ASBURY PARK - We didn't have much money in the late 1980s, but my then-boyfriend and I could always grab a soda and make a few quarters last as we happily competed on, and occasionally tilted, pinball machines together.
Decades later, that guy (clearly a romantic at heart) searched high and low until he located and bought a refurbished model of the game we played most back then, Data East's Time Machine, which has pride of place in our family room.
We practically salivated with excitement when we learned of the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park, N.J.
The museum - a pinball fanatic's dream come true - opened in 2009 in a basement on Cookman Avenue, right off the boardwalk. The timing could not have been better: Redevelopment and reinvigoration of the city and its attractions, including the famed music outpost the Stone Pony, were in full swing. Pinball enthusiasts quickly beat a path to the museum's door. Founders Robert Ilvento and Steve Zuckerman immediately understood they needed bigger and better-located digs. Not long after opening, the pair moved the museum to the boardwalk.
From the outside, you might be forgiven if you mistake the joint for a seaside restaurant; tables with red-and-white-striped umbrellas encircle the completely windowed building. Just inside, the Silverball Cafe offers tomato pies, Nathan's hot dogs, funnel cakes, soft pretzels, saltwater taffy, and other eats. But who can think about food when you have literally hundreds of machines from so many eras and so many companies, all in fine condition, lining the walls?
Ilvento owns 600 machines - some digital, some electromechanical, some dot-matrix - and all playable. Some are in storage; about 200 grace the floor of the museum.
"People have told us it's the top pinball collection in the world," Ilvento said. "We have games whose manufacturer made only 150 machines. Collectors love it because we have games they have never seen - they're rare - and we let them play them." He owns a rare 1932 Ballyhoo machine as well as the recently acquired and very rare Big Bang Bar game.
Visitors aren't playing in some darkened mall game room or smoky dive bar: The Silverball is bright and filled with the sounds of dinging bells. Gone are the days when a quarter bought you a game. Here, you pay one price - varied, depending on how long you want to stay - and can take your pick from an overwhelming number of machines. Many of them are older than I am.
From a purely technological standpoint, the museum is a fascinating walk through the evolution of the pinball machine - from very simple machines to complicated models. For me, though, it was like seeing old touchstones from my life. I saw Evel Knievel, grinning down at me just as he did when I was 12. The Bally Pinball Wizard was another old pal. And farther down the way, the Williams Cyclone was a fixture of my time in the Rutgers Student Center basement. I found myself racing around as though I were at some kind of reunion of old friends.
Fans of old-school video games can also get their fix at the Silverball: On the floor and playable are the original Pong game (released in 1972), along with Centipede, Pac-Man, Frogger, Asteroids, Galaga, Millipede, Ms. Pac-Man, and many other favorites, some in a 300-game Ultracade machine (which looks like an arcade video-game console but has software that allows players to choose from among hundreds of games). I revisited the Dig Dug video game, which I had played many summer evenings in the early 1980s on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. Aptly for the Asbury Park boardwalk, assorted arcade offerings abound, as well: Skee ball from Coney Island's Eldorado, gun games, shuffle bowling, and air hockey.
All these machines are visually gorgeous. "They could be classified as numbered artwork that you can interact with," Ilvento said. "They're really pretty machines. They will survive us if they're well-maintained." It takes skill and constant attention to keep machines from different eras working all the time, so general manager Dan Toskaner and his team are constantly working the floor, keeping the place from going tilt. (The oldest pinball machine on the floor: 1950s Knockout.)
Sometimes, even vigilant maintenance cannot compete with Mother Nature. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded the place. Luckily, "the water was 13 inches high, but the pinball games were 18 inches off the ground," Ilvento said. His video games didn't fare quite as well, and neither did the building itself. Ultimately, he had to gut the entire museum and rebuild. Keeping everyone on the payroll, he diligently met his goal: to reopen the museum two months after the disaster. "The first flicker of light on the boardwalk," he said, "was the pinball museum."
In one corner, I checked out the Wall of Fame, which features some of the notables who have visited. Of course, there are local heroes Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny (minus the Asbury Jukes). Among others: Anthony Bourdain, Paul Shaffer, Wendy Williams, and Gov. Christie. Ilvento noted that artists playing down the street at the Stone Pony often come by to play before or after their shows.
Besides the rich and famous, the museum plays host to local day camps, which come through regularly during the summer. Science classes come in to learn electronics and begin to understand the circuitry of a pinball machine. Vow renewals and wedding-rehearsal dinners have been held at the museum. One couple even got married right in front of the Teacher's Pet pinball machine.
Mostly, though, patrons are people like me, who love the challenge of keeping a ball (or three) in play. What's good for us also benefits the machines. "They have to be played - they last longer when they're played," Ilvento said. "When they don't, they rust, they get stuck." Ilvento said planned to put some of the hundreds of machines he has in storage in a new pinball museum he expects to open sometime this year in Delray Beach, Fla.
"If we can archive pinball machines through the museums, have four, five, six of these places to archive this little piece of Americana, it keeps these games restored. These games get polished, waxed, getting the TLC they need on a daily basis," Ilvento said. "We can't let them sit there - they need the electricity running through them."