Chuck E. Cheese’s 1984: Where a kid can fight off teenagers to play arcade video games

For my 9th birthday in 1984, my parents took me to an establishment new to the Pittsburgh area that had plenty of games for kids and plenty of pizza for kids to eat.  Chuck E. Cheese’s was my funhouse as a child, and it looks nothing like the place I knew growing up over thirty years ago.

Each location in Pittsburgh had different activities for kids, and I appreciated the location west of town near Bridgeville.  Sure, they had an awesome ball pit and they had a cool and scary twisty slide (It would have been deemed unsafe in 2017, that’s for sure), but the real draw for me was that the Bridgeville Chuck E. Cheese’s had the best selection of arcade games to play under one roof.

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My favorite arcade game

The original Chuck E. Cheese’s had the same types of games that are found in today’s locations–skee-ball, whack-a-mole, wheel of fortune and other games where the object is to earn tickets which are then redeemed for cheap toys.  Toys that might cost a few dollars elsewhere, but at Chuck’s they could be obtained with the tickets earned from $10 worth of skee-ball games.  Today’s locations have many more of the “ticket games” than actual arcade games.

At my old age, I was curious as to why the old Chuck’s had so many cool arcade games.  I discovered that Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc. was actually one of the original owners, and wanted the video game arcade to showcase many of the titles that Atari and its parent companies released.  What transpired in the arcade section of Chuck’s in the mid-1980’s was wonderful chaos.  In a place that was marketed to children ages 3 to 12, teenagers and college kids were lining up to play video games.

The arcade section was set up the same as other arcades in the 1980’s.  They were usually found at malls and amusement parks all across America.  Token machines were stationed throughout Chuck’s.  One token was worth twenty-five cents, and the majority of people playing the arcade games at Chuck’s would simply walk in, bypass all of the pizza and dinner theatre themed areas for the kids and spend $10 to $20 on the thirty to forty arcade games lined up in a U along the walls on one side of the main play area.  Some of the bigger cockpit-style video games were in the center of the floor, including two (TWO!!!) Pole Position games.

All of the games were not Atari games.  It seemed that Bushnell wanted whatever was hot to increase traffic and boot profits.  Many of the companies I remembered were very big names in the video game industry then and well represented at the Bridgeville Chuck’s.  In addition to Atari, they had Nintendo, Data East, Midway, Konami, Sega, Namco and Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was the video game equivalent of a “one hit wonder”, being responsible for the legendary game Q*Bert, which is pictured above.

By 1986 traffic declined at Chuck’s due to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Previous home systems were mostly crude  versions of the arcade games, but the NES combined fun games with better graphics.  Teenagers and college kids could buy an NES, play games at home all day and not have to worry about running out of money to play the machines at an arcade.  Even though there were less people playing the games, for a few years the machines stayed at Chuck’s.  Toward the end of the 1980’s, the Bridgeville Chuck’s had the following games in one location:

Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Bump ‘N’ Jump, Rampage, Defender, Joust, Gauntlet, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Q*Bert, Frogger, Centipede, Paperboy, Marble Madness, Zaxxon, Out Run, Mario Bros. (The original, not Super Mario Bros.)

Chuck’s had other arcade games besides these, but I remembered these games well.  They were fun to play and I even enjoyed watching the older kids play them because I would learn the game before spending my money.  The 13-25 age group that hogged most of the games taught me which ones were the best to play so I could spend my $5 a little more wiser than I would have.  And sometimes, the older kids let me in on the action.

At my brother’s 8th birthday party in 1986, the Bridgeville Chuck’s got a multi-player Gauntlet machine.  It would allow for up to four players to run the game at once and team up to beat the enemies on each level.  I was 10 at the time and while I was walking through the arcade, a teenage boy about 15 years-old asked me to be player four on Gauntlet.  I agreed even though I had no idea what I was doing.  The two other players with us were his friends, also around high school age.  During the game he taught me how to use the buttons and what areas to focus on attacking.  By the time we completed the game (We got about halfway through the game before we all ran out of money), there were a few other teenagers watching us run through the beginning levels.  Before the next batch of guys tried the new game, they were asking my new acquaintance and I about the game play features.  Not him and his friends–him and I.  Me, all of age 10.

The Gauntlet experience at Chuck E. Cheese’s taught me not to be afraid of unfamiliar environments.  Sometimes the people that seem intimidating end up being helpful, kind and welcoming.  If I would have said, “No, I don’t know how to play”, an early shred of confidence gained would have been missed out on, and it would have affected me going forward in life.

That fall, my friends at school wanted me to go out for the basketball team.  I never played before, but I remembered playing Gauntlet with the older kids, finding my place on a team and learning that new experiences didn’t have to be scary, unappealing situations.  I tried out for the team, made the team, and by the end of the year had become one of the better players.

So as you can see reader of this post, there is a lot to be learned from playing video games.  Happy 40th birthday Chuck E. Cheese’s, and thanks for the awesome place to learn the meaning of confidence.

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Carrick Classic Lanes: A south Pittsburgh relic immortalized by Hollywood

On a congested section of Brownsville Road in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Carrick, there is a simple double door tucked away just a few steps down the street from a local tavern.  Hundreds of people walk by this door every day, unaware that beyond the inner vestibule an old American “bowling house” awaits.  Alleys that hold precious memories in the hearts of many south Pittsburgh residents and were triumphantly portrayed in the 1996 film Kingpin.  Alleys that remain but are not in use like they were throughout the last half of the 20th century.  The name of this hallowed place?  Carrick Classic Lanes (CCL).

In 1995, the present day Roosevelt Elementary school along Brownsville Road was a vacant building.  The upper parking lot was only in full use when the patrons of Saint Basil’s Church used the lot during Saturday vespers, Sunday services and their annual festival.  So it was very surprising at that time when one dozen mobile-home trailers occupied that very lot for a week along with numerous box trucks scattered between West Cherryhill Street and CCL.  Eventually people in the neighborhood found out that parts of a movie were being filmed inside CCL with Woody Harrelson (Roy Munson) and Randy Quaid (Ishmael).

The two images above are from the downstairs of CCL.  Lanes 1-12 are upstairs when walking in the front door and the staircase just inside the front door to the left lead down to lanes 13-24.  In the movie, a fictitious exterior was used when Munson ventures into “Lancaster Bowl”.  After Roy enters the building, the next clip shows  Munson descending  the very same steps I walked down as a young city boy.  Here, Munson witnesses Ishmael bowling for the first time, and the partnership that is the foundation of the movie is born.

CCL not only had the look of an old-school 1950’s bowling house, it was a 1950’s bowling house that did not “modernize” their equipment or the aesthetics since its heyday.  My bowling ball would return to me with an occasional slice or gouge in it.  The ball returns were at alley level, whereas the newer bowling centers had their returns dropped below the lanes.  There was no computerized scoring at CCL and there wasn’t even overhead scoring projectors that were common in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Scoring was done on paper and pencil.  From an insider’s perspective, I could understand the appeal of CCL to Hollywood. It was one of the last truly authentic bowling alleys in Pittsburgh.

When viewing Kingpin, the generations that are younger than my Gen-X self will have a hard time understanding how important bowling was to many Americans.  Professional and amateur leagues were far more abundant than the recreational, “cosmic bowling” participants that are fast becoming bowling’s majority moneymaker.  There were many fun characters that I used to encounter at each bowling house I rolled at and the old pro league on ABC and ESPN had just as many goofballs throwing strikes on TV.  Kingpin captured the essence of bowling’s finest hour:  It proves that bowling can be entertaining in its purest form.

In Pittsburgh and across the United States, some old-school bowling houses remain but many are gone.  Suburban bowling centers with a high amount of lanes, a high amount of gimmicks and high prices (To help pay for the gimmicks) continue to alienate the people who JUST WANT TO BOWL.  Even if my bowling manifesto fails to reignite a movement, a resin ball re-enlightenment, it gives me great joy that I can revisit my childhood bowling house, a place where bowling mattered, just by watching Kingpin.

My father used to tell me wonderful stories about his old bowling house on the South Side of Pittsburgh, which was Alvin’s Lanes.  I had to imagine what the place looked like since it closed in the mid-1970’s.  Hopefully one day when my son gets older, I can not only share my goofy bowling stories with him, but I can ACTUALLY SHOW HIM what CCL looked like.

In Kingpin, there is a scene where Munson is sitting with his legs open on an above-alley ball return at CCL between lanes 11 and 12.  Not paying attention, a ball rolls up to him, hits him in the nuts, and he collapses to the lanes below.  At the age of twelve in 1988, my 128.6 average self rolled a 212 on lane 12 at CCL in my catholic school bowling league.  It was my first 200 game and one of the fondest memories I have from that time in my life.  No matter what happens to CCL in the future, I am grateful that Kingpin will always grant me the opportunity to revisit the bowling house that I knew growing up in Pittsburgh.

***

Movie images are property of MGM Studios, Inc. and were found via Google Images

A great example of a classic bowling house with 21st century equipment/technology is Arsenal Lanes in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood.  Google Image THIS place!  Well done.

Alvin’s Lanes resided on the second and third floors of what is now Nakama Japanese Steakhouse on East Carson Street in Pittsburgh’s South Side.  One floor had ten lanes of duck pins, the other floor had ten lanes of ten pins. 

1917: A Discrimination Tale

 

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All of my ancestors that decided to come and start a new life in the United States during the early 1900’s came from Poland.  Yet, I have a German last name.  This is the story of how my great-grandfather created an alias to attain better job opportunities and avoid the overt discrimination that dominated American life during his time as a steelworker.

THE ARRIVAL OF “FRANK”

Between 1892 and 1909, my ancestors passed through Ellis Island on their way to the South Side of Pittsburgh.  With Polish diacritics in their surnames, they settled in the same pocket of town, married and started families.  My great-grandfather Frank Golebiewski arrived sometime in 1904 or 1905, and I’ve never heard of somebody calling him anything other than Frank.  Coming from Poland, there was no way his birth name was Frank.  My family was never sure if it was indeed Francizek.  Even before he settled into his new life across the Atlantic Ocean, Frank was creating a new identity for himself.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Frank went to work in one of the many steel mills on the South Side.  In 1904, there were at least six that sat along the Monongahela River in the city limits and many more just outside of the city.  Frank worked for two mills: Oliver Iron and Steel Company and another owned by Alexander Byers.  The mills sat three city blocks apart and produced piping, nuts, bolts, rivets and many other specialty parts used in construction projects.  Working in these mills required a higher level of intelligence than most of the South Side factories.  Many machine operators had to have a basic understanding of math to create dies (metal forms), molds, production tools and other site specific items used in the manufacturing process.  Frank started out at Byers and basically held the same position for about a dozen years.  He was a ground level production worker with no authority.

Over the years Frank noticed that all of the higher level positions in the steel mills were controlled by mostly English or German men.  When job openings would be posted for such titles as, “Crew Foreman Wanted”, somewhere under the heading would read, “No Poles Need Apply”.  Other select ethnic groups would also be shunned in these advertisements, but the Poles were always included on these posters around the South Side.  Frank knew he was qualified for a supervisory role, but he also knew his last name was hindering his ability to earn more money for his growing family.

All of the Catholic Polish families attended church at Saint Adalbert parish and were members of the Polish Falcons of America, which is a fraternal society that has had its national headquarters in Pittsburgh since the 1910’s.  For years, “Falcons” (As my grandparents called it) had two buildings in the heart of the South Side.  Many of Frank’s Polish co-workers were also friends to him.  They drank, smoked and played the card game euchre with each other at Falcons or at their houses when they weren’t working at the mills.  Over time it became apparent to his friends that Frank wanted to move on from Byers, but he didn’t know how.  Even in 1917, “glass ceilings” existed at the workplace.

A CARD GAME, A NEW NAME

One Saturday night during the usual euchre game between the guys, a close friend and co-worker of Frank’s–a person that I have never learned the identity of, came up with a plan for Frank to get a promotion:  Frank had to get a foreman’s job at a different mill but with the German last name of Kress.  Employers didn’t check for proper identification until they were forced to by law in the 1930’s, so Frank simply could use the surname Kress as an alias.  Of all the surnames Frank could use, why was he instructed to use Kress?

I don’t know if it’s a generational trait or if my family was very uninterested in their family history, but I never got a straight answer as to why Kress was the consensus pick to obtain a job promotion.  Over the years I pieced together some facts about Frank, the name Kress and what the name meant to “Millionaire’s Row” on the other side of town in Pittsburgh’s North Side:

Kress wasn’t as common as other German names in Pittsburgh.  If Frank chose “Miller” or one of the many spellings of “Schmidt”, eventually one of the higher supervisors who did have the last name of Miller or Schmidt would have found him to be a phony.  In traditional German, Kress is spelled Kreß, with the eszett (ß) representing the “sharp S” and replacing the “ss” at the end of the name.  So if Frank was to be German, his friend sure picked a hardcore, badass southern German name for him to use.

Frank knew how to speak the German form of broken English.  Over the course of twelve years at Byers, Frank heard his German supervisors speak to the English heirarchy in English when the production process was discussed on the floor of the mill.  Frank had to have some experience with German culture when he grew up in Poland as well. Poland and Germany shared a border then (Poland was a territory of the Russian Empire) and they still do in 2017, so being exposed to German culture as a boy gave Frank confidence that he could portray being German in the “theatre” of steel mills.

Early automobile owners on Pittsburgh’s North Side relied on the Kress name to keep their cars moving.  The North Side and South Side of Pittsburgh are less than four miles apart, but to the people of 1917 Pittsburgh, they were very far from each other since automobiles were only owned by the upper class.  Many of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families resided in what was deemed, “Millionaire’s Row”, a few blocks of very large mansions on the North Side that were primarily built along Ridge Avenue and North Lincoln Avenue (Many of them still stand today).  When the automobiles of the wealthy needed work done on them, servants were dispatched to handle the problems. The rich rarely interacted with the working-class, especially immigrant workers. For car tires, a man (Or a few men) with the last name of Kress provided good, affordable tires to the people of the North Side.  Their reputation grew from their roots as horse carriage builders and they eventually got their own automobile repair garage in the 1920’s. Pittsburgh’s elite might have not interacted directly with their tire repair and service shop, but the name Kress represented hard work and provided a good product on the other side of town.

DEEMED QUALIFIED (EVEN THOUGH HE LIED)

A few months after Frank’s promotion plan was outlined, he secured a foreman job at Oilver Iron & Steel as Frank Kress.  He kept this job until the mid-1930’s, when employees were required to provide legal documentation for work due to the Social Security Act of 1935.  Poles in 1930’s Pittsburgh did not suffer from the same level of discrimination as their ethnic group did twenty years prior, so Frank found suitable work as Frank Golebiewski until he retired after World War II.

I theorize Frank’s friend knew about the Kress family and their budding business on the North Side.  He also knew that the owners and higher managers would never strike up casual conversations with Frank.  Frank’s secret would be safe, and his plant supervisors could see that he was capable of supervising workers while delivering quality products.

Frank must have been well-respected by his friends and fellow co-workers, because I’m sure there were plenty of people that worked under him that could have “ratted him out”.  I guess all of the Poles that worked for him didn’t mind working for their “German” boss.

THE ALIAS AND MY FAMILY TREE

My grandfather (Pap), Frank’s son, was the only one in the family to legally change his last name to Kress in 1953.  I think Pap might have pissed his dad off when he made Kress his real name, because Pap never really gave me a good reason why he did it.  Personally, I love that Pap changed the name because it preserved this story about his dad and what he had to do to succeed in America.

Many other families around the world have similar stories to mine.  I even have a few more examples within my own family.  Solarczyk is another name throughout my family tree.  My grandfather who had this name had step-brothers who legally changed their name to Solar.  They also changed their last name to attain better job opportunities.

DIFFERENT ERA, DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, SAME STEREOTYPES

In 1917, immigrants that resided in the south neighborhoods of Pittsburgh came from many different countries in eastern Europe.  In 2017, the same south neighborhoods I grew up in still have an immigrant population, but from entirely different parts of the world.  Today, former citizens of Nepal, Bhutan, Mexico, Laos and Somalia seek the same opportunities that my great-grandfather Frank did.  The discrimination might not be as overt, but long-time residents seem to have a hard time accepting foreigners into their communities.  Long-time residents who have apparently forgotten the fact that their ancestors were the target of the very same abuse that they shell out on our 21st century newcomers.

The United States of America is known as a melting pot.  It was in 1917 and it is in 2017.  Hopefully in 2117, there will be another third-generation American sharing a tale about how their great-grandfather arrived in New York in 2004 or 2005 and found a way to succeed in an foreign country in search of a better life.  A third-generation American that is not a victim of discrimination, but remembers the stories from his family of when they endured it on a daily basis.

***

Thanks great-grandpap Frank.  The story of your drive to succeed, your emphasis on family and your courage to take risks to benefit your sons and daughters in the future is not lost in time.  I’ll make sure my son knows your story too.

Your great-grandson,

Larry Kress

(Image found via Google, traced to an advertisement found in “The Daily Free Press”, June 19, 1910.  Carbondale, Illinois had a newspaper under this name in 1910 and they have a rich history in coal mining.)

December 7, 1966 — My Father At Pearl Harbor

Today is the 75th anniversary of one of America’s darkest hours, the attack on Pearl Harbor naval base by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  The attack killed over 2,400 Americans and wounded nearly 1,200.  It destroyed almost the entire American fleet stationed in Hawaii, which led to the United States entry into World War II.

My late father was in the United States Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor between 1966 and 1968, which allowed him to be there during the 25th anniversary of the attack.  Dad remembered that day to be a Sunday because he had no obligations at base during the early morning hours on December 7.  Being a history fanatic and understanding the weight of the day, he decided to walk alone around the base when the attack would have commenced in 1941. Dad didn’t think his fellow mates would show the same level of reverence as he did.

At 7:48 a.m., Dad looked out to the mountains to the north, where the first wave of Japanese planes were detected.  He then turned to the south toward Iroquois Point and Mamala Bay where many of the 353 planes approached when the attacks were launched in two waves.   Dad couldn’t believe that twenty-five years prior he would have been standing in the middle of absolute hell.  It was a sunny morning in 1966, a clear blue sky with the usual amount of activity that he became accustomed to there.

Dad told me he did a lot of standing around that morning, staring into the skies above and the land around him, trying to imagine the nightmare in his own mind.  He had three senior officers on base who were at Pearl Harbor on that infamous day when they just started out as seamen in the Navy.  They lived that nightmare.  Dad didn’t know them and he wasn’t going to search for them in hopes of hearing their own personal accounts of December 7, 1941.  It’s certainly a day to remember in America, but maybe those officers would have liked to forget that day.

Today we remember those Americans we lost 75 years ago.  I give thanks for the active military members we have today and the countless veterans that served over the years.  Their dedication to the United States, duty as a service member and their dedication to serving their communities post-military (Police, Fire, National Guard, etc.) is greatly appreciated by me and my family.