For decades, pinball was the game of choice for idle young hands with excess adrenaline. Today, after being pushed out of arcades by video games, pinball machines are the province of history buffs and those nostalgic for mechanical marvels.
“I was always fascinated by them when I was a child,” says Ron Miller, 54, who has been collecting pinball machines for more than 22 years. “I think I must have stolen all my parents’ nickels and dimes when I was a kid.”
These days, Miller makes a living at his old pastime, working as a pinball technician for the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park. In just 5,000 square feet, Silverball crams nearly 200 machines, from the first table games of the 1930s, made of finishing nails in wood, to the electro-mechanical classics of the 1950s and ’60s and the high-tech marvels of the 1980s and ’90s.
Unlike most museums, Silverball is a hands-on experience. About 95 percent of the machines can be played. For Rob Ilvento, 45, who opened Silverball last June and moved it to its current boardwalk location in January, it’s all about keeping pinball alive. “We want to archive that part of Americana,” Ilvento says.
Above every machine at Silverball a plaque explains its manufacturer, production year, and significance in pinball history. Silverball’s collection (which includes another 40 in storage) boasts original and restored examples. Among the highlights: a 1931 Gottlieb Baffle Ball, the first commercially successful pinball machine; a 1967 Bally Dixieland, the machine Ilvento had in his basement growing up; and a 1979 Gottlieb T.K.O., which Ilvento calls one of the most collectible games in the world, with only 125 manufactured. There are also rare add-a-ball machines made for states that considered pinball gambling and outlawed the versions that rewarded players with free games.
An hour of play is $10; an unlimited re-entry day pass is $20.
For Danny Ferrante, 50, and Mary Ann Luciano, 47, who recently visited Silverball on a date, the price is appealing. “It’s cheaper than going to the movies,” says Luciano, with a laugh.
“Every weekend this place is picking up more and more people,” says Miller. “I’m thinking that if there are boardwalks nearby, they’re going to want to add some pinballs, ’cause they see this place is killing.”
Silverball Museum, 1000 Ocean Avenue; 732-774-4994, silverballmuseum.com.