Formative Years |
Makers & Shakers
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Mechanical & Electromechanical Games
1800s - 1970s
For a penny, nickel, or dime, mechanical and electromechanical arcade games entertained many thousands of customers over the years at Palace Amusements.
"Grandmother's Predictions" was among the most popular. A wax figure of an elderly lady sat inside a glass booth, and when a coin was inserted "Grandma" came to life. Her head and hands moved and she even appeared to be breathing. A card printed with the customer's fortune was then dispensed. In the late 1970s this machine was replaced at the Palace with a more modern version known as "Morgana," a faceless mannequin behind a window in a large blue cabinet. After inserting money and typing in their birth date, players pressed a button that activated a hidden projector. Suddenly Morgana's face appeared, and her somewhat frightening lifelike image moved as she spoke and told the customer's fortune.
"Mutoscopes" also enjoyed many years of popularity at the Palace from the late 1800s through the 1930s. The patron inserted a penny and turned a crank, which advanced a series of slides or film and allowed them to view a silent motion picture through a small window. The novelty of these machines evaporated almost immediately when talking movies became standard in theaters.
|A classic Mutoscope, just like one at the Palace. Photo courtesy of Fred Kornhauser.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, the early ancestors of today's video simulator games were making money at the Palace. For a nickel or a dime one could drive a race car, fly a helicopter, or shoot targets with a rifle. Most of these machines featured physical objects such as toy cars, which moved and responded to the player manipulating the controls. Motorized backgrounds and targets were controlled by banks of relays and contactor units, which clicked and hummed in precise rhythm. Later models also featured soundtracks, which were often played on eight track tapes.
Merchandisers and Vending Machines
1920s - 1988
Merchandisers and vending machines were among the most popular coin operated machines at the Palace. These units typically lasted much longer than other types of games due to their enduring appeal and profitability throughout the years.
In the 1920s iron claw digger machines first appeared in arcades. They featured a miniature crane inside a glass booth filled with small items such as figurines, toys, watches, lighters, and even cigarettes. With a combination of both luck and skill, the object was to position the crane's claw over a prize, pick it up, and drop it into a chute where it was delivered to the customer. Since the player did not win a prize every time, these machines tempted people to play repeatedly until they succeeded. Multiple plays by many customers made diggers more profitable than other games, which were usually played just once. In the mid 1980s "Big Choice" cranes were installed at the Palace. These were larger electronic versions of the original classic diggers.
Similar to diggers, Rotary Merchandisers manufactured by the Exhibit Supply Company were found at the Palace from the 1930s until the 1980s. These short square machines were also filled with prizes, but instead of picking them up with a crane, the customer was challenged to push them off a turntable with a mechanical arm. The owners of the Palace were able to maintain player interest in their rotaries for many years by continually changing some of the merchandise to conform to the latest fads and fashions. Custom imprinted items were perennially popular. Pens inscribed with the words "I beat the machines at the Palace, Asbury Park NJ" were often found in these games.
A handful of specialty vending machines became permanent fixtures at the Palace over the years. Unlike merchandisers, these machines delivered an item to the customer every time. Among the most popular was the photo booth, which produced a vertical strip of four black & white pictures. This machine was a favorite of couples, who would often sneak a kiss behind the curtain while their pictures were being taken. Using a system invented in the 1930s, an arm inside the machine dunked the photo paper in a series of twelve tanks of liquid developing chemicals. It took three minutes for this process to be completed, and the owners of the Palace were happy to entertain photo booth customers with other coin operated games nearby while they waited for their pictures to develop. Photo machines from the 1960s and 1970s are still commonly found in arcades today.
The Metal-Typer was another popular vending machine at the Palace. This unit allowed patrons to stamp names or messages of up to 32 characters around the edge of a 1.25-inch aluminum disc. The customer used a rotating pointer to select each letter and then pull an arm. With a click and a thud the machine stamped the letter on the disc. An identical arm on the other side of the machine was pulled to eject the completed disc. Patrons often pulled the eject arm by mistake, and consequently had to insert another quarter to start over. The disc was not visible during the stamping process, and those who became distracted often misspelled their girlfriend's or boyfriend's name, which also resulted in additional vends on this profitable machine.
1940s - 1988
Pinball is one of the most fondly remembered games at Palace Amusements. The machines appealed to a wide audience, and they were easy to play but hard to master.
With the invention of flippers by D. Gottlieb & Co. in 1947, pinball's popularity soared almost overnight. Much valuable floor space was devoted to pinball as rows of these machines were installed at the Palace. Early pinballs from the 1940s and 1950s are commonly known as "woodrails" for the varnished wooden legs and trim on the cabinets. "Knockout" "Chinatown" and "Poker Face" are all titles from this era that are known to have been at the Palace.
In the 1960s and 1970s, woodrail pinballs were replaced with newer games featuring metal trimmed cabinets and number reel scoring. The classic "wedgehead" design appeared, which featured a V-shaped backbox. "King Pin" "El Dorado" and "Buccaneer" are all examples of wedgeheads that operated at Palace Amusements. In the mid 1970s, pinballs with licensed themes began to appear at the Palace. Games such as "Wizard!" (which features rock legends The Who) and "Capt. Fantastic" (which pays homage to Elton John) were among the most popular machines of the day.
In the late 1970s pinball went electronic, with reel scoring replaced by digital displays. Game play became more complex, and the Palace was home to the first talking pinball machine, Williams' "Gorgar". However, even with technological advances, by the 1980s pinball could not compete with the public's new fascination with video games. Over time most of the pinballs were sold and removed from the Palace, although the owners continued to operate about a dozen of these games until the complex closed in 1988.
1960s - 1988
The possibility of winning a valuable prize always enhances the appeal of arcade games. Early merchandisers such as iron claw diggers were popular, but the prizes had to be inexpensive items due to the low cost per play. To overcome this limitation, manufacturers of coin-operated games slowly began experimenting with the concept of redemption in the 1960s. Instead of vending prizes directly, redemption games dispensed either tickets or aluminum tokens, which could be accumulated by players and exchanged for merchandise at a counter. The more tickets or tokens the player had, the bigger the prize. By taking advantage of this concept, the Palace was able to offer prizes of much greater value than ever before - almost anything from coffee makers and hair dryers to record players and huge stuffed animals.
Redemption games were added slowly at the Palace during the 1970s and early 1980s. One of the biggest grossing machines was Crompton's "Splash Down". Manufactured in England, Splash Down was a six-sided game that featured a moving shelf covered with nickels or quarters. The player aimed a chute and inserted a coin, which dropped onto the moving playfield. If the coin landed in a good spot, it caused others to be pushed off the edge of the playfield. When this happened prize tokens were dispensed. Other gambling themed redemption games at the Palace included the "Big Bertha" and "Jersey Jackpot" slot machines, which played like real casino slots but paid the player off with prize tokens instead of cash.
In the mid 1980s, when video game revenues began to decline, the owners of the Palace added more redemption games in an effort to increase business. "Can Alley" by Bob's Space Racers arrived. This was a competitive game where players threw three-inch plastic balls into cartoon-style garbage cans (complete with furry critters inside) while the lids opened and closed. Winners received prize tickets. Other Palace redemption games of this era were sports-oriented, requiring the player to shoot baskets or hit baseballs with a bat. These games were purely skill oriented -- the higher the score, the more tickets were awarded.
Mid 1970s - 1988
In the 1970s business was declining throughout Asbury Park, but the Palace was fortunate to have video games as a new source of revenue. Early black and white models such as Atari's "Pong" were unimpressive to look at, with simple lines and boxes displayed on the screen in a simulated game of table tennis. But the public eagerly embraced the concept of manipulating images on a monitor, and by 1979 video games were developing into a national obsession. The owners of the Palace seized the opportunity and replaced most of their pinballs and older electromechanical machines with video games.
In the early 1980s, hit titles such as "Pac-Man", "Ms. Pac-Man", "Centipede", "Pole Position", and "Q*Bert" took in many quarters at the Palace. There was an almost endless variety of themes, including space battles, karate, motorcycles, skateboarding, track and field, maze games, and auto racing.
By the mid 1980s, the boom was over and arcade video games began to decline. Although still a significant source of revenue for the Palace, players were beginning to purchase home game systems and handheld devices that mimicked the coin-operated versions. Coupled with a worsening local economy, this trend caused the owners of the Palace to substantially cut back on their purchases of new video games by the mid 1980s.
The story of a Palace video game
The Warrior game at the Palace was an early two player video game, manufactured in 1979 by the now defunct Cinematronics/ Vectorbeam Company of Union City, California. An advertisement for the game declared:
"Warrior. Cross Swords with an amour-clad enemy. Your sword will turn him to dust! Warrior. Defend your domain against the evil invader! Force him up and down the staircase, and force him into the pits where he falls into infinity!"
Palace players had a bird's eye view of two knights who moved about a battlefield in response to the joystick controls. A button on top of each joystick allowed the player to swing their knight's sword when fighting the opponent. The images displayed on the screen were simple black and white line drawings - primitive by today's standards. However, the designers of Warrior also incorporated a two-way mirror into the game, which reflects a beautifully detailed, full color cardboard background, which was mounted above the monitor. This clever visual trick made the black and white images appear to be moving within a three dimensional color environment.
Due to unreliable electronic systems and quickly outdated graphics and game play, few Warrior machines were produced. Nearly all of them were junked by amusement operators and replaced with newer and more reliable games that earned more money in arcades. Only a handful are known to exist today, and they are highly sought after by collectors. Cinematronics/ Vectorbeam later declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and was taken over by Leland, which shipped all future games in its own name.
Midway And Group Games
Every amusement park has at least a few midway games where patrons can compete to win prizes, and the Palace was no exception. The games changed from time to time, but the basic concept remained the same: pay the attendant, play a quick game, and hope to win a souvenir through skill, luck, or a combination of the two.
"Wheels" were one of the most popular and profitable midway games at the Palace. Mounted vertically on the wall behind a long counter was a large round number wheel, approximately four feet in diameter, with a motorized spinning pointer. Similar to roulette, patrons bet on which number the pointer would stop on by placing coins on corresponding numbers along the counter. Once the attendant started the wheel spinning, players pressed a button that turned off the motor and caused the pointer to slow down and gradually stop. Those who picked the winning number chose any prize from a large assortment on shelves surrounding the wheel. With only five large numbers, it looked easy to win at first glance. However, in addition to the big numbers there were also many small spaces inconspicuously painted around the edge of the wheel. These additional spaces usually had names such as "Mom", "Pop", or "Sis" and their presence made the odds of winning lower than they appeared. Sometimes players chose to play the entire wheel by betting on every space, thus guaranteeing a win. The owners of the Palace had no problem with this practice, because the cost of playing the entire wheel was far more than the wholesale cost of a prize.
The Balloon Water Race was another popular midway game at the Palace. Up to fourteen players competed by aiming water guns at a line of plastic clown heads behind the counter. Squirting water into the clown's mouth caused a balloon to inflate above his head. The first player to pop their clown's balloon was the winner and a prize was chosen by the winner. This game drew a lot of attention from the sound of the water splashing and the loud popping noise every time a balloon burst. Savvy players watched several rounds and then chose a clown that had not been a winner. By doing so, they played with a balloon that had already been inflated and deflated several times and was therefore more likely to burst.
Shoot Out The Star was a tremendously successful game. For fifty cents, players used an air rifle to shoot 100 BBs at a paper target with a red star in the middle. The challenge was to shoot accurately and eliminate the entire star, so that when the attendant retrieved the target no red color remained. The best players knew that the trick to winning this game was to shoot around the perimeter of the star. When done properly, this strategy caused the center of the star to fall out without using precious shots to eliminate it. Even if the player knew the trick, Shoot Out The Star was a difficult game to win, and consequently the prizes were mostly high-end items such as radios. The rifles made a considerable amount of noise, which echoed through the high ceilings in the Palace and attracted lots of attention to this profitable game.
In addition to commercial units, the owners of the Palace operated several homemade midway style games. The ever-popular ring toss was there, challenging players to throw small rings and make one land around the neck of a Pepsi bottle. There was also a slot car race game at the Palace, where players used a steering wheel to guide a small car down a wooden track. The attendant called the race while players competed to reach the finish line. The winner received a small plastic trophy for their efforts.
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During the late 60's and early 70's, every Thursday during August was "Asbury night" for John Longsfield, his brother and parents, who made the weekly trip from their vacation spot in Avon by the Sea. Longfield especially loved racing the slot cars at the Palace. The cars were four to five inches long, and raced along a track Longfield recalls being at least 20 feet by 20 feet. "You raced them with this little steering wheel and foot pedal, and if you won, you received a trophy. I looked forward all week to competing," Longfield said. "I can't explain it, but there was something special about the Palace and Asbury as a whole growing up."
Debbie Dickerson followed a routine nearly every warm, sunny day between 1968 and 1988. "On my lunch break, I'd walk down to the Palace, play Skee Ball, collect my 'winnings," cash them in for a snack (usually M&M Peanuts) and then walk back to work. That was my daily exercise and mental break from work all rolled up into one. It was the best stress reliever...and it was relatively free! Then, on the weekends, I'd go to the Palace, spending hours playing many of the games of chance to win 'big' prizes...and I still have some of them today! My favorite is the Snoopy pitcher and juice glass set...since I'm an avid Snoopy fan."
|Bank of Skee Ball machines, early 1960s. Photo courtesy of Sandy Berman. view larger image