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Skee-Ball, Nearly 100 Years Old,
Still Draws Them In At Arcades
 

Click here to read new revised, shorter version!

by Roger Amsden & Gary Vincent


Reprinted from
The Weirs Times

 

In the world of coin-operated amusements, there are few products that have instant product recognition. The 1980’s saw the introduction of Pac Man, which is an icon among the under-40 generation, but if you want a game that everyone knows, it would have to be Skee-Ball. Whether you are 4 or 94, there is a good chance you have played Skee-Ball as the company has been continuously building them since 1909.

 

In a few short years, the company will mark their 100th anniversary, a landmark few companies in the amusement business can boast about. “Skee-Ball has been an amusement tradition since 1909. Its ageless appeal is astounding! It’s a game my father and grandfather spent hours playing with me as a child. Now I play it with my own children and grandchildren!” says Skee Ball CEO, Joseph W. Sladek.

 

Skee-Ball was invented and patented in 1909 by J.D. Estes of Philadelphia. These first games were 36 feet in length and marketed toward the outdoor amusement industry by Maurice Piesen in 1914. As one can well imagine, a 36-foot long lane required a considerable amount of strength to play so in 1928, the length was reduced to 14 feet. Tremendous popularity was achieved as the new, shorter Skee-Ball appealed to women, children and the elderly. In later years, a 10-foot long Skee-Ball made its debut.

 

If you have been to the beach in the last 90 or so years and stopped into a beachfront arcade, there is a good chance you have come across a game of Skee-Ball. Many hours could be spent rolling the trademark wooden ball up the lane to win prizes ranging from Finger Traps to Whoopee Cushions to a new set of dinner plates for mom. Because prizes were awarded to players, Skee-Ball was once considered a gambling device in some parts of the country leading to bans and restrictions. Most of these laws were repealed around the same time Prohibition was tossed out. In 1932 the first national Skee-Ball tournament was held in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, arcade, showing how much the game had grown in popularity.

 

In 1935, the Wurlitzer Company acquired the rights to Skee-Ball from Piesen and held them until 1945 when the rights were sold to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. As strange as it may sound, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company never made toboggans, as we know them today, they made roller coasters. In the early days, cars on a roller coaster were called toboggans. They also manufactured carousels, some of which are still in operation today. The first carousel with five rows of horses was built by Philadelphia Toboggan and can still be ridden today at Six Flags Over Georgia. For further history on this carousel, see the Riverview Park story by Mal Fuller in the July 21, 2005 issue of The Weirs Times.

 

Winning tickets on Skee-Ball has always been the drawing card for this game but reaching down and tearing off your winnings wasn’t always the norm. In the early years, prize tickets were handed out by a Skee-Ball attendant who paced diligently back and forth handing out tickets to winners and clicking off the “winner” light so a player wasn’t accidentally paid twice. Another innovation came in 1974 with the introduction of electronic alleys in an industry once populated by mechanical games. In 1977, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company formed Skee-Ball, Inc, the company name used presently.

 

According to Skee-Ball, Inc., there are as many as 70,000 Skee-Ball alleys in arcades and family amusement centers around the world. “Skee-Ball is so popular because it is a game that every generation can relate to. It has beaten the test of time,” says Michael Sladek of Skee-Ball. It seems time will wear out before the popularity of Skee-Ball will. A properly maintained Skee-Ball lane can last indefinitely. “They’re built like trucks,” Says Greg Zittrian, director of development and operations at the Chicago Disney Quest.

 

Funspot purchased their first Skee-Balls in 1974 recalls Funspot owner and General Manager, Bob Lawton. “I can clearly remember speaking to Hazel Hines and asking her how many I should buy. She said, ‘It doesn’t matter how many you buy, you’ll always need more,’ and she was right.” Skee-Ball’s Jeannie Emhof says Hazel worked for the company back in the 1970’s and 1980’s and is still fondly remembered by the long term employees. Lawton initially purchased seven games and added more in the summer of 1982. “I remember helping to unload that shipment of eight or so games,” says Funspot’s Operations Manager Gary Vincent, who started with the company in the summer of 1981. Funspot now has seventeen of the 14-foot machines and four of the 10-foot Mini Skee-Balls.

 

Skee-Ball has enjoyed tremendous popularity over the years at Funspot and as a result, sustained some wear and tear. “I would say Skee-Ball has to be the most popular and successful game we’ve had in the last 30 years,” says Lawton. Funspot is the second largest arcade in the world with over 500 coin operated machines. Earlier this year, he decided all 17 Skee Balls at Funspot needed rebuilding. Many repairs and modifications had been made in the past but the time had come for a major overhaul. “I spoke about this with our chief game technician who is also my nephew, Randy Lawton, who then called Skee-Ball concerning the availability of parts for the old lanes and was pleasantly surprised to see all of the replacement parts were still available!” Lawton noted that product support like this is almost unheard of from any company, especially the coin operated industry. “It could be compared to calling one of the big three auto makers and asking to order new front seats for your 1970 car and having them ship out a pair to you. It just doesn’t happen these days.” Skee Ball’s CEO Joseph Sladek has said, “Not only are we committed to maintaining the quality of our existing games, we are committed to introducing exciting new games aimed to thrill players everywhere.” It is this commitment to product support that sets Skee-Ball apart from other companies.

 

Randy Lawton spent a considerable amount of time looking at Funspot’s lanes and assembling a list of replacement parts needed to bring the lanes back to as-new condition. New lane carpets, new score hoops, replacement ball hops and more rounded out his list of much needed repairs. “A project of this magnitude creates some logistical problems so we needed a time where we could tear down the games and get the job done quickly,” says Randy. Motorcycle Week presented the perfect opportunity to tackle the job as Funspot is closed for the week. Bob Lawton adds, “We set our sights on that week and decided the best place to do the job was right here in the game room.” Bob’s daughter, Sandra also helped with the project. “Skee-Ball is an historic game. Everyone knows what Skee-Ball is,” she adds.

 

An undertaking of this size is not for the faint of heart or for those lacking ambition. Every lane had to be disassembled down to the bare framework, worn parts replaced and then reassembled. Several of Funspot’s employees took part in the project including Cal Hahn, Maintenance Supervisor. “I spent a lot of time, I’d say about 80 hours, on this project,” says Hahn whose skills as a master carpenter were needed when some pieces needed to be fabricated by hand and the removal of the old lane carpet damaged the plywood underlayment. “I’m glad we decided to do this job all at once in the game room rather than take each machine one at a time to the shop. We would have been months trying to get the job done,“ he adds.

 

Funspot has made many modifications over the years including Plexiglas-covered openings to see how many balls were in the lane. “Many times, small children throw the ball into the wrong lane resulting in too many balls in one and not enough in the other,” says Randy Lawton, “So, in the early 1990’s we cut slots in each ball return and inserted Plexiglas so we could instantly see how many balls were there which saved a lot of time on busy days.”

 

Having each lane completely apart presented another opportunity to make modifications that had been talked about previously. Randy comments, “Every year it seems we come up with a new modification that we’re going to do during the slow season but somehow, we never find the time to do it. This was the perfect time to implement all of the changes we’ve wanted to do for a long time.” Lawton converted all of the low-ticket indicator bulbs to LED’s, which have an almost unlimited life span and modified the coin boxes to prevent tokens from jamming the lock mechanism. “I spent many late nights here installing all of these upgrades, redesigning the coin mechanisms and ball release cables and replacing all of the wood screws with bolts and t-nuts to eliminate the problem of stripped out screws.” Lawton estimates that he alone logged about 120 hours on this project and the total time by everyone involved was close to 500 hours.

 

Along with all of the mechanical and electrical improvements, a fresh coat of paint was applied to all of the pieces. Steve Doody Jr., a 10-year veteran of Funspot brought all of the painted pieces to his father’s shop, Stephen’s Frame and Collision, sandblasted them and applied new paint. “The hardest part was sandblasting all of the pieces during those hot and humid days,” says Doody, “Especially wearing all of the protective clothing when you would prefer to be in shorts and a t-shirt!” After painting all the pieces, Doody and Funspot employee Ben Coffey applied new chrome trim and accents. “Getting a 10 foot long piece of chrome trim with an adhesive backing on straight the first time was not a one man job so I’m glad Ben was here to help,” says Doody.

 

Many of Funspot’s employees contributed to the success of this project including technician Tom Spence who spent many hours rebuilding the score assemblies. “These lanes look like new. I am thrilled at how well the project went,” says Spence. Another long time employee, Bubba Hahn, spent many days doing whatever was needed to be done to get the job finished. “It’s amazing how many more things you want to fix once you get the lane apart, “ he says, “Our to-do list kept getting longer and longer!”

 

As the scope of the project grew, it was apparent that some outside help needed to be brought onboard. Long time Funspot friend and local craftsman, Don Pintacura, was brought in to take some of the burden off the Funspot staff. “This was quite a project! In today’s world of throwaway appliances, it was nice to see a company like Skee-Ball who still supports a product they manufactured 30 or 40 years ago. Quality craftsmanship is what made these games last this long. Funspot should be able to get another 30 years out of these before they need to be rebuilt,” says Pintacura.

 

Product support, quality craftsmanship and customer appeal makes Skee- Ball a great asset to Funspot. “If it wasn’t an excellent product to start with, we would not have been able to do what we have done to these machines,” says Bob Lawton, “These wore out from the millions of plays they have received in their lifetime. Skee-Ball makes an excellent product!” He estimates the project totaled $28,000 from start to finish. With new lanes costing $4,500 each, or a total of $76,500 there was a significant savings by refurbishing existing equipment. “If we only had 4 or 5 lanes, we probably would have purchased new ones but with 17 of them here, it was logical to rebuild what we had and we are very pleased with the results.” Funspot is the second largest arcade in the country located on Route 3 in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire and is open daily from 10am to 10pm; summers from 9am to midnight. Started in 1952 by brothers Bob and John Lawton, Funspot has over 500 electronic games, 20 lanes of bowling, a 400 seat commercial Bingo hall an indoor golf center and numerous other attractions.

 

Andrew Gardikis is a 17-year-old kid from Quincy with a shaggy mop of dirty blond hair and a long, lanky frame that he's still growing into. In the video game world, Gardikis is famous for being one of only three people to achieve the so-called "Holy Grail" of gaming records: a perfect speed run on the original Nintendo Super Mario Bros., which means that he finished the game and saved the princess in 5 minutes and 8 seconds.

 

 
 
 


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