Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Playland-Not-At-The-Beach all-you-can-play pinball and more

I don't have a lot of vices (anymore) so how do I expand my mind to escape the mundane tasks of everyday life? I choose Playland-Not-At-The-Beach in El Cerrito, California. A museum, historical arcade, magic-show theater, diorama exhibit space and home to the Eartha Kitt Fan Club. Yes, I know, it's like a dream on Earth.

Pay your entry fee, then play free pinball until you get repetitive-stress disorder (I'm typing with it right now!). Nostalgia buffs and arcade hounds—welcome home. An homage to San Francisco's long-gone Playland At The Beach amusement park, Playland NATB is a labor of love and perhaps obsession, combined with magical realism. Bring the entire family (probably not toddlers—let's be realistic), and everyone will no doubt have a good time.

I was so busy playing pinball I didn't take many photos. But that's good—better to do than to chronicle, in this case. Plus the lighting can be tricky. Playland's 9,000-foot labyrinth-like warehouse has four arcades dedicated to pinball. Two are dark rooms with glowing lights coming from the games or from blacklight (for 3D pinball action). Plus my hands were trembling from all the excitement. ALL-YOU-CAN-PLAY-PINBALL! Although my forearms are beyond sore, it was totally worth it.

Many machines are of the ancient variety. Gottlieb's Gigi is from 1963. Here, we see the center clown being tormented by Gigi, who's a stand-in for Marilyn Monroe. I'm sure no one wanted to pay licensing fees to have a real rendition of Marilyn Monroe torturing a clown with her explosive sexuality. This is just as good, if not better.

It's very satisfying to hear the ding ding ding bong! of actual bells as the balls bop around on these old machines. The flippers can be weak though, so don't expect a ton of macho pinball action on these classic models. Unless you have special tilt-avoiding skills, which I don't. I play good, clean, straight pinball, and that's why I scored a big 320 here. The oldest machine I played on was Barnacle Bill from 1948 and it featured a sailor entering a cathouse. Those were fun times all right!


Flipper buttons on side of cabinet, just so you know.

There's plenty of murals and dioramas at Playland. This is a detail of a 32-foot-long mural by Dan Fontes and Ed Cassel, dedicated to the original Playland and its beach environs. I did attend the original Playland but I was only three or four, so I don't remember the experience. My Mom went as a child. It was very much a staple of the San Francisco's Ocean Beach for decades. The site where it stood is a condominium complex now. I bet you didn't see that coming.

Doggie Diner head looming, God-like, over Playland At The Beach

This is the very fun, Laff in the Dark blacklight arcade of games. Jackson and I love Monster Bash (on the far left). We play that one every chance we get at our local Mountain Mike's Pizza, where the pizza sucks, but the pinball is divine. Monster Bash has models of MGM classic movie-monsters and they pop out and talk to you, especially when you hit them with the ball. The Bride of Frankenstein's head pops up. Dracula complains when you hit him. The Frankenstein monster rises. The mummy emerges from his tomb. There's bloopy sound effects when you land in the Black Lagoon. And all the monsters apparently play in a classic rock band, mixed with theremin music and incidental suspense sounds. I'm telling you: Monster Bash rules.


Jackson likes Monster Bash, and how!

Also in the blacklight room is the excellent Scared Stiff machine, featuring Elvira. Little rubber monsters act as bumpers, and if you hit a crate it releases a whole bunch of balls (or "Spiders!" as Elvira exclaims). You have to hit them back in the crate. There's some kind of skeleton ramp thing—very clever. On matching numbers at the end of the game, Elvira's hand switches a remote and an animated television screen changes channels until you get a match (or more often not, but who cares? Free play!).

This spider spins and you stop it with a flipper—kind of like creepy roulette

Skeleton ramp thing

This is a cool older machine, Haunted House from 1982. It has three levels of play, one of which is a trap-door room, under glass with flippers that point toward you. Oh, it's a challenge!

More favorite pinball machines (not shown): Pinball Magic with magnetic wand, glowing crystal ball and seemingly endless play when I gave it a go; Jackson's favorite, Cirqus Voltaire, with its evil green ringmaster that rises from the playing area until hit with the ball; Rollercoaster Tycoon, think: ramps, lots of ramps, plus bouncy, encouraging troll doll; and the most absurd game in my opinion, Lord of the Rings. What could be more antithetical to pinball than Lord of the Rings?

See for yourself—an epic Middle Earth pinball adventure!

Besides all the pinball your wrists can take, Playland features an ol' fashioned arcade full of games made of wood and metal that require eye-hand coordination and balance, some penny-viewing machines with 3D photos of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and one of those hand-crank movie machines. And don't forget the skeeball lane and the last gasp of Fascination.

Fascination is anything but—a sort of ball-rolling bingo game that is very difficult to find now, but used to be a staple of Playland. There was actually a Market Street arcade in San Francisco called Fascination up until sometime in the 1980s. Sullen teenage boys used to hang out there every afternoon. Gone! All gone now. Whither, Fascination...

There are plenty of art displays and dioramas at Playland as well, including a room dedicated to the circus and sideshow. There's a wing filled with the world of Charles Dickens, a San Francisco diorama with seaport, and Santa's Village. All are behind glass. You push buttons to make the mechanics happen. I'm telling you, it's a good time. I made a brief film of the Dark Mystery diorama—a very impressive view of a haunted town with ghost ships, alien mountain ranges, a spooky amusement park and drive-in movie theater. Can you see the life-sized Laughing Sal reflected in the window?

1 comment:

Shutcha said...

Fascinating article! Thanks for the review. I gotta get myself over there sometime!