By Tom and Patty Burkett
We recently saw “Rocketman,” the Elton John biopic, and in one of the grand scenes he’s sitting at the the piano on a rotating stage playing Pinball Wizard. Bells were dinging and that characteristic sound of metal balls bouncing off electric bumpers was everywhere when we stepped into the Pinball Museum in Asheville, NC. The Wizard would have felt right at home here, where the machines ranged from vintage 1950s tops to electronic marvels from much more recent years.
We stepped up to the counter and paid our admission, which then entitled us to unlimited play on all the machines save two. Why did we have to pay an extra 25¢ to play those machines, I wanted to know. “No clue,” said the man behind the counter, “maybe just in case you want the experience of dropping a quarter down the slot?” Regardless, there were dozens of machines to play without the quarter tariff, and we must have played them all. One of my favorites was a baseball game I remember from the bowling alley when I was a kid. Pitch, hit, maybe score some runs.
There’s a hall of honor, with a row of retired machines, mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. Tom’s grandfather was an itinerant electrician, and for a while ran a string of pinball machines in the Texas oil fields. Back then they were called marble tables, and beating the high score won you not only bragging rights but a cash prize. The prizes were strictly illegal, and the fact that the machines were used for gambling caused many localities to outlaw them. Up until the early 1970s they were illegal in many towns, and so grew their own anti-establishment subculture.
Stuck in a back room, like the cousins nobody wants you to know about, are two dozen classic video arcade games. These might awaken some long-forgotten muscle memory if you ever spent time playing Frogger, Centipede, Galaga, or Pong. Like the pinball, you get unlimited play on these, and it’s easy to lose an hour or two hunched over the joysticks, trying to get that danged amphibian across the road. Add a beer and it would have seemed an awful lot like our college days.
We wanted to know how the machines are kept operational. Surely pinball machine technicians are not easy to find. “Well,” said the desk man, “everybody who works here knows how to fix one particular problem or one particular machine. So we have a fair amount of skill among the staff. Then on Tuesdays (they’re closed on Tuesdays) the owner comes up from downstate. He can fix almost anything.” “How did he learn?” we asked. “Just taking them apart in his garage, I think. He has some serious skills, and man can he play.”
Though we’d never encountered one, it turns out this sort of pinball emporium isn’t all that uncommon, although the play-all-you-like feature is unusual. Atlas Obscura offers a map for a pinball themed trip around the USA, with stops from Florida to Minnesota and New York City to Tucson. Get good and you can sign up for a pinball tournament, or just shop around and find a machine to put in the bak of your RV. You’ll be a hit on rainy days at the campground!
Asheville is a beautiful city, home to a vibrant arts and crafts community. You can find trendy and delicious restaurants excellent craft beer, and almost any kind of outdoor adventure outfitter here in town. Also here is the Mast General Store, one of the oldest in the country. Park your rig and spend a day wandering around the town. You’re sure to find something that tickles your fancy. Maybe you’ll find us, Patti and Tom Burkett, toughening up our crazy flipper fingers out here off the beaten path.