By Inside Jersey Staff
By Ryan Goldberg
There are pinball machines from the 1930 to 2000s at the Silverball Museum Pinball Hall of Fame in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
It’s four days until the Fourth of July, and Rob Ilvento is scrambling, twirling cotton candy for customers one moment, barking orders to his staff the next.
The Silverball Museum Arcade is about to celebrate its first anniversary on July 4, and Ilvento is bouncing around the room just as, well, a pinball.
He’s waited for this moment ever since relocating the museum last February to a prime spot on the Asbury Park boardwalk from the basement of the Holdfast clothing store on Cookman Avenue.
Ilvento is treating the holiday as the museum’s official grand opening. Finally, lots of people will get to see what he has spent nine years gathering: a collection of the top-200 pinball games ever made from the 1930s to 1990s, presented in pristine working condition. For $10 an hour, visitors can play such rare games as Bally’s Evil Knievel, Mata Hari, and Gottlieb’s TKO.
Another 10 bucks buys an all-day pass.
The 45-year-old Ilvento, who also is the guy behind the Cluck-U Chicken empire, paces the room amid a cacophony of flashing lights, clanging bells and the furious sound of bumpers, counters and flippers gone wild.
“Make sure we’re on point this weekend,” he instructs the staff.
One of his technicians, Bill Medwin, relays a customer’s inquiry about an unlimited season pass. The museum doesn’t have one, so Ilvento creates one on the spot: $200 until Labor Day.
In another instance, he decides to rearrange the non-pinball corner of the museum, which is filled with Skee-Ball, puck bowler and other classic arcade games.
“Asteroids’s not working,” he says. “Get it out! We can’t have it here for Fourth of July.” He wants Pac-Man in its place.
Ilvento’s cell phone rings constantly. During one call he seals the deal on a mint condition 1954 MagicPuck Bowler, a game popular with children. It sat in the seller’s basement for 30 years and requires little restoration. Ilvento, who paid $2,600 for it on eBay, hasn’t seen one this pristine in a long time. He desperately wants it for the holiday, so the seller’s son will drive it overnight from Rochester, N.Y
“I’ll make space for it,” Ilvento tells the man. “I’m moving out a ’52 United Bowler right now into the basement.” To almost console the seller, he tells him, “It’s in the right spot. It’s in the museum, so it’s gonna find a nice home.”
Four decades ago, scenes such as this were played out in Asbury’s old Casino arcade, now a rusted-out vacant building.
But Ilvento, who grew up in West Long Branch and played pinball in the old Casino, is on a mission to archive a piece of Americana.
“It’s like serendipity that, hopefully, we’re going to help Asbury resurrect itself,” he says. “I don’t know if I can get a funner project.”
A placard on the headboard of each game in the museum describes its history and features. Ilvento also has nearly 200 machines in storage.
The crowds have been surprisingly mixed between young and old players. And when visitors enter, their initial response, particularly among Baby Boomers, is a look of awe. It’s like the Sistine Chapel for pinheads. Pinball was most popular from the 1950s to 1970s, with machines in every arcade, candy shop and pizzeria. The museum’s oldest games, table-top wooden boxes from the 1930s, are rarely used, but their purpose is clear: to show the evolution of the game.
Ilvento’s joint is a museum first, an arcade second. Few new games are made. Only one manufacturer, Stern Pinball, remains. Besides Las Vegas, where a noted collector operates a similar business, Asbury Park is the only place where someone can play all of the best games.
For Ilvento, his “first life” was Cluck-U Chicken. In 1985, he dropped out of Rutgers after his sophomore year to open the first location in New Brunswick. One store has turned into 25, plus widespread branding.
“My brother came back from Syracuse, and he gave me my first buffalo wing,” Ilvento remembers. “At Rutgers, no one knew what buffalo wings were. People used to say, ‘What are buffalo wings? We didn’t know buffaloes had wings.’ So that’s how early we were to the wing market.”
Ilvento finds opportunities in unlikely places. He spends more time these days with Jersey Shore Fry Company, a business he started in 2006, which supplies thick-cut french fries to Yankee Stadium, Lakewood’s FirstEnergy Park and about 500 restaurants. He lives in Princeton with his two teenage daughters and wife, Jeanne, who is head nurse of the adolescent unit at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
Ilvento became a hard-core collector only nine years ago. He wanted to buy the 1967 Gottlieb Melody game and visited an out-of-state retailer with his daughter Morgan, now 18, who is autistic. She immediately took to the game, launching her father on this surprising ride. “And then one led to two, and all of a sudden I had 80 or 90,” he says.
Ilvento tapped into a network of trade shows, journals, internet groups and online classifieds for hose who collect and repair games. Along the way he met several people whom he would later hire as technicians. Finally his collection grew to where he had to do something with it.
“Most people thought I was crazy,” he says. ” ‘Why would you want the public to play them?’ And I said, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you want the public to play them? To build appreciation.’
After a little due diligence, we realized we could have the public play them as long as we’re consistent with the maintenance.”
When Ilvento opened the museum in the basement of the Holdfast clothing store, there was little advertising. But word spread similar to the sea breeze, and it gained a cult following. Before long, Ilvento signed a 15-year lease for the museum’s current 5,000-square-foot home.
John Lescher opens up a 1975 WMS Industries Toledo game for some required maintenance. This is from pinball’s glory years, when the machines were electromechanical.
A pinball machine has three sections: back box, playfield and cabinet board. In the EM machines, the cabinet board holds the brains — thousands of wires, relays, bulbs and solenoids, bundled together in what look like large honeycombs.
The 72-year-old Lescher is one of six part-time technicians at the museum. They are all there, as head technician Medwin says, “for the love of the game.”
Each tech can recall his genesis story of how he fell for pinball.
Medwin, 54, who recently retired as a carpet-and-flooring installer, met Ilvento two years ago.
Lescher says fixing the machines is a simple process, even though it doesn’t seem that way. “They are mechanical relays that depend on each other.” The games usually have schematics, which show the sequences of the components, and the wires are color-coded, though the colors usually have faded over the years.
For the Toledo, Lescher, a recently retired engineer, pulls out a long white paper, which looks like an indecipherable diagram for an atomic bomb. Just as for several colleagues, this is a recent but dedicated hobby. He began buying, restoring and selling machines three years ago.
He wanted to make sure his 13 grandchildren each had a game. For the last two years, Ilvento has been buying two or three machines a week; each costs around $3,000, though rarer games fetch more. The repairmen spend two weeks fixing them up. They clean and wax the playfield, change the light bulbs and run diagnostics on the wires or, for newer games, computer chips.
Pinball’s EM era, which reached its height in the ’60s and ’70s, is the showcase of the museum. Ilvento has its rarest models.
His favorite is Bally’s 1977 Evil Knievel. Only 155 were manufactured. It was Bally’s prototype for the solid-state format to follow. Ilvento also has two 1979 Gottlieb TKO boxing-themed machines, one of the most valuable games in the world. It was the last game before everything went digital; out of 125 machines, only seven are believed to remain.
Pinball was initially nothing more than finishing nails on wood, with gravity feeding the ball down a small box. Then came legs and the boxes grew bigger. Flippers were the next revolution in the late 1940s, followed by assorted targets, such as pop bumpers and slingshots.
Mechanical led to digital, wires were replaced by circuit boards and digital displays. The new technology that ushered in the most advanced pinball games also led to its undoing, as young people turned to video games.
This long timeline is preserved in Ilvento’s collection. He has acquired as complete a pinball lineup as seems possible. But he doesn’t intend to stop there.
This might be just the first step in a boardwalk empire. Ilvento also has an option for 30,000 square feet in the historic Casino building, where he could bring the past to life for other arcade staples such as Skee-Ball, puck bowler and gun games.
“We’ll see if we can perform here and then we may be able to develop that whole end of the boardwalk and turn it into, you know, more or less everything — an arcade.
“I can bring the old arcade back into the old arcade.”
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