By Brendan Smith, Weirs Times Assistant Editor
“In 1952, at the age of only 21, this year’s recipient borrowed a few hundred dollars from his grandmother to start a miniature golf course and arcade named the Weirs Sports Center,” began Sue Cerutti, Executive Director of the Meredith Area Chamber of Commerce, at a recent meeting. “Now fifty-seven years later, that start up, known as Funspot, is a 70,000 square-foot family entertainment center that was officially recognized in 2008 by the Guinness Book Of World Records as the largest arcade in the world.”
Cerutti was introducing the recipient of the 2009 Citizenship Award, Bob Lawton, who in that 57 years not only built up the Funspot business but also founded the Lake WinnipesaukeeHistorical Society and The Weirs Times newspaper, all with his own hard work, that of his brother John and the rest of hisf amily, and a key core of dedicatedemployees.
“Bob Lawton is still at the helm every day of the week at his pride and joy,” continued Cerutti. “His secret to surviving and thriving is ‘you always have to be innovating.’ An example of this is the construction of Story Book Forest and Indian Village. Those were built at a time when the tourism business in the Lakes Region was largely families visiting for a week or two. As the tourism business changed those attractions ceased to be popular and Bob thought of another use for the land. He has always been willing to change with the times.
“Bob has always been interested in history and in 1985 the Lawton Family established the Lake Winnipesaukee Historical Society and recently opened its museum. Then, in 1992, the first issue of the Weirs Times was published – fashioned after the original Weirs Times from the 1880s.
“In the 1960s, Bob was elected to the NH House of Representatives and served several terms, along with his mother in the 60s and his don David in the 90s. ‘Live Free or Die’, long the state motto of New Hampshire now appears on license plates as a result of a bill introduced by Bob.
“Each year Funpsot contributes over $200,000 worth of donations to churches, charities, schools and non-profit organizations. These include tokens for kids with good grades, support of the DARE Program and the donation of those cherished gift cards which are provided to each player at numerous golf tournaments throughout the Lakes Region. There are very few charity golf tournaments where you will not see the Lawton Family playing as a foursome.
“The many events sponsored by Funspot such as the car shows, the Miss Winnipesaukee contest and the International Classic Game Tournament, all contribute to the economic vitality of the area. The official kickoff to summer is always the spectacular fireworks display held on
Memorial Day weekend at Funspot.
“For your many years in business and for your contributions to your state and community, the Meredith Area chamber of Commerce is pleased to present the Citizenship Award to Bob Lawton and the Lawton Family.”
“I’ve never regretted anything we’ve done,” Bob Lawton said about his 57 years in business. “I’ve had a ball doing everything. Every business has to change, you can’t always stay the same.”
Bob attended college at Norwich University in Vermont where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. He eventually decided he didn’t want to be a chemist.
“I wanted to do something fun,” Bob said.
In the early spring of 1952, a college roommate of his raved about new heated driving ranges he had seen that were all the rage.
“I looked around the Weirs for a spot where I could do something like that. There wasn’t a mini-golf in the area at the time. I saw the 6,000 squarefoot the room on the second floor of Tarlson’s Arcade and thought that would be a great spot,” said Bob.
“George “Jeff” Gefftas ran a snack bar on the first floor and rented the room above from George Tarlson,” said Bob. “He had juke box dancing there but wasn’t doing very well. I said I wanted to open an indoor mini-golf in there and Jeff agreed to partner with me. He would provide the coin-operated games and food and I would build the mini-golf.”
So with the money borrowed from his grandmother, and with the help of his brother John, Bob
opened the Weirs Sports Center in the summer of 1952.
“There was a line out the door that first day at 35 cents a round of minigolf,” Bob said.
The next spring Bob, who was serving in the army in Alabama, bought out the lease from “Jeff.”
“I had a meeting with “Jeff” and John,” Bob recalled. “I asked “Jeff” ‘How much do you want to get out?’ He said ‘$1,000.’ I reached across the table, shook his hand and said ‘you’ve got it.’”
“That was a pivotal point in this business,” Bob said. “After that I brought my brother John on as a partner and he ran the business that summer. We paid “Jeff” a hundred dollars a week for ten weeks.”
“I used to compare John and myself, in our own small way, to Roy and Walt Disney,” Bob said, like Walt, was always thinking of new ideas and John, like Roy, would figure out the way to pay for it.
“We never did anything just to do it,” said Bob. “We always made sure that each project was something good to do and would create additional income. Everything always took a lot of planning.”
In 1964, Bob and John purchased 21 acres of land on Rte 3, where Funspot sits today. Their first attraction, an outdoor mini-golf course, opened on August 1st.
“We couldn’t open any earlier because John and I designed and built the mini-golf course ourselves,” Bob said. “Business was good that first year. We found out quickly that we didn’t have enough parking to handle the crowds so we expanded the parking lot the next spring.”
In 1966 a driving range was added followed by the Indian Trading Post in 1967. This was followed by the popular Indian Village which opened in 1971 and featured re-creations of dwellings from Indian tribes across the country. In 1976 Storybook Forest was built.
“We opened the Trading Post first to see if there was any interest in Indians. When we saw the great response, we spent the next few years researching and building Indian Village. We really had a ball doing it. John did a lot of research on it, he loved history. We wanted to make sure everything was authentic down to the last detail.”
Storybook Forest was opened in 1976 as a children’s theme park featuring petting zoos, ventriloquist shows and some of the Mother Goose characters.
“We got an SBA loan to build Storybook,” Bob recalls, “We paid that back in about three years. It did very well.” The Trading Post and Indian Village closed in 1983. Story Book Forest closed in 1984.
“Like a lot of things outdoors in this particular part of the country, the winter just ruins everything,” Bob said. “And every year we had to go get birch bark, cattail for wigwams and other things to cover up or add to things. So, the labor involved and the money that we made was no longer sufficient. People loved the attractions but the season was just too short.”
The Video Game Boom
“What really made this business flourish was video games,” said Bob. “Here at Funspot people flocked to play video games from the mid-70s until 1990. We were in business for twenty-five years before we had a video game. Before that it was pinball and shooting games and the like.”
The first video game at Funspot was “Tank.” “I remember the day Freddy Faretra, a vending machine operator from Concord, came into Funpot,” Bob recalled with a laugh. “ I was working the counter and he saw me and waving his arms said, ‘let me get rid of this junk and put in some good games.’ So I said ok. We were only open in the summer at the time and Freddy relocated the video games that he had in colleges and schools which closed for the summer and brought some of them here.
“Tank” was a two-player game that cost a quarter each to play. Most of our games at that time cost ten cents to play. I think it took in more money than all the other games combined.” The next year “Sea Wolf” and “Indy 4” were added. Each one earning a hundred dollars a day or more while the other games averaged maybe five or ten.
“After I saw that I had Freddy put in everything he could the next summer and several years thereafter,” said Bob.
At about the same time Funspot put in one of their enduring staples - Skee-Ball. “We originally bought seven machines,” Bob recalls. “I asked Hazel, the woman at Skee-Ball Inc., how many machines did she think we’d need. She told me ‘It doesn’t matter how many you buy, you’ll always need more.’”
Skee-Ball continues today to be the most popular game at Funspot. On a busy day all seventeen machines will be in use with lines waiting.
As the video game boom continued, Bob and John made more changes. A two-track slot car machine took up an enormous amount of space at Funspot for nine years, but was eventually removed to make room for more video machines.
In 1981 Bob and John bought the property known as “The Enchanted Forest” across Rte 3 from Funspot and opened a two-story arcade called “The Mezzanine” and gift shop. Along with video games there was a motion ride simulator and a shooting gallery.
“In 1986 we decided to close ‘The Mezzanine’ and build an addition to Funspot and move those games over here,” Bob said. “We were turned down for the bank loan but we went ahead and built it anyway. That first summer the new addition took in about $230,000, which paid for the
In 1987 the Kiddie Room was built. Previously the Kiddie bumper cars, which are the most popular attraction for kids, were used outside and only during the summer. In addition a balcony was added and included a hundred more video games.
“When we went to the bank this time we had no problem getting the loan.” The Kiddie Room addition was built by Cal Hahn, who has been head of maintenance for 28 years, and the Funspot maintenance crew.
During that time Funspot satellites were opened in Wolfeboro, Concord, Dover and Amherst as well as South Portland, Maine and Port Richey, Florida.
In the winter of 1988, Funspot added yet another addition, the 20-lane bowling center with room for another 100 video games. “That whole project cost us about $850,000,” said Bob. “We got a bank loan!”
It was in July of 1988, when the new bowling center had been open for a couple of months, that an act of Mother Nature almost ruined the new attraction. “We had had some landscaping done,” recalled Bob. “And had bark mulch in the gardens. A torrential rain came and washed it all down and it covered the grates that were over the drain in front of the main entrance doors. The water just started to build up and it got to about three feet high against the doors. We had guys holding
the doors and I had to finally tell them to get out of there because I was afraid they’d get crushed if it gave way.”
The water rushed through the Kiddie Room and cascaded over the balcony and on to the first level of Funspot. People were evacuated from the building.
“Fortunately no water ever made it to the wooden bowling lanes since there is a 4-inch approach that the water never went over. It was George Hawkins who saved the day,” Bob said.
Hawkins, of Whitten Construction, was doing work for Funspot at the time.
“George came over and looked at the situation,” said Bob. “He ran to the doors through three-feet of water, reached down and pulled up the grates and the water went rushing down the drain.”
Nevertheless, the rest of the entire building was soaking wet. Water removal companies were called in and every available employee was put on cleanup. “George also made some calls to friends who volunteered for the Laconia Fire Department who came over with pumps and squeegees,” Bob said. The building was back open for the most part within a couple of hours.
In 1990, the video boom went bust and Funspot closed or sold their satellite locations. There was a lull of a few years as Bob and John considered new attractions to help Funspot change with the times.
In 1996 the maintenance shop, built in 1986, was renovated into the Charity Bingo Hall and a new shop was built elsewhere on the property. In the midst of all this Bob was approached by a bowler who played in leagues at the Gilford Bowling Lanes that were now closing. He asked Bob if they could run leagues at Funspot.
“I remember talking to the guy responsible for the leagues,” said Bob. “I asked him what it was that they needed for the leagues and he said ‘a Tavern.’” So, the construction of the D.A Long Tavern, named after Bob and John’s grandfather, was thrown into the mix
“That year we spent about $750,000,” said Bob. “The Bingo Hall didn’t start out as well as we had hoped. The charities didn’t make as much as they had expected at the start and were getting discouraged. I suggested they run some big money special games, which they did. That’s when things really took off and the charities began to make a lot of money. They’ve made millions over the years.”
In 2000 was the next big move. “That’s when we put in the new Indoor Golf center with the state-of theart simulators,” Bob recalls. “It was just an idea brought up at a discussion in the Tavern between myself and Ron Gilkey, our bowling pro and Steve Lawton (John’s son), who is our business manager. We just couldn’t figure out where we would put it”
On his way out of the building Bob looked in a room on the upper level, used for the Classic Arcade games, and saw that as the perfect spot. So, they floored in the Kiddie Room, making a new third floor addition, moved the games in there and built the Golf Center.
Today the Golf Center also holds leagues as well as open golfing and a retro mini-golf course, which was built in 2007, that is a re-creation of the original course in the Weirs Sports Center of 1952. It’s uniqueness is that it is completely self-service and playable for all ages.
“The retro mini-golf is one of my favorite projects we’ve ever done here after all these years,” said Bob.
“Today the Golf Center is run by my friend Nancy Ferguson and her son, Chris.” Bob said. “Nancy’s been with us for over 20 years and also coordinates our group and party sales. Her son, Chris, runs the golf leagues and is also a Funspot manager. They both also do the gardening at Funspot throughout the spring and summer.”
In 1999, Gary Vincent, who has worked at Funspot since 1981, came up with the idea of what to to do with all of the “classic” video games that were spread throughout Funspot from the video boom days.
“Gary thought it would be great to have a museum to put all these games in, “ Bob recalls. Eventually the floored in area above the Kiddie Room became the American Classic Arcade Museum with over 250 pre-1987 games. Gary registered the name and it soon became a 501©3 non-profit organization and is now the largest collection of classic games in the world with many pieces being donated or old machines being bought and refurbished.
Every spring the American Classic Arcade Museum hosts the Annual International Classic Game Tournament where players come from all over the world for the 4-day event. The museum was also the setting for the highly acclaimed documentary film “The King of Kong,” and several other films.
The Weirs Times
“The Weirs Times was always just a dream of mine,” said Bob. Bob had newspaper publishing in his blood. His grandfather, D.A. Long, was a newspaper publisher in Lowell, MA and started the Lowell Sunday Telegram. Bob knew he wanted to resurrect the Weirs Times, which was originally published by Matthew Calvert from 1883-1902.
The first issue was published in June of 1992 and the production was left to Ron Stevens, a graphics person doing some work for Funspot. In December, Ron gave his notice to go to work for Annalee Dolls.
“I went to my daughter Sandra and son David and they asked ‘what are we going to do now?’” Bob said. “I told them we were going to run it ourselves and we have three weeks to learn how to do it. Everyone jumped right in.”
“There were three things I insisted on from the start,” said Bob. “One was that it be in tabloid form and the second was that it was never to be folded on the display racks. The third was that we keep the map in the middle which is consistent with Calvert’s original Weirs Times. The map really defines the paper.”
From 1992 to about 2002 the paper was produced each week by waxing and cutting stories and pictures from 8 x 11 sheets of paper and then pasting them, column by column, onto giant sheets which were in turn driven to the Concord Monitor every Tuesday to be printed. A tedious project that took hours and hours each week.
“I used to spend thirty hours a week on the paper,” Bob said. “I’d spend all day Sunday at it. Everything would be ready to be waxed and cut when I got here. The deal was that I would do it as long as no one came in while I was working." The Weirs Times never missed a deadline or an issue.
Today the paper is laid out on computer by Bob’s son Dave, who is managing editor, and Brendan Smith. The paper is sent down to the printer with the press of a button. Bob’s daughter,
Sandra, who was the graphics person for the paper for years has relinquished that role to concentrate more on assisting her father in the day to day operations at Funspot.
When the Weirs Times was first printed in 1992 about 2,000 copies a week were printed and distribution was in the Laconia area. Today, about 30,000 copies a week are printed and distribution reaches all around the state.
Lake Winnipesaukee Historical Society
Bob started the Lake Winnipesaukee Historical Society in 1985 with his son , Tim. “Tim had his boat, the ‘H.A. Blackstone’ and he used to love diving in Lake Winnipesaukee,” said Bob.
"One day he found the front davit from the steamer ‘Mount Washington’ at the Weirs Wharf, (The Mount burned at the wharf in December of 1939.) He had found a lot of things over the years and he said ‘What a shame that all these things will be lost. We should have a museum to show this stuff.’”
They went ahead and registered the name “Lake Winnipesaukee Historical Society” with the state in 1986. “Nothing much became of the Historical Society until about 1995 when I met Beth Laverture,” said Bob. “Beth really was an expert on the history of the area and she joined the Historical Society with the same goal of establishing a museum.”
That dream came to fruition when the Historical Society raised the funds to purchase the Bridges’ Motel property on Rte 3, next to Funspot. Today the Lake Winnipesaukee Museum is now open showcasing many of the artifacts found by Tim and Bob so many years ago as well as other artifacts donated by some of the hundreds of members of the society.
In 2003, after 51 years together in the business, John Lawton passed away after an extended illness.
John’s sons, Randy and Steve, have worked at Funspot since they were kids. Today Randy is chief technician and keeps all the games running smoothly and Steve is the business manager who, like his father, works with Bob in finding ways to make the new and innovative ideas become realities.
As mentioned before, Bob’s daughter Sandra is the hands-on, day-to-day assistant to her father in running Funspot. David, who is managing editor of the Weirs Times, also served in the NH House of Representatives for 12 years, six of those years alongside Bob. (Bob also had previously served 12 years in the legislature alongside his mother, Doris Thompson.) Donna Carlucci, Bob’s daughter works as a sales associate for the Weirs Times. Tim Lawton is a tugboat captain with his own tugboat out of Jacksonville, Florida. Tim managed the Concord Funspot from its opening in 1981 until it was sold in 1988.
“If you have a dream, money isn’t always the key,” Bob said. “You just need a good idea, to work hard and to change with the times. Don’t forget, Walt Disney started with a mouse!”