Arcade's pinball magic flips across years

By Rich Tosches
Manitou Springs
Ron Allen slid a nickel into the heavily worn coin slot, pulled the plunger and launched a shiny steel ball into the pinball machine. There was a little-boy sparkle in his eyes as his fingers flicked the side buttons and the flippers sent the ball back up into the bumpers and the glowing lights. He nudged the old machine with his hip, coaxing it to cough up the bonus points but ever-fearful of the tilt light that would shut down his fun.
It's called Rocket, a relic of a pinball machine from the 1940s, and it has stood in the same place on the old wooden floor of the Manitou Springs Arcade for some 60 years, its lights and shiny glass quietly cajoling thousands upon thousands of people to dig into their pockets for a five-cent coin.
"I'm a lot better at it than I used to be," Allen said the other day, smiling as he spoke but never, ever, taking his eyes off the old steel ball as it rattled between the bumpers and sent his score into It s cool to think we re playing the same games our parents and grandparents played, says Miles Roth, manning flippers as Jared Rieck watches. Both are 13 and from Colorado Springs. You'd certainly hope he has gotten better. Allen is 53. He's been playing the Rocket pinball machine in the Manitou arcade since he was 6.
The arcade in the small town west of Colorado Springs is astonishing, a palace of nostalgia for those old enough to have an occasional pain in the knee for no apparent reason and fascinating, too, for those who are too young to know much about creaky joints.
Take Nathaniel Brubaker of Colorado Springs. He's 22. A bright guy. Understands how a text message typed into a cellphone is flashed into someone else's cellphone halfway around the world in three seconds. But last week he stood by a massive cast-iron early 1900s-era English Football (soccer) game at the Manitou arcade and looked like a guy trying to fix a bike with a spatula.
"I just can't figure out how it works," he said. "It's all mechanical. No electricity. It's amazing."
He dropped a penny into the slot and a ball rolled onto the field. When Brubaker twisted a hundred-year-old brass knob, a 3-inch-tall gentleman in long pants - apparently shorts and those wacky, head-butting Frenchmen would come later in soccer - kicked the ball toward the goal.
"It's amazing how it must work," said Brubaker, who defeated a reporter with an incredibly lucky goal in the fourth minute of the 1-cent game.
The arcade has seven buildings and outdoor areas under a 1930s pavilion roof. There are some 250 games. Some are, well, odd. Neo-Geo, for example, was made in Japan in the early 1970s. From the introduction screen: "Long, Long, Ago, There Were (sic) A Man Who Tried To Make His Skills Ultimate."
But the penny arcade houses the real gems. There's a 60-foot row of games from the 1940s and 1950s, games such as United's Deluxe Carnival, a shooting gallery that for 10 cents gives up 25 shots from a heavy rifle. Squirrels, rabbits and ducks become deceased. There's the 1940s Drive-Yourself Road Test in which you
sit in a "car" and drive along a road that rolls by on a hand-painted drum. You lose points, as you might imagine, if you plow into the herd of cows.
There are baseball games from the 1960s with players - all of them look like Ted Williams - who run the bases without moving their legs. And in a corner is a risqué 1930s moving picture machine. For a nickel you can peep into The Doctor's Office and, in grainy black and white frames, see a fairly unattractive woman take off some of her clothes. (Frankly, you're thankful she stops when she does.)
There's an entire building that houses a horse-racing game, built in the early '70s in England. Patrons sit shoulder to shoulder and roll balls into holes to propel their horses down the 10-foot track. And there are the pinball machines. Rows of vintage, classic machines under glistening glass tops.
Marianne Vedros, 51, of Baton Rouge, La., took a stroll down pinball lane last week. She stopped and stared.
"These are the machines I played when I was a kid," she said.
A moment later and a dime lighter, she was flipping silver balls up into the bumpers with a flick of the flippers. Her eyes were wide. Her smile was wider.
Owner Alan Kearns has seen that look. A lot. His father started the arcade more than 70 years ago. Alan, 55, has been at the arcade almost every day of his life. He's thinking now of selling it.
"I've always loved the place," he said. "But my wife and I haven't had a summer vacation in 37 years. I wonder if I have to die here."
Ron Allen, the pinball wizard who worked at the arcade when he was 11, spent 30 years in real jobs, including a stint as a casino security officer. Last year, lured by Kearns, his boyhood Manitou friend, he came back to the arcade as its manager.
Most days he finds a moment to slide up to Rocket and work his pinball magic. In just 90 seconds last week he piled up 700,000-plus Rocket points on one ball. Only when it somehow slipped past the old, worn flippers did he look up.
"I played this pinball machine when I had to stand on my tiptoes to see it, when I was a kid of 6 and 7 and 8 years old," he said.
His eyes twinkled and he laughed. "Every day," he said, "I get to go back."
Staff writer Rich Tosches writes each Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at rtosches@denverpost.com.

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