Pinball machines

In my column of this past Easter Sunday, I highlighted some of the things that many of us did growing up in the 1950s and 1960s to celebrate the holiday.

Several people who read that column told me that things I identified brought forth fond memories from back then; one of which placed a broad smile on their faces. That smile was brought about by the mention of a trip many of us took on Easter Sunday after church services and Easter dinner. I have not made this trip in many years since these places no longer exist as we knew them when I was a teenager and young adult. So, if you were around in the ‘50s and ‘60s, visualize what was at 12th and Market streets, a place where many of us had big fun with a few quarters, dimes and nickels. How many of you frequented this location and other penny arcades, back in the day?

For young folk, your familiarity with penny arcades differs from that of individuals like me who grew up in “bygone” years.

As young folks today, your experiences enjoying arcade games are associated with places like Dave & Buster’s or Barcade, both in the Northern Liberties section of our city. There are other locations scattered around the city for arcade type of entertainment. While I have been to but a few and have reports on many others, none are comparable to the penny arcades that I frequented, back in the day.

So, you are familiar with penny arcade-type machines but not familiar with penny arcades? If so, you may wonder why the name “penny” arcade and it’s because the penny was once a staple coin to operate most of the machines in these facilities.

They are known by other names but the arcades I knew as a child were venues where people played various games. If you patronized penny arcades, you must remember that one game was traditional in most penny arcades: the pinball machine.

While the 12th and Market streets penny arcade stands out in most minds, we had versions of penny arcades in our neighborhoods and the pinball machine was likely to be found in most tiny establishments. Back in the day, we tended to also view these small establishments in our neighborhoods as penny arcades.

I can still see the restaurant in the 4300 block of Fairmount Avenue in my old West Philadelphia neighborhood. While I can still picture the food counter, the jukebox and the gumball machines, memories of the pinball machine are the most vivid.

I suspect that some of you smiled with the mention of a pinball machine as this game takes you back to those “golden years.” The glass-covered playing field where points are earned when the metal ball strikes different targets on the playing field is the heart of the game. Points earned varied based on the target that was struck.

Can you still see the drain holes that you made every effort to avoid for fear of your ball disappearing into the drain? What about the drain at the bottom of the playing field which is protected by flippers that are controlled by the player? Players tried their best to avoid having all of the balls go into the drain field as this would be the end of the game.

You may also remember the efforts to keep the ball in play as long as possible to earn bonus games or replays based on accumulating points. One thing I readily recall was that with improvement of my skills in this game, it was possible to influence the movement of the ball by moving or bumping the pinball machine with a technique called “nudging.”

While the games in neighborhood restaurants, drugstores, taverns or other establishments were limited, the game offerings in downtown Philadelphia amusement parks and Atlantic City arcades that many of us patronized knew no limits. So, let us take a trip to those multi-coin operating machines that were in penny arcades where many of us spent countless hours, back in the day.

I can visualize many of the penny arcade games of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The baseball game is one that stands out in my mind as it was one of my favorites. This was one of the first games that I played when I entered a penny arcade. I can still see the image of the baseball diamond with players and the baseball coming from the pitcher, rolling down the board to the pitcher’s box where I controlled the swing of the bat. My imagination increased as I hit the ball to various locations with markers or holes that designated a hit or an out.

Favorite Black, Brooklyn Dodgers players like Jackie Robinson, Junior Gilliam, Sandy Amoros, Roy Campanella, Joe Black and Don Newcombe took on real life.

Did you enjoy boxing matches with one of your friends where each of you had a device that controlled the movements of the figures inside of a glass cage; a device that enabled you to move the boxers from side to side and forward and backward? More importantly, you could move the boxing figure’s arms to score points and ultimately a knockout.

Can you go back in time to the shooting galleries that quite often had a rifle protruding into a glass cage with figures, usually ducks, moving from side to side in the rear of the cage? Although I thought I aimed carefully, I seemed to constantly miss. Looking back, I wonder if the shooting gallery games were “rigged” so that the shooter would not accumulate points; accumulating points provided more shooting opportunities. I seldom saw anyone win but constantly observed others depositing coins for additional turns.

Most little boys gravitated to the driving arcade games. Some of you recall being seated behind a steering wheel with a map on the screen in front of you as you attempted to maneuver the steering wheel in order to stay within the lanes. The game ended when you ran off of the road and crashed. Horse racing was a popular game for many and hockey arcade games were also popular. Do you remember the barbell lifting game? This was a difficult game for young boys and girls as the ability to lift a significant amount of weight, was necessary to be a winner. If you attended penny arcades back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I have no doubt that the digger crane game comes to mind. This game consisted of a crane combined with money or prizes to be scooped up and placed in a shoot that would deposit the winnings in a container on the outside of the game. I avoided playing this game as it was another one of those games that appeared to defy the odds of winning. If you played one of the crane digger games, do you recall winning at any time? Then there were the coin operated movie machines. Many young children selected a short movie, usually a comedy, looking into binocular type openings of a movie machine to watch a movie of their choice? For very young children, most penny arcades had moveable, small airplanes, trucks, automobiles, space patrols, horses and other vehicles that one could get on and the item would go up and down, and from side to side, once a coin was inserted into a coin box.

So, what was the staple of most penny arcades? Now, think about those small booths with a curtain that you closed once entering. For 20 cents, a four-photograph strip of you or you and a close friend was issued. These are just a few of the many games and activities that were characteristic of penny arcades of the past that I frequented.

For those of you who are penny arcade aficionados and wish to observe games you experienced or that you missed, check out https://www.gameroomshow.com that shows penny arcade games from back in the day.

While trips to Center City, amusement park penny arcades or Atlantic City in the past focused on coin-operated games, if you grew up during this era, you know that items that we consumed were also big favorites and appear to be endemic to penny arcades.

So, as you reflect on games you played, I know that some of you will not and cannot resist the desire for memories of salt water taffies, cotton candy, candy apples and popcorn. These goodies along with the challenging and creative coin-operated games represented life in penny arcades, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146

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