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San Diego pinball freak tells all

A guide to arcades at the beach, downtown, colleges, in hotels, bars

Start out at the Greyhound Bus Terminal at First. You can play any hour of the day or night here.

Question: What does the Hotel Del Coronado have in common with the sleaziest bar on Broadway?

Answer: Pinball.

If you hesitated answering that one. you’ve obviously never taken a good look at either establishment or you must be unaware of the drawing power of the silver ball.

Once the pastime of primarily the poor, the city dweller, the lazy, and the occasional fanatic, the game has recently taken on a cloak of respectability that has spread it from the suburbs to the plushest of hostelries. And a glut of electronic games, spurred by Ping-Pong, have added impetus to the surge. In fact, all the other arcade-type games, such as target shoots, miniature baseball, and driving skill tests, are seeing a new generation of customers.

Growth of the arcades in Southern California has been especially phenomenal. In Los Angeles, for example, pinball was little more than a memory for many until just over a year ago. Then a new city ordinance was passed which repealed a ban on pinball in certain public places. The result has been a pinball renaissance which has put clanging bells, flashing lights and screaming buzzers everywhere from funky Venice to high-class Sherman Oaks and shows no signs of stopping. The pinball proliferation in San Diego hasn’t been quite that dramatic, but new arcades are appearing regularly in shopping centers and in rented stores that didn’t make it with their previous wares.

Why the revival? It may be that pinball is the ideal tension-relieving game for everyone. It’s cheaper than gambling, more fun then Monopoly and can be less frustrating than sex (depending on how well you play at each). It’s got excitement, it takes some skill, it holds the promise of reward (a free game) and it can be played competitively. In short, cheap thrills. And anything cheap is a desired commodity these days.

The San Diego Yellow Pages don’t have a heading for pinball parlors, but there are 21 listings under Amusement Places. It’s doubtful that all of these have pinball games and it’s just as certain there are more pinball centers around town than those listed. Your neighborhood watering hole, bowling alley or miniature golf course probably has pinball by now. and they’re good places to practice or rekindle your acquaintance with the game.

One of the best ways to get good at pinball is to study the habits of an experienced player, then try his tricks yourself. You can tell you’re watching a Wizard if he or she:

—pushes the ball release instead of pulling it. This may look easy but it’s easy to tilt the machine if you push too hard.

—plays with arms extended rather than bent. This enables the Wizard to jiggle the ball around, thus hitting more bumpers or other point-scoring devices. It’s also not as easy as it looks and can cause tilts.

—has already won three extra games and is only on the second ball.

—yells and curses. Or is totally silent. Either type is undoubtedly a Wizard.

What follows is a loosely categorized guide to pinball in San Diego, based on random journeys around the city:

THE BEACH: Belmont Park has a good-sized arcade but the games are full of clowns and baseball players and are geared primarily for kids. You can't win any free games here, which might lessen your incentive. Most of the machines are pretty old. One of the attendants may take pity on you and show you where to hit a machine for a free game. Old.

The Pennant and the Beachcomber, adjacent bars in South Mission Beach, are good places to go on a Tuesday night. After polishing off a 19-cent spaghetti plate at the Pennant, you can spend the money you saved on dinner on the single pinball machine or play air hockey or foosball in the back. Or go next door to the Beachcomber, which has more pinball machines plus a wild electronic Ping-Pong game (the paddles move in and out as well as up and down), a remote control baseball game on the wall, and foosball. Crowded on Tuesdays, good for a leisurely game most other times.

DANCE SPOTS AND BARS: Wallbanger’s has a nice game room where you can recover from the effects of too much dancing, too much booze or the $1.50 cover charge. Most of the machines are new and have a nice, crisp feel to them. Remember, no playing in blue jeans.

That Place Across the Street from the Sports Arena has a few old machines upstairs and downstairs, two electronic games and two foosball fields. If all the games are taken, go across the street to Joe’s Long Bar where there’s more of the above.

Moving further inland. Neutral Grounds has two pinball machines plus Ping-Pong and pool. Ledbetter’s is about the same, although the two foosball fields there have been the scene of some furious action. Don’t play unless you know how.

Something different is College Billiard Center, El Cajon at 53rd. This is a big, smoky place loaded wjth pool tables (as the name implies) and pool shark-looking types. Five or six pinball machines arc scattered about, some with plush bar stools, but the emphasis is on the cue and billiard ball. Worth visiting, though.

HOTELS: As mentioned, the' Hotel Del leads the list, with some noisy offerings within earshot of the elegant gift and clothing shops. Other hotels with game rooms, ostensibly for the kiddies, include the Town and Country and the Sheraton Harbor Island, for a start. The Westgate Pla/a? Take it up with C. Arnholt Smith.

COLLEGES: the Aztec Center at SDSU has an airy pinball/pool parlor next to the bowling alley, which is conducive to between-class play. Who knows how much term paper energy has gone into those flipper buttons? Grossmont College has a fair-sized game room in its Campus Center. (Incidentally, four L.A. colleges recently held a pinball tournament with full-fledged teams representing each school, including UCLA. That’s the kind of crusading spirit this town needs.)

DOWNTOWN: Lower Broadway is definitely where it’s at in San Diego. You not only get to play pinball, you get to see a good slice of life. Massage parlors, credit optometrists, tattoo parlors, late-night barbers and head shops vie for your pinball change as you scuttle from one arcade to the next. There are at least ten spots in the five blocks between Front and India. Go down on a weekend night when the gobs and leathernecks are blowing their paychecks. Mingle with the crowds and get caught up in the atmosphere most suburbanites have fled from. It’s a different feeling than playing in one of the shopping center specials.

To get acclimated, start out at the Greyhound Bus Terminal at First. You can play any hour of the day or night here, plus you can watch the ebb and flow of passengers—always fun for people-watchers. Across the street, the 7 Seas Locker Club has a good selection of pinball machines and pool tables. You can also buy new or used clothes here, get them dry cleaned in record time, purchase a new watch, lift weights, take a shower, eat breakfast and run back to catch the next bus to Phoenix. The place is a boot camper’s paradise, right down to the last “69” cigarette lighter. Pinball is only part of the scene here. It’s worth it. at least once, to look at what’s for sale before or after settling down to pinball. Farther down Broadway at Columbia, 7 Seas has a similar set-up with more machines. It’s worth seeing, too.

Playland at Front and Funland at State are similar in age and general condition. The dirty glass tops on the pinball cases and the tracks made by years of silver ball play are a pretty good indication of most of the machines. Both places are big, and have the usual assortment of pool, shooting galleries and baseball games and change girls, which is some clue to the arcades’ popularity. Funland has its own tattoo parlor, where you can either watch or participate.

The above should get you started. Just be careful not to get addicted. It’s rough on the fingerprints.

Happy flipping!

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Start out at the Greyhound Bus Terminal at First. You can play any hour of the day or night here.

Question: What does the Hotel Del Coronado have in common with the sleaziest bar on Broadway?

Answer: Pinball.

If you hesitated answering that one. you’ve obviously never taken a good look at either establishment or you must be unaware of the drawing power of the silver ball.

Once the pastime of primarily the poor, the city dweller, the lazy, and the occasional fanatic, the game has recently taken on a cloak of respectability that has spread it from the suburbs to the plushest of hostelries. And a glut of electronic games, spurred by Ping-Pong, have added impetus to the surge. In fact, all the other arcade-type games, such as target shoots, miniature baseball, and driving skill tests, are seeing a new generation of customers.

Growth of the arcades in Southern California has been especially phenomenal. In Los Angeles, for example, pinball was little more than a memory for many until just over a year ago. Then a new city ordinance was passed which repealed a ban on pinball in certain public places. The result has been a pinball renaissance which has put clanging bells, flashing lights and screaming buzzers everywhere from funky Venice to high-class Sherman Oaks and shows no signs of stopping. The pinball proliferation in San Diego hasn’t been quite that dramatic, but new arcades are appearing regularly in shopping centers and in rented stores that didn’t make it with their previous wares.

Why the revival? It may be that pinball is the ideal tension-relieving game for everyone. It’s cheaper than gambling, more fun then Monopoly and can be less frustrating than sex (depending on how well you play at each). It’s got excitement, it takes some skill, it holds the promise of reward (a free game) and it can be played competitively. In short, cheap thrills. And anything cheap is a desired commodity these days.

The San Diego Yellow Pages don’t have a heading for pinball parlors, but there are 21 listings under Amusement Places. It’s doubtful that all of these have pinball games and it’s just as certain there are more pinball centers around town than those listed. Your neighborhood watering hole, bowling alley or miniature golf course probably has pinball by now. and they’re good places to practice or rekindle your acquaintance with the game.

One of the best ways to get good at pinball is to study the habits of an experienced player, then try his tricks yourself. You can tell you’re watching a Wizard if he or she:

—pushes the ball release instead of pulling it. This may look easy but it’s easy to tilt the machine if you push too hard.

—plays with arms extended rather than bent. This enables the Wizard to jiggle the ball around, thus hitting more bumpers or other point-scoring devices. It’s also not as easy as it looks and can cause tilts.

—has already won three extra games and is only on the second ball.

—yells and curses. Or is totally silent. Either type is undoubtedly a Wizard.

What follows is a loosely categorized guide to pinball in San Diego, based on random journeys around the city:

THE BEACH: Belmont Park has a good-sized arcade but the games are full of clowns and baseball players and are geared primarily for kids. You can't win any free games here, which might lessen your incentive. Most of the machines are pretty old. One of the attendants may take pity on you and show you where to hit a machine for a free game. Old.

The Pennant and the Beachcomber, adjacent bars in South Mission Beach, are good places to go on a Tuesday night. After polishing off a 19-cent spaghetti plate at the Pennant, you can spend the money you saved on dinner on the single pinball machine or play air hockey or foosball in the back. Or go next door to the Beachcomber, which has more pinball machines plus a wild electronic Ping-Pong game (the paddles move in and out as well as up and down), a remote control baseball game on the wall, and foosball. Crowded on Tuesdays, good for a leisurely game most other times.

DANCE SPOTS AND BARS: Wallbanger’s has a nice game room where you can recover from the effects of too much dancing, too much booze or the $1.50 cover charge. Most of the machines are new and have a nice, crisp feel to them. Remember, no playing in blue jeans.

That Place Across the Street from the Sports Arena has a few old machines upstairs and downstairs, two electronic games and two foosball fields. If all the games are taken, go across the street to Joe’s Long Bar where there’s more of the above.

Moving further inland. Neutral Grounds has two pinball machines plus Ping-Pong and pool. Ledbetter’s is about the same, although the two foosball fields there have been the scene of some furious action. Don’t play unless you know how.

Something different is College Billiard Center, El Cajon at 53rd. This is a big, smoky place loaded wjth pool tables (as the name implies) and pool shark-looking types. Five or six pinball machines arc scattered about, some with plush bar stools, but the emphasis is on the cue and billiard ball. Worth visiting, though.

HOTELS: As mentioned, the' Hotel Del leads the list, with some noisy offerings within earshot of the elegant gift and clothing shops. Other hotels with game rooms, ostensibly for the kiddies, include the Town and Country and the Sheraton Harbor Island, for a start. The Westgate Pla/a? Take it up with C. Arnholt Smith.

COLLEGES: the Aztec Center at SDSU has an airy pinball/pool parlor next to the bowling alley, which is conducive to between-class play. Who knows how much term paper energy has gone into those flipper buttons? Grossmont College has a fair-sized game room in its Campus Center. (Incidentally, four L.A. colleges recently held a pinball tournament with full-fledged teams representing each school, including UCLA. That’s the kind of crusading spirit this town needs.)

DOWNTOWN: Lower Broadway is definitely where it’s at in San Diego. You not only get to play pinball, you get to see a good slice of life. Massage parlors, credit optometrists, tattoo parlors, late-night barbers and head shops vie for your pinball change as you scuttle from one arcade to the next. There are at least ten spots in the five blocks between Front and India. Go down on a weekend night when the gobs and leathernecks are blowing their paychecks. Mingle with the crowds and get caught up in the atmosphere most suburbanites have fled from. It’s a different feeling than playing in one of the shopping center specials.

To get acclimated, start out at the Greyhound Bus Terminal at First. You can play any hour of the day or night here, plus you can watch the ebb and flow of passengers—always fun for people-watchers. Across the street, the 7 Seas Locker Club has a good selection of pinball machines and pool tables. You can also buy new or used clothes here, get them dry cleaned in record time, purchase a new watch, lift weights, take a shower, eat breakfast and run back to catch the next bus to Phoenix. The place is a boot camper’s paradise, right down to the last “69” cigarette lighter. Pinball is only part of the scene here. It’s worth it. at least once, to look at what’s for sale before or after settling down to pinball. Farther down Broadway at Columbia, 7 Seas has a similar set-up with more machines. It’s worth seeing, too.

Playland at Front and Funland at State are similar in age and general condition. The dirty glass tops on the pinball cases and the tracks made by years of silver ball play are a pretty good indication of most of the machines. Both places are big, and have the usual assortment of pool, shooting galleries and baseball games and change girls, which is some clue to the arcades’ popularity. Funland has its own tattoo parlor, where you can either watch or participate.

The above should get you started. Just be careful not to get addicted. It’s rough on the fingerprints.

Happy flipping!

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