Just two buildings down from Five Guys on Broad Street is a door that opens to the past.
Like stepping through a portal in a video game, travelers who open the door are greeted with a dazzling array of blinking lights and a kaleidoscopic symphony of sounds. After their eyes adjust to their surroundings, many of them find themselves standing among the monuments of their youth.
David Alverson is the wizard behind the curtain of this time traveling marvel, which he’s dubbed the Chattanooga Arcade Pinball Museum.
A Chattanooga native, Alverson spent his youth in mall and bowling alley arcades, his hands gripping the sides of one pinball machine or another. Following high school, he worked as the technician of the arcade at Eastgate Mall (now Eastgate Towne Center) in Chattanooga.
After earning an electrical engineering degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the passions of Alverson’s teen years yielded to the demands of adulthood.
But during a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, with his then 8-year-old son, Alverson discovered the Asheville Pinball Museum and was inspired to build his own memorial to the machines he’d always loved.
“My son had never played pinball. We had to wait a couple of hours to get in because it was full, but once we were in, we had a great time,” he says. “All these memories came flooding back.”
Alverson was encouraged not just by the number of people who had flocked to the museum but also by the vibe of downtown Asheville, which he felt was similar to Chattanooga’s.
“I thought, ‘If pinball is doing this well here, the same concept should work at home,’” Alverson remembers.
Although Alverson loved playing pinball and working on pinball machines as a young man, he didn’t own any machines as a grown-up. So, he and museum co-owner Michael Rowland starting snapping up play-worthy machines wherever they could find them.
This wasn’t cheap. As Alverson looks over the collection that lines the long walls of his museum, he says it likely cost more than $100,000.
The blinking and bleeping machines also represent a significant investment of time. Many of the pinball games that call the museum home were procured from the basements and game rooms of enthusiasts, where the machines wound up after the decline of arcades in the 1990s, and needed to be overhauled.
Alverson had the skills to refurbish them, but doing so required patience for obtaining the necessary parts and doing the repairs.
Filling the museum with working machines took untold hours of work, but now dozens of people a day are enjoying the results.
Like any museum curator worth his or her salt, Alverson put a lot of thought into how the collection is presented. For example, after paying the $12 admission price, visitors are first ushered back to the earliest days of the evolution of pinball.
“The oldest machines appeared in the 1930s,” Alverson says as he steps up to an ancient cabinet located near the front of the museum. “They weren’t electronic, they were purely mechanical games similar to pachinko. They were flipperless, which made them games of chance rather than skill.”
Stepping farther in, visitors will find the first game to crawl out of the primordial pinball muck: an original “Humpty Dumpty” machine. Designed and manufactured by Gottlieb, “Humpty Dumpty” appeared in 1947 and marked a significant upgrade from earlier games.
“It was the first pinball machine with flippers and the ball draining down at the bottom,” Alverson says, sounding a little like a tour guide at Louvre Museum reverently explaining the significance of the “Mona Lisa.”
From there, Chattanooga Pinball Museum is an imaginative journey through a pantheon of pop culture wonders, with machines based on hit movies and TV shows, Wrestlemania, hard rock bands, Harley Davidson motorcycles and more beckoning visitors with splashy art, mesmerizing light shows and 8-bit chip tunes.
From “KISS” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to “Skylab” and “Getaway,” the Chattanooga Pinball Museum allows visitors to drink deeply from a fountain bubbling with nostalgia.
“We had a guy come in yesterday who’s a big KISS collector, and he loved the ‘KISS’ machine,” Alverson says.
Many of the museum’s visitors also take a turn at the “Addams Family” game, which Alverson says is the most popular pinball machine of all time, with more than 20,000 units produced.
The museum also has its share of curiosities, including a two-player “Joust” machine and a game based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger cinematic flop, “The Last Action Hero.”
“The ‘Last Action Hero’ pinball game is actually really cool,” Alverson says. “Unfortunately, it had kind of a demise, where some of the parts were smoking. I’m working on it.”
Alverson’s proudest acquisition is Atari’s 1979 behemoth, “Hercules,” which lives up to its name by offering a playing field much larger than most pinball machines. The game and its components are so big, it uses a cue ball as its pinball.
Alverson appreciates its rarity. “Atari made only 139 of these. I’m guessing there are probably less than 50 in working condition. You can’t play the one in Asheville. It’s definitely a crowd favorite.”
“Hercules” was also one of Alverson’s most costly acquisitions at close to $5,000. “Pinball prices have been going up because there’s been a resurgence of interest in the games and there’s a limited number of machines available, especially the older ones.”
Each machine sports an information card bearing the name of the manufacturer, the year it was made and the number of units built. Missing are two things commonly found in museums: ropes keeping people away from the exhibits and “Do not touch” signs.
“The whole point of this museum is to play the games,” Alverson explains. “All the games are on free play. You just pay an admission charge and can then play to your heart’s content.”
Visitors can also leave to grab a burger at Five Guys or visit the Tennessee Aquarium, and then return for more pinball, as the cost of admission provides a full day of access. (The museum does sell snacks, soft drinks and beers for those who can’t tear themselves away from the pinball.)
“Our goal is to make this museum family-friendly,” Alverson notes. “We’re conveniently located near a lot of downtown attractions.”
In a nod to his second love, Alverson has made a place for several classic arcade games as well, including “Galaga,” “Centipede,” “Mario Bros.,” “Pac-Man,” “Joust” and others. True to his insistence on authenticity, these are the real deals, not emulated facsimiles, and feature the original electronics and CRT screens.
Visitors won’t need to drop a quarter into the guts of these games, either, as they’re in free play mode. (Goodbye, weekend!)
To celebrate the launch of Chattanooga Arcade Pinball Museum, Alverson and his team will host a grand opening the weekend of May 31. Festivities will include a ribbon-cutting, refreshments and discounts on monthly and annual memberships.
Down the road, Alverson would like to host tournaments, which he hopes will put Chattanooga Arcade Pinball Museum on a bigger map. “There are national tournaments for serious players,” he says. “They travel to different cities where there are tournaments and play against each other for pay.”
As for the future of pinball itself, Alverson is optimistic. Although all but one of the old-school manufacturers have shut down (only Stern remains), a handful of boutique pinball makers have appeared in response to the demand for new machines.
One such manufacturer, Spooky Pinball, recently put the “boo” in “boutique” with “America’s Most Haunted,” a pinball parody of cable ghost hunting shows.
Chattanooga Arcade Pinball Museum is the proud owner of one of the 150 “Most Haunted” machines Spooky Pinball made. “The playfield is a little simpler than most newer games, but it has a really complex rule set,” he points out. “You can play it for a long time and not master it. It’s pretty hard.”
What’s not hard for Alverson is picturing a day when Chattanooga Arcade Pinball Museum has an enthusiast at every machine and people outside waiting to step through a door that opens to the past.
“Pinball has had its ups and downs over the years, but there’s a tactical quality to these games you can’t get on your phone or Xbox; you can shake the machine a little and see it, hear it and feel it,” he says.
“That gives pinball a timeless quality that will always draw people back.”