Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Watch out Smithsonian Institution! The Washington region’s newest museum celebrates Pinball – that wonderful cacophonous American game of skill that’s been capturing and reflecting popular culture for more than seventy years.
- David Silverman Curator, National Pinball Museum
David Silverman, curator of the National Pinball Museum, talks about the historical significance of the game “Saratoga” and clarifies the difference between “flippers” and “bumpers.”
Silverman talks about the artwork of Charles Leroy Parker and the significance of one game – “Cheerleader” – to the history of pinball:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmericans have had a love affair with pinball. For most of the 20th century, pinball machines were a staple in bars and corner stores across America. Drop in a quarter or a nickel depending on your age and get ready for a sight and sound extravaganza.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILights flashing, bumpers jump, bell ring. A cacophony of sound, all the while the digit counter spins accumulating points to reflect your skill. Whether you'd consider yourself a pinball wizard or not, you'll likely be surprised to learn the history of these humble parlor machines. A new museum located on the top floor of the Georgetown Park Mall celebrates pinball's place in American history.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's social, cultural and business significance and, yes, in addition to the captivating artwork, the history lessons and the hundreds of machines on display, there is also an opportunity to test your skill level on a wide range of machines. Joining us is the curator of the National Pinball Museum, David Silverman. David Silverman, good to have you aboard.
MR. DAVID SILVERMANThank you very much.
NNAMDII am betting -- or let me not get into betting here. I am thinking that very few Americans would guess pinball traces its roots to France. What did King Louis XIV have to do with pinball and how it got to America?
SILVERMANWell, Louis XIV had a brother named Compte Artois and Louis XIV -- excuse me, Louis XVI's wife was Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette and Compte Artois made a bet that he could not rebuild a hunting lodge into a beautiful chateau within a number of days before they came back from vacation.
SILVERMANWell, he did it. Within, I think, 60 days, he had a thousand people working by candlelight and he rebuilt this hunting lodge into a chateau. Now, this was right before the French revolution.
SILVERMANSo here these people are spending what we would consider probably millions of dollars to build this chateau and everything else is starving. And it got the name of Artois' Folly or Bagatelle, which means trifle.
SILVERMANSo they named the chateau the Chateau de Bagatelle and in that location, they had a billiard room, but they played a game that used a cue stick, but it didn't put balls in pockets and this was the beginning of what is today considered modern pinball.
NNAMDIToward the late 1800s, Americans started to improve on those bagatelles and essentially created what we know today as modern pinball.
SILVERMANCorrect. Montague Redgrave, an immigrant from England, came over to this country and he was making toys and he brought with him a coil spring. He created a ball shooter and he had that patented by the U.S. Patent Company in 1871. And he now converted a very large piece of bagatelle equipment into a table-top size piece of equipment and that ball shooter is now the same -- back then is now in exactly the same place that he put it back then.
SILVERMANSo that was one of the major changes from bagatelle to what was called improvements in bagatelle.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Silverman. He is curator of the new National Pinball Museum. Its official opening is Saturday in Georgetown Park Mall. And we're discussing the history of pinball and pinball machines. Do you have a pinball history of your own? Do you have a pinball memory to share? You can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIMaybe the first time you played or the best player in your neighborhood. We know you're going to say you were the best player in your neighborhood, but call anyway. 800-433-8850 or go to our website kojoshow.org. David, the 1930s were a major turning point for pinball fans. That's when they first started to sound like -- well, pinball machines, the sound that we recognize today.
NNAMDIHow'd that start?
SILVERMANWell, an interesting story is that Harry Williams, the founder of the Williams Manufacturing Company, was working for a company called PAMCO. I think it's Pacific Amusement Corporation. And he invented a little game called Contact. There was a company next door that produced solenoids, which are kind of wound coils that have a plunger in the middle that move back and forth.
SILVERMANAnd the doorbell rang on the shop and he says, wow, a doorbell. Why don't we add that to a pinball machine? It was battery operated and that was the first game that ever had sound. And he put his non-bell game next to his bell game and the bell game increased profits five times as much as the game without sound. And that, basically, was the beginning of sound in pinball.
NNAMDIIt probably was also the beginning of the term no-brainer. (laugh) The sound machine next to the no-sound machine. Nobody played the no-sound machine.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Did pinball play a significant role in your childhood or adolescence? Is it still? 800-433-8850. After Pearl Harbor was bombed and America got into the war, it's my understanding the government -- sorry, we need all the metal and springs for the war effort. So how did -- in those circumstances, pinball survive the war?
SILVERMANWell, there were quite a number of pinball machine companies up until World War II, and some of the smart ones got Gottlieb, Williams, Bally, decided to keep their staff by producing products for the war so that instead of firing all of the members, they got government contracts to produce parachutes, to produce gun holsters, to produce metal objects that were needed for the war.
SILVERMANSo they managed to survive the war. And then, when the war was over, much fewer companies came back and were allowed to start making pinball machines again.
NNAMDIFew people realize that pinball machines were illegal for many years. Why?
SILVERMANWell, I think more of a political reason than an actual reason. I mean, they got a bad reputation that the mafia was involved in pinball and in many cases, they were. They, you know, they'd go into stores, bars, and say, okay, pinball game costs five cents, we take four. You get one unless we smash your games.
SILVERMANThere were lots of publicity and press on kids losing their minds, you know. It's wasting their money and losing their school education by playing in pinball places, you know, like candy stores and things. A lot of it, as I said, was political, especially like Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York City. Because of his stature -- not physical stature, but his stature as mayor, he wanted to show the city that he was really doing something.
SILVERMANSo he actually smashed pinball machines in pictures in newspapers, which we have in our museum, showing that pinball was a bad thing and we should outlaw it. And he outlawed this and Chicago outlawed it and L.A. outlawed it.
NNAMDILet's go to the telephones. Here's Mike on Route 1 in -- Route 81 in W. Va. Hi, Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEYes, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I remember when I was a kid -- I'm 60 now, but I used to play a type of pinball machine where you put in a quarter and you would have Bingo cards. And if you made a Bingo, five in a row, then you -- if the owner of the store paid off, you won 20 bucks. Talk to the gambling machine versus the just-for-fun machines. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd that's what Fiorello LaGuardia was probably opposed to. But here is David Silverman.
SILVERMANYes. Bally decided -- Ray Moloney, the founder of Bally, decided that these five card or one-ball machine were more profitable and there were no laws back then specifically saying they were not allowed, except if a law was passed. So these were extremely popular games. They pay out. Other games paid out with game play. So if you won, you won 25 free games, and then the store owner, instead of letting you play 25 games, would go behind the counter and say, here's some money or here's some candy or something.
SILVERMANBut there was still this kind of gambling attitude and it continued for a great deal of time. And Bally was the last company that actually continued to make these type of games.
NNAMDIIf you have a history of pinball you'd like to share with us, call us. 800-433-8850. Personal history, family history, neighborhood history. On now to Mike in Fairfax, Va. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEThanks for talking my call. I have a 1968 Bally two-player called Safari that I love dearly. And I fix carefully with the six-foot wiring diagram and lots and lots of patience and a soldering gun. And I'm wondering what your guest can tell me about this machine, if he knows anything about it.
SILVERMANI can honestly say I know nothing about it. There are about 5,000 pinball machines that have been made since the early '20s, and I don't know every one of them. The name sounds familiar, but I honestly have not played that game so I couldn't give you much help.
NNAMDIAnd Mike, David personally only owns about 900 of those 5,000 machines, correct, David?
SILVERMANYes. Fortunately or unfortunately, I own about 900 games.
NNAMDIWell, Mike, I heard you say you went light on the soldering machine. David, today the greatest thrill of a restored pinball machine often comes in the form of the hand-painted artwork on the back glass. But it's my understanding that machines did not always have such artistry on display.
SILVERMANNo. Pinball, I consider a game of development by individuals, not so much an invention. Kind of like a computer, each person added something to a game to create what is today. So early games did not have back glasses, which is the backdrop of game. You added up points and you totaled them and sometimes it was just on a rack on a wall. And then as pinball progressed, and you actually had battery-powered games that showed score.
SILVERMANAnd then, they showed the score on the small back glass and the back glass increased. And before the war and during World War II, pinup pictures were the rage and most people who played pinball were men. So they came back from the war looking at the back glass of pinball machines that were these pinup art.
NNAMDIAnd because of that painted back glass, it's my understanding that the painted back glass played a key determining role in the value of the machine.
SILVERMANYes. Well, pinball companies were just like any other company. They produced a product, expected to make a profit and that was the end of it. I was told by many people in the know who are in their 80s, said they never expected games to be more than five years -- kept five years and then they were trashed.
SILVERMANSo they never really cared about the fact that painting paint on a piece of glass was going to create problems later because if games were in the cold or games were in the heat, the paint would expand and contract, but the glass wouldn't. So the back glass, the artwork started to peel off. So the more pristine the back glass, the more pristine the play field, the higher the value of the game.
NNAMDIWe're talking with David Silverman. He is curator of the National Pinball Museum which opens officially this Saturday, November 4, at Georgetown Park Mall. We move onto Mark in Annapolis, Md. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKThank you, gentleman. First time I ever called in. I listen all the time.
MARKOne quick good memory and a question. I used to be a Boy Scout years ago in the '60s and '70s, and I remember being in summer camp, and playing a machine called Close Encounters, after the movie. My question to the comment is, I have never -- I do estates now. I'm a retired policeman, but I do estates and I look for pinball machines and I've never seen one since.
MARKThe question is who made that machine and the comment is we -- I don't know how it ever happened. We used to make the ball hit one bumper, and if you hit that one bumper, you could keep hitting the flipper and it would rack up points. And for a quarter, it occupied the minds all day of about 12 kids being able to rack up points for cheap. And I don't know how it would ever work with the flipper.
MARKBut I was wondering if you know who made that machine because I've never seen one like that in 30 years.
SILVERMANIf I'm correct, I think that game was made by Gottlieb, and the reference you had to hitting the bumper and back and forth with the flipper, um, you know, pinball companies played on a knife edge. They wanted to make money. They didn't want to make a game too easy because people would not play it. They didn't want to make it too hard, then people wouldn't play it. So they were always kind of on the edge of making sure that people wanted to come back and play that game.
SILVERMANAnd if it was too easy, they'd say, oh, I beat that game so I don't want to play it. Or if it was way too hard, they would just give up. So there were always kind of the -- the designer and the electrical engineer were always trying to work on that. And so being able to really be able to be a good pinball player and find out those shots and those angles where you can do that was the way you became a pinball wizard.
NNAMDIHow good are you?
SILVERMANI would say that I'm below average. The older -- my own theory is that the older you get, the slower your reflexes. I've played with younger kids, 12, 10, and...
NNAMDIYeah, don't remind me. Yeah.
SILVERMANI'm embarrassed by how poorly I play in comparison to them.
NNAMDIWhen you began collecting pinball machines some 30 or more years ago, did you have any idea you'd one day be opening a museum?
SILVERMANAbsolutely never in my wildest imagination would this have occurred.
NNAMDIWell, you're a landscaper by trade, but it's my understanding that you envisioned the museum encouraging visitors to learn about everything from American history to understanding physics and electronics, to painting and art restoration. Tell a little -- tell us a little bit about your educational initiatives for the museum.
SILVERMANWell, because my background is in art -- but I went back to school for landscaping after I had finished teaching at different universities. All of those kind of influences really have kind of coalesced into what I want this museum to have. Now, again, it's not my museum. I'm hoping that it's the Washington community's museum.
SILVERMANBut I believe that museums of any type should give back. I think it's critical. Give back in what is exhibited that people can learn from, but I really think that museums should be there to help educate people, help underprivileged people. And so we're working on programs right now to have classrooms, scholarships that kids can come and learn trades that are used in pinball.
SILVERMANNot so much to make a pinball machine, but to learn painting, learn electronics, learn woodworking so that maybe they -- this is their first opportunity to work on something that they've never thought they could and then go on and make -- possibly have -- get a job from it.
NNAMDIYou have been doing this for 30 years, keeping a lot of these machines, all of them, so far, in your Silver Spring home. None of this could have been accomplished without the sainted Mimi.
SILVERMANAbsolutely. And using the word saint is absolutely correct. I have a wife who I've been married to for 26 years who is a saint. She has put up with some of the craziest things I've ever done. And having a handicapped son, this is a two-person job. And being able to do this dream only could have happened with the help of my wife.
NNAMDIThank you, Mimi. We got this e-mail from Janice in Fort Belvoir, Va. "I was surprised to hear your guest that American pinball traces its history to France. Ever since I was a kid, I was under the impression that our pinball traced its history to China Pachinko. Am I totally wrong?"
NNAMDIIn a word, yes, you are, in fact, totally wrong. David Silverman is the curator of the National Pinball Museum. What time on Saturday, November 4, is the opening slated for?
SILVERMAN10 a.m. closing at 8 p.m.
NNAMDI10 a.m. Bring your interest, bring your educational curiosity, bring your best game. David Silverman, as we said, is curator of the National Pinball Museum. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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