Landmark arcade to be unplugged

Landmark arcade to be unplugged

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For local arcade buffs, the ultimate "Game Over" is on the horizon.

If business doesn't pick up at Playland, 350 E. College Ave., State College's only arcade will be pulling the plugs and closing its doors in December. The game center and local hangout will not be renewing its five-year lease as it has for more than 30 years.

"Unless someone buys it, the lease is over December 15," manager Gene Steele said.

Although Playland isn't as successful as it once was, the arcade's 140 games still provide entertainment to a wide spectrum of gamers, from students to local families. The idea of such a neighborhood institution closing down is disappointing for some.

"Young kids who don't drink have a hard enough time finding stuff to do around here. This is just one less thing," State College resident Adam Shrigley said.

Other customers like the arcade for its uniqueness and vintage games.

"This is the only place around here that has a Pac-Man machine that works," Brooke Riglin of State College said.

But before it was a massive video game hub extending through the block from Calder Way to College Avenue, Playland was just six pinball machines.

Playland first opened its doors in 1968, when owner Raymond Mangino brought the games to a small room off of Calder Way. They cost 10 cents to play, with three plays for a quarter.

"He didn't know whether it would go over or not," Steele said. "But it didn't take long for him to realize it was successful."

After about a year, the room was expanded to house more pinball machines, and Playland's popularity continued to grow. The arcade would soon see different types of mechanical games, including 11 foosball tables, gun games and baseball games, in which a mechanical bat would actually hit a ball inside the machine. At one point, the arcade contained pool tables.

In the early days, the arcade's popularity was augmented by Mangino's promotional techniques. Gamers were treated to free pizza at night and donuts in the morning, while anyone celebrating a birthday could receive a complimentary box of candy. The promotions were a logical success at first, as about 30 slices of pizza only cost about $7 and 12 donuts sold for only $1.39, but as the prices went up, the promos were no longer practical.

When Steele began managing it in 1974, Playland was home to the first computer-driven games, including Pong and six Pong-like games. Eventually, the arcade would see its first car driver game, Grand Prix.

"The track was made of dots, and the car was so tiny," Steele said with a laugh.

In the late '70s, more pinball machines with advanced technology were added, and the game room was expanded through the block so patrons could walk in directly from the sidewalks of College Avenue. At the height of pinball popularity, Playland had 90 pinball machines.

Arcade technology continued to thrive in the '80s, and Playland's customers were able to get their hands on all of the industry's famous games, including Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Steele said the arcade business was at its prime from 1981 until 1985, and Playland's business reflected it. At one point, the arcade housed 175 games.

During that time, the business began to establish itself as a reliable place for anyone to hang out. Playland has held the same hours -- 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 a.m. on Sundays -- since its second year in business, and has remained open throughout holidays, breaks and often treacherous weather.

"If the students are here, they can always rely on us being open," Steele said.

Things seemed to be going well as technology continued to improve, but the developments would prove to be a double-edged sword. The profitable period of the '80s was followed by a gradual decline that the industry has never recovered from, Steele said.

"The signs of the industry having problems probably began in the early '90s," he said. "The industry wouldn't own up to it, but you could see it was going down. It's always had peaks and valleys, but this valley isn't going back up."

"The computers made business more difficult," said Charlie Fletemake, husband of Mary Anna Mangino, who took over as Playland's owner when her first husband passed away in 1978. "Plus, those manufacturing the machines are not doing as well as they used to."

Within the past five years, many of the major manufacturers, such as Atari, Bally and Midway have disappeared. Steele attributed this decline to computers, the ever-growing popularity of the Internet and the industry's inability to adjust to these technologies.

"They raise the prices of the games because the sales are down, and it's the wrong thing to do," Steele said. "People wouldn't pay the price."

The biggest consequence is the constantly rising price of the games. Many companies have responded by selling larger and more expensive machines. Arcades are then obligated to charge more to play.

"I think if they wanted to they could saturate the market by giving us cheaper games," Steele said. "The earning power is just too short. The arcade can't afford to take a chance, and the way it's been, the games aren't good enough."

Even though the chance of a buyer keeping the arcade alive on a smaller level exists, Steele believes there will never be another large-scale arcade in town, as long as these trends continue. Students who have grown accustomed to spending time at Playland might have some difficulty finding other ways to pass time.

"I guess we'll just end up walking around or something," Shrigley said. "Where else do you go if you're not 21?"

Fletemake agrees Playland's fate is unfortunate.

"If business would start up like before, why would we close down? If it could be stimulated, it would give us more of an incentive not to close," he said.

Fletemake added that for many Playland customers, the experience of being in an arcade is, itself, an incentive.

"You just don't get the same effect [with computers] as you do if you come down," he said.

Arcade games fill the room at Playland, 350 E. College Ave., which may close its doors soon if business doesn't pick up.