The pinball lecturer pressed a button on his laptop, and a photographed image of pinball backglass from the 1950s appeared on the screen in the darkened auditorium. Most modern backglass art looks like a tacky movie poster, but this was a bright, funny scene with vivid detail, like if you mashed the depth of a Bruegel painting together with the style and exaggerated forms of an old school Sunday comic.
“This is Kingpin,” the lecturer said. He began to describe the features of the art, but didn’t mention anything about the design of the game itself.
The art was exquisite, but it was one in an endless series of PowerPoint slides featuring backglass. The pinball lecturer, David Silverman, clearly had a passion for backglass art, but I began to daydream, even though I had to pinch myself every now and then: I was listening to a bona fide pinball lecture inside the Smithsonian American History Museum.
I perked up when the lecture turned, briefly, to the history of pinball. Pinball was formed and shaped over the years by wild visionaries into the game we know and worship today. It began as a simple countertop game, without legs. You played the game on a bar, while finishing off your steam beer.
Montague Redgrave invented the plunger in 1871. Harry Williams invented the tilt device and introduced electricity to the world of pinball. The first game with flippers, Humpty Dumpty, appeared in 1947, and had reverse flippers, like this:
instead of this:
From Silverman, I learned a new piece of pinball trivia: back in the 1930s, a game called Log Cabin distributed coupons redeemable for money, a cigar, or a turkey if you achieved a certain score.
Unfortunately, 90% of the lecture stuck to backglass art—which made sense, considering the venue and the lecturer. Silverman has a graduate degree in art history, and he told a great story about when he began collecting pinball games as a poor grad student. He had to sleep under a pair of pinball machines, due to limited space in his house.
In my notebook, under my list of things to do, I wrote down: “Sleep under a pinball machine.”
I couldn’t let go of that free turkey. Imagine you’ve won a turkey from a pinball machine. Imagine how it feels to roast and baste that free turkey.
Silverman owns over eight hundred pinball machines, and he brought nine games from his collection to the museum. They were arranged around the atrium, all set to free play: a Saturday afternoon mob scene. People lined up to play the machines, but I had limited patience, so I stuck to the two games with the shortest lines, Saratoga and Nugent. Saratoga was a beautiful wooden game from 1948, one of the first machines with flippers: a pair at the top of the playfield faced the normal way, and a pair of reverse flippers sat at the bottom of the game. According to my six seconds of internet research, it was also the first game to feature a “thumper bumper,” which are those large round bumpers that look like mushrooms. I was surprised the backglass wasn’t decorated with horses from the famous racetrack in Saratoga Springs, but instead featured women in fancy dresses and a large white hotel in the background. Saratoga turned out to be slow and somewhat dull, but it felt good to play such an old game for once.
Someone write in and tell me why Ted Nugent, of all people, gets his own pinball machine. Were they handing out pinball machines in the 1970s, willy-nilly, to any hairy jackass who wanted one?
I mean, like, who exactly was in charge of things back in the 1970s?
I can think of only a handful of men and women who deserve their own pinball machines. I read an article in People magazine years ago about Aaron Spelling’s wife who had a special pinball machine made for her husband, the producer of television shows such as Starsky and Hutch, The Mod Squad, and Melrose Place. The machine is decorated with all sorts of details from his life, and is called. . . Aaron Spelling. Mr. Spelling has since passed away, and I fear the game is at the bottom of a California landfill, tied up in litigation, or, worst of all, gathering dust in a spare wing of an unused Spelling mansion in Beverly Hills. And that is why I need to derail this column, briefly, for a public appeal to Aaron Spelling’s daughter, Tori.
Dear Tori Spelling:
Hey babe. I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’re a big McSweeney’s fan. I wanted to let you know that I am available at a moment’s notice to fly out to sunny California and play your father’s pinball machine, if you know what I mean. Not sure if you even like pinball, but I’d be happy to show you the ropes. I’ve seen pictures of your Dad’s machine, and it has everything—bowling pins, pictures of Charlie’s Angels and Joan Collins and the Love Boat. Not to mention those adorable drawings of Bichon Frises.
It’s my understanding that the game has a target with a picture of your face on it, and when you hit the target the game says, “I love you, Daddy.” Adorable.
The game sounds like a monument to his great life, to the years of amazing entertainment he provided to America.
My e-mail is at the top of this column—write me or hit me up on Facebook, okay?
Your pinball pal,
The only part of the Nugent game having anything to do with the Nuge was the backglass: an image of Nuge shooting fire out of his guitar. I wanted to get a flavor of Nuge’s day-to-day life from this machine, I wanted a biography of the man via pinball. The game looked and played like every other experience I’ve had with a game from the 1970s. It didn’t feel like a biography of Nuge—it felt like they took a regular pinball game and slapped the Nuge on at the end, you know?
A middle-aged, unshaven man with a backpack approached me while I played and asked about my “strategy” to get the most points. The man was a true pinball aficionado, and I planned to use the rest of this paragraph to make fun of him until I remembered that the day I went to the museum and played the Ted Nugent pinball machine. I hadn’t shaved, and I had a backpack with me, and, yes, I am fast approaching 40. So instead of making fun of you, I salute you, pinball strategist! I’m sorry I didn’t answer you! Salut, sir! I had no strategy! I was too disappointed with Nuge pinball!
I thought of David Silverman a few weeks later while I played pinball in my sister’s suburban home. She and her boyfriend, E., live in a four-bedroom home not far from where I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. They have a pinball machine, Mr. and Mrs. Pac Man, in the spare room above the garage.
The pinball machine had plenty of things wrong with it. The sound didn’t work, and the maze of lights in the center of the game was broken, too. E. unplugged the game, opened it up and we looked at the insides, at all the circuits and lights and gadgetry. It was fun to try and diagnose it.
I have no business messing with electrical stuff, but E. fiddles with electronics all the time. My favorite E. related story is when he was in high school, he rigged up his own personal doorbell for his friends that only rang in his bedroom. So when he said it would take a long time to diagnose and correct the noise problem, I trusted him. We had to content ourselves with leveling the machine by raising the legs with Tinkertoys. While we had the glass off, I ran my hands along the playfield. The slightest touch made the drop targets drop and the bumpers thump.
I thought of Silverman and his eight hundred pinball machines while messing around with Mr. and Mrs. Pacman_. I can’t imagine owning not only multiple pinball machines, but a separate building to house my machines. It would be way too much responsibility. It was fun to play pinball with my shoes off at my sister’s house and yes, the next morning, before coffee, before anything, I played a game in my bathrobe. But these are trivial pleasures, even for pinball. I can’t start buying pinball machines. I’ve never even had an interest in owning a machine. It would be like owning an expensive, fragile pet made of plastic and glass that you bought off the Internet. And you know what will happen. You have some friends over and a couple of beers in, someone breaks the machine. I don’t mean intentionally. I mean pinball is an electro-mechanical device. Things break. It’s bound to happen. So then I’m the owner a broken pinball machine. It’s not a sewing machine. I don’t just toss it in the back of my Mitsubishi Galant and take it away to be repaired. I either find someone to make a house call—and most likely this person’s professional name is a cute pinball joke, like Dr. Flipper, M.D.—or I start trolling e-Bay for parts. And when my friends call up the next day and say, hey, sorry about the machine, let’s go to the movies, my treat, I will say: Sorry, I can’t, I’m locked into this bidding war over a magnetic coil with a guy named reese69tiltman from Bowling Green, Ohio.
I’ve always seen pinball as a way to get myself out of the house. I’ll content myself with being a public advocate for pinball. And when President Obama nominates me as President of the Smithsonian, my first act in office (after hiring Mr. Silverman as a consultant) will be to throw open the nation’s storage spaces. You know what I mean. I mean those complexes like in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark that contain old appellate briefs, securities filings from extinct corporations, but also exotic objects of minor historical interest like George Washington’s dentures and Taft’s bathtub. I’ll have all that television memorabilia in the Smithsonian American History museum hauled away. Sit on it, Fonzie’s leather jacket. Adios, Archie Bunker’s chair. Make way for the pinball machines. In my brief tenure, I will transform the entire American History museum into a temple of pinball. I will plan parades and exhibits. Pinball machines will line the long hallways of the museum, all set to free play, and I estimate I will remain in office anywhere between six weeks and ten months before I am replaced.