“Look but don’t touch” is the rule in most history museums and it’s also the reason kids (and adults) get bored so quickly. History would be a lot more accessible to the public if there were more places like the Penny Arcade at Arcade Amusements in Manitou Springs, Colorado, just outside Colorado Springs.
The Penny Arcade doesn’t call itself a history museum. It doesn’t even think of itself as a museum. It is, however, a museum in the best sense of the word – it is a collection of rare historic artifacts showing development of nearly one hundred years of amusement technology.
And you get to play with ALL of it.
Fortunately for my eardrums (not to mention my sanity), the arcade in Manitou is not a cavernous overwhelming techno-barn echoing with the ear-splitting sounds of thousands of electronic shots, car crashes, pinball bells and Pacman bleeps. All those sounds are there, of course, but since the arcade is spread out over numerous small buildings, the noise never reaches the level of cacophony that you find at, for example, Chuck E. Cheeses.
You’ll find most of the oldest games in Arcade Amusements in the Penny Arcade building. There are no placards telling you the age of various machines – you just have to guess by the price. There are actually a few games that still cost a penny. The arcade has been in operation for about 90 years and some of the games have probably been in use all of that time. So the responsiveness of levers may not always be what it once was.
But some of the old games really are a lot of fun and quite a challenge. My family loved a nickel basketball game where you have to gauge both when to shoot and how much pressure to apply to the lever. If you time it wrong, you either hit a hulking opponent or find yourself stuck with too many basketballs (like the famous candy factory scene in “I Love Lucy”).
One of the most striking games in the arcade is a penny soccer game featuring players nearly as large as Barbie dolls (with even more vapid expressions, if that’s possible) wearing uniforms made of real cloth. The local kids call it “zombie soccer.” On my most recent visit in November of 2018, one of the attendants told me this ancient game still sees a lot of hard use by regulars who stage intense contests, slamming levers hard in their efforts to score goals.
It’s fun to imagine my dad and grandad playing games like this when they were the same age as the kids all around the arcade. And personally, I really enjoyed playing pinball games from all different eras (ranging in price from 5 to 50 cents per game)
My daughter’s favorite is the ubiquitous skeeball, and they have plenty of those machines, along with all kinds of variations. There’s even a midway derby game where a number of players race against each other (or rather, they roll balls to enable their horses to race against each other.) Like any good arcade, there are lots of tickets and prizes and patient teens working the counter where kids debate how to spend their hard-won strips of paper.
Teens aren’t the only ones working in the Manitou arcade, however. Owned by the same family since 1931, the arcade has some employees who started hanging out there as children decades ago and now are back to work at what many would consider the ultimate dream job. One employee who’s been researching the history of some of the older games said the “zombie soccer” may date back to 1921. He also theorized that the oldest machines in the arcade are the “Mutoscopes,” which enable viewers to watch reels of Fatty Arbuckle films for a penny. The serial numbers on those machines are “7” and “12,” so based on his research, he figures they are likely some of the earliest ever made.
He said he really enjoys seeing several generations enjoying the arcade “at the same level, having fun for a nickel.”
And in case you’re wondering, the old machines don’t break down all the time. “The repair guy works on the new pieces a lot more,” we were told.
So if you’re in the Colorado Springs area, head out to Manitou with your pocket change. You can experience a cultural timeline and have a lot of fun all at once. Just allow plenty of time, because at the Penny Arcade, a few cents can last you all day.
I first wrote this article in 2009, but we were fortunate enough to return to the arcade in November of 2018. Even a few of the buildings were closed for the winter, most of the arcade was running at full capacity, with people of all ages enjoying the fun. In fact, Arcade Amusements had recently expanded to another building, which we did not have time to visit.
It was very gratifying to see this living museum of physical amusements flourishing in a world where reality is fading into a virtual simulation.
You can learn more about the Penny Arcade at Aracade Amusements on their Facebook page
If you like stories involving old fashioned games, you might like my Regency novella Bride of Belznickel (which includes various games gone wrong during the Christmas holidays) or my novel The Appearance of Impropriety (which features a set of parlor games with a disastrous ending)