it is,” Di Bella says, sitting in a back room where old machines are repaired and new ones are prepped for action. “When I saw the Seattle Pinball Museum website and read the article when they opened, and how the owner explained it, I was like, ‘Yeah — it’s a display of technology and art. And so what if you get to play it?’ ”
The artifacts are often artful — not in the movie-image re-creations on machines from the 1990s, Di Bella contends, but in something like the cartoon images of the rock band Kiss, painted on glass and replicated for the 1979 game. On one bank of older machines, the backs have been pried off and are protected by plexiglass covers. You can watch the works turn.
The cultural history is interesting: For decades, pinball, which gained its electrified and coin-operated shape in the 1930s, was banned as gambling, and it was outlawed outside of amusement arcades in New York City from 1948 to 1976. (Next door in South Carolina, the general assembly introduced legislation to repeal its old prohibition against minors playing pinball only last year.) Di Bella’s oldest game dates to 1937; it’s called “Arlington” and has a horse-race theme as the ball slides down the banked board. Players could not hit it back because it had no flippers, meaning that it was largely a game of chance. The attraction was that if the balls landed in the right place, you could win a couple of pennies or nickels.
“A lot of the early machines would pay off,” Di Bella says. “That’s what gave pinball kind of a bad name.” Signs saying “For amusement only” are relics of pinball’s battle against a gambling stigma.
The 1947 “Humpty Dumpty” was the first pinball game with electronic flippers, making it more competitive but still “very boring,” Di Bella says. The 1979 “Hercules” is currently off-limits but plugged in so you can see its ruby-yellow glow, and with an info card — all machines have info cards — explaining that the Atari-made machine is the biggest ever built. Di Bella is working on getting the hard-to-maintain “Hercules” back in playing shape; it’s so big that it uses a pool table cue ball instead of a silver pinball. The weight of the ball makes for a slow game and wears out the coil in the flipper mechanism.
Di Bella was teaching social studies and science and had two pinball machines in his basement when a friend sent him a link to the Seattle Pinball Museum website. He immediately wanted to do the same thing in Asheville, and his wife, Brandy — a nurse for 20 years who now helps manage the museum — quickly agreed. Di Bella studied what he calls “the big three” pinball museums as he was gearing up: Seattle’s, the Museum of Pinball outside Los Angeles and the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park, N.J.
He opened with 27 machines that cost a total of $20,000, teaching school until 3:30 p.m. and opening the museum at 4 as he got the enterprise off the ground. Now the museum averages 1,000 visitors a week, capping entry at 80 people at a time (Di Bella and his staff of three or four try to keep at least five spots open). Waiting lists are common; arriving early on busy days is a must. It has been enough of a hit that Di Bella has opened the Appalachian Pinball Museum in nearby Hendersonville, too. By last Christmas, he got his salary up to what he had been making as a teacher.
When the museum opened, anything on the floor was for sale, but no more. Di Bella learned the hard way that sometimes rarities can’t be replaced: He sold a limited edition 1990s “Godzilla” (bad movie, good game, he says) and has not been able to find another. Sales now are made with an eye on maintaining the collection.
A skeptic might say Di Bella is a fanboy gone pro, a gamer who has blown up his man cave with expensive toys and nostalgic decor. Move toward the smaller back room where the video games are — “Ms. Pac-Man” and “Asteroids,” and, in a smaller room, some Nintendo and Sega Genesis stuff — and you will be overwhelmed by mid-to-late 20th century pennants, movie posters and a jukebox with, for instance, David Lee Roth crooning “Just a Gigolo.” Even the bathrooms are decked out with knickknacks, and the women’s room is said to be haunted, which Di Bella knows from his former summer job as a local tour guide. Arguably, this interactive monument to American diversions, or this arcade revival — whatever you want to call it — by any name does not amount to more than kitsch.
Yet if you can encounter R2D2 and C-3PO at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Di Bella’s not sure why pinball and its ancillary features and expressions shouldn’t be museum-worthy, too.
“What if I turned everything off, and I put red ropes in front of everything and you still had the display signs,” he says. “Now is it a museum?”
Asheville Pinball Museum, 1 Battle Square, Suite 1B. Asheville, N.C. ashevillepinball.com.