Rupert Cornwell: DC was never going to get the magic of pinball

Out of America: For fans of flashing lights and flippers, it's a sad day as an odd tourist attraction closes its doors
Click to follow

The National Pinball Museum here in Washington DC is soon to close, barely seven months after it opened. That may not be the most significant recent news to emerge from the capital of the free world. But for those of us who believe the pinball machine to be one of America's greatest gifts to civilisation, it is a sad tiding indeed.

I became hooked when cutting my teeth as a foreign correspondent in Paris, first with Reuters and then with the Financial Times. Pinball epitomised France's eternal love-hate relationship with the US. De Gaulle was in the Elysée, trying to undermine the resented Anglo-Saxon superpower at every turn – but in every café and bar you would find one of these shining contraptions, bearing such names as Gottlieb, Williams and Bally, imported from a magic city across the seas called Chicago.

Many a happy lunch break would we spend at the bar on the corner of the Rue du Sentier and Boulevard Poissonière in the 2nd arrondissement, a couple of steps from the office, ordering a croque monsieur and a ballon de rouge and repairing to the pinball machine. As often as not, though, the table was occupied.

He had long hair and a beard, and wore a loose-fitting shirt and sandals and, inevitably, we called him "Jesus". He never introduced himself, indeed he never seemed to speak to anyone. But he was the finest pinball player I ever saw – indeed, he could have been the real-life inspiration for the "Pinball Wizard" himself.

"He stands like a statue/Becomes part of the machine/Feeling all the bumpers/Always playing clean." That was "Jesus". He would play for what seemed to be hours. As in The Who's song, he always got a replay; when he finally left we would sometimes find two or three free games left on the machine, a gift for the lesser mortals who followed. Such were the Sixties and Seventies in Paris during the golden age of pinball.

But back to the short-lived NPM. It is based on a collection of some 900 machines amassed over the years by a Maryland pinball devotee named David Silverman, who sunk $300,000 (£182,000) into the venture. Some marvellous specimens are on display, as the museum traces the game from its origins as the aristocratic pastime of bagatelle, in late pre-Revolutionary France. It also has a room where you can play a couple of dozen machines. But, on the day of my visit, very few people were there, even though the admission price had been reduced to $3.

In retrospect, Washington probably never was the right place for a pinball museum – least of all one based in a ritzy shopping mall in swish Georgetown. The capital already has a stunning array of museums, many of which are free, compared to the original $13.50 entry charge at the NPM. More important, this city is for serious matters of state; it has rarely excelled at life's divertissements.

With 100,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan and the Middle East in turmoil, the demise of the pinball museum brings to mind the old quip about Washington: "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League". It's still true, except the baseball team that moved here half a dozen years ago is now in the basement of the National, not the American, League.

There are, of course, other valhallas of pinball on the North American continent, most notably the game's Hall of Fame in the far more appropriate setting of Las Vegas, sitting across the street from the Liberace Museum, another monument to Sin City frivolity. But if ever they build a temple to pinball, there's only one possible site: Chicago.

The first modern pinball game may have come from Cincinnati, where, in 1871, the inventor Montague Redgrave replaced the hand-held wooden cue with a metal spring and plunger. But Chicago was where the industry took root; by the mid-1930s, a dozen leading manufacturers of pinball machines were based there, supplying cheap entertainment during the Great Depression. The breakthrough came in 1947, when D Gottlieb & Co introduced a new game called Humpty Dumpty, incorporating flippers. It was a revolution – indeed, to this day the French word for pinball is flipper. With the addition of the flipper, pinball became incontestably a game of skill.

It had not always been seen so. For long periods, it was widely regarded as a form of gambling, a game of pure chance. You might fire the ball with the plunger, critics said, but thereafter a player had no more control of the ball than of what cards were dealt to him at a blackjack table. Pinball was banned for long periods in New York and some other cities; that it originated in Chicago, whose reputation in the 1920s and 1930s was not the most salubrious, didn't help.

Anyone who plays today realises instantly that pinball demands skill: how you can bang the machine's side to change the trajectory of the ball – but not too hard, or else a tilt ends everything; how to trap the ball on a flipper, teeing it up to aim at targets with different scores; how to direct the ball into a slingshot channel... and so on, and so on.

Then there's the giddy excitement of keeping in play two or three balls simultaneously, as they careen around, ricocheting off the rubber bumpers with lights flashing everywhere. If that's not skill, I don't know what is. At its highest levels, pinball requires the hand-eye co-ordination of a Babe Ruth or Denis Compton. Alas, when I tried out last week at the NPM, my now-sexagenarian reflexes were a pale shadow of what they were in France long ago.

Today, pinball has largely fallen victim to video games – even in Paris, I am told. But the fanciest electronics will never match the tangible physical reality of a pinball machine. These days, Gottlieb, Bally and Williams are long gone and Stern is the only surviving manufacturer in Chicago. Now the NPM will close its doors soon as well. But not, I have a sneaking suspicion, for very long.