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 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 wide-body design and double flippers allowing for a greater range of shots.
You can walk around and look for free, if you want, and the machines are clustered 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,” says T.C. Di Bella, Asheville Pinball Museum owner.
“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 says, 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.
Pinball, which gained its electrified and coin-operated shape in the 1930s, was banned for decades as gambling, and it was outlawed outside of amusement arcades in New York City from 1948 to 1976. 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 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 off-limits but plugged in so you can see its ruby-yellow glow, and with an info card — all the machines have info cards — explaining that the Atari-made machine is the biggest ever built.
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 $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.