Such is the magic of this place. It is a siren’s island, and there are those who cannot resist its call.” ~ Kansas City Magazine, Nov 1980
From the moment I saw her face smiling back from a heart-shaped mirror on a Magic Heart game, in a long ago arcade from the World War II era, I knew I had to know more about Wonderland Arcade, the place this photo was taken in 1943.
It wasn’t difficult tracking it down. Numerous people have dumped caches of content pertaining to Wonderland Arcade over the years. Yet still, with all of that, much of that material is comprised of only photos and little else.
Wonderland Arcade, once located at 1200 Grand Avenue Kansas City, Missouri, was photographed in the autumn of 1943 by LIFE magazine for their May 1944 issue. These photographs, alongside others taken by various sources over the years, were dumped on the internet sometime in 2009, and although they’ve been published in assorted articles over the years not many of those articles have much information on what’s in the photos.
For instance, Pinballs, arcade and amusement games are not often identified, specifics to the era are not mentioned, people are not discussed. Even the owners and managers of the arcade over the decades, all who had interesting lives of their very own, are rarely if ever mentioned beyond a single sentence.
Then there’s that girl in the mirror again… let’s go back to that because I want to tell you why her photograph bewitched me so:
The young man standing behind her should probably be forgiven for appearing down in a place so full of “up”. After all, it’s 1943 and World War II is in full swing. The United States VIII and XV corps have recently arrived in what President Franklin D. Roosevelt refers to now as “the European Theater”. Meanwhile American Marines have landed on Cape Gloucester, New Britain, in the Territory of New Guinea, to fight Japanese forces on land and at sea. The world is at war. The entire world.
But ol’ sad sacks here, the forlorn guy in the background of the mirror’s reflection -he’s not the one shipping out towards an unknown horizon. He’s not even in uniform which was required dress for any enlisted personnel who appeared in public during wartime. He’s wearing civilian attire. The pretty girl, however, is not. She’s an Army Nurse and she’s smiling as if she hasn’t a care in the world….because maybe she doesn’t at the moment. She is, after all, at Wonderland Arcade, the arcade once rumored to be “the most magical place in the world”. She hasn’t yet seen the hell that world war will leave on men’s bodies and minds. Maybe fate was kind and she got lucky and never had to. I don’t know.
We see her again in another photo, sitting alongside a handsome young man who appears to be wearing a US Army uniform. Both appear to be around 18 but are probably closer to 21. The girl is wearing a garrison hat commonly associated with the Women’s Army Corp, or WAC. The red braid, or what at least looks like it in the black and white photo, closely resembles that of a nurse; however she may have performed some other function such as a stenographer or switchboard operator in a military hospital.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be a swing kid caught up in a world war that left little to dance for. It had to be exceedingly difficult emotionally. Nonetheless it was 1943 and she was in an arcade, smiling and having a good time despite the fact that everyone she knew from her generation was either enlisted, waiting for an enlisted loved one to return from overseas, or burying one who had died as a result of it.
That single photo of a WWII WAC looking into a mirror at an arcade led me to discover a seemingly endless parade of images and documents associated with Wonderland Arcade; photos that spanned over 40 years and left a permanent imprint on two generations who, to this day, still talk about the place.
Going through all of these photos, reading all of the articles, pulling up tax reports, eye witness memoirs and snippets from 1941-1982, left me with the overwhelmingly odd sensation of déjà vu that Wonderland Arcade, much like my own childhood arcade, was special and loved in the very same reasons any arcade ever is. They made us feel good.
All arcades, and no matter the era, are places of light and excitement, vibrating with whirring sounds and dinging bells, flooded with scents of gear grease, cotton candy and Coca Cola; a sanctum where the warm, sweet glow around us from the lights of machines momentarily slowed down time and eased the pressures of life and of growing up.
Wonderland Arcade wasn’t just any arcade. It couldn’t be, for if it had been then it wouldn’t have had so many photographs taken of it, so many documents, so many memories. Although I can’t possibly put the pieces of lost time back together, I can try.
Here goes nothing.
1941-1944: Wartime Arcade
Wonderland Arcade opened in June of 1941 in The Bonfils Building on 12th and Grand, The building it lived in was built in 1926 by Frederick Bonfils, the publisher of The Denver Post and co owner of Sells Floto Circus. For 40 years Wonderland would pay homage to its past by having its windows bear the images of clowns and other circus iconography.
The arcade was owned and run by Zor Gershon (1892-1959), investor and business partner of The United Amusement Company, Producer and Director of Resident Theater, owner of Business Music Inc and a direct relation to modern day actress Gina Gershon. Zor Gershon owned and ran Wonderland Arcade from 1941-1955.
Active in theater groups most of his life, Gershon was a man who understood the absolute value of drama and flair. He would often walk through his arcade scattering handfuls off shiny copper pennies without warning to the delight of dozens of children who would throw themselves to the floor to snatch up the precious tokens. Other times he was known to burst into a show tune, keeping the song going until the whole joint was involved in the chorus. He was a special man at a special time.
The arcade had 125 arcade machines and pinballs, employed 14 attendants and service people. It was open 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m weekdays and Saturdays, and 10 a.m to Midnight on Sundays. It had a 3-man management team who kept the arcade running like a top and spotlessly clean: General Manager, Tom Gershon; Day Manager, Butch Rabinowitz; Night Manager, Ben Gershon .
Perhaps one of the more poignant machines in the entire arcade was the Voice-O-Graph, a machine that recorded your voice onto a record as an audio letter to your loved ones for 35 cents ($5). Some people, like Elvis Presley, used them to record songs on in The 50s before he landed a record deal, but in The 40s most people used them for sentimental reasons, evidenced in the sailor’s recording below to his wife before he shipped off to the South Pacific in 1944.
At 43 seconds in you can hear the big band strike up in the background as he records his message to his wife. It was in arcades, like Wonderland, where wartime “I love you’s and goodbyes” were often cut into laquered discs. They served as moments of comfort and reassurance to wives who would not see their husbands again for years.
1968: Wonderland Inc v. The United States of America
It’d be cool to be able to say that a bunch of IRS goons decided to send an agent down to Wonderland Arcade in 1962 to see how many free games he could land on Beach Beauty, but that’s not even close to what happened.
Instead, Wonderland Arcade found itself pretty much fighting for its life.
In 1965, an agent for the IRS visited Wonderland Arcade and found 8 bingo-style pinballs, the kind commonly suspected of being used for illegal gambling.
Wonderland Arcade, owned and run since 1955 by Charles “Sam” McGuire (1914-2003), was suddenly forced to pay taxes and fines he didn’t really owe to the Internal Revenue Office just to get the feds off his back. It was either that, or face complete shutdown because, for some reason, although he had paid taxes and fees before, the IRS had suddenly decided it wasn’t enough, or even the right kind. For historical accuracy McGuire’s operating manager was Chester “Chet” Alumbaugh (1925-2017).
Basically McGuire was being shammed by the IRS. At least that what it looks like to me.
The IRS also recommended that McGuire might be made to pay extra taxes on all of his “coin operated gaming devices” and not just the pinballs. Worse still, because McGuire had been operating those same 8 pinballs since 1962 allegedly without having paid any extra tax on them, he was made to pay back taxes on them going back three years which totaled $6000 (47K today). He also received a $1500 fine (12K today) for not filing those taxes. He also had to forfeit his license to operate them until he was cleared at a later date to operate them again. McGuire and Wonderland Arcade were facing an uncertain future.
Other arcades across the State and beyond were facing the very same things, though. The pinball crackdown in The Midwest, which began around 1953, had finally built itself up into an almost unstoppable force by The 60s. Proprietors were jailed, many of them on trumped-up charges. Many more lost everything and were forced into bankruptcy. Some committed suicide. And some, god bless them, stood up against police raids, fought the IRS and some, like Sam McGuire, fought even harder.
Now, whether or not McGuire had been purposely evading paying these fees and proper taxes all those years isn’t clear. What’s known is, by 1966, Kansas City newspapers were filled with sensationalized reports of pinball and illegal gambling arrests and forced shutdowns on proprietors operating arcades without proper licensing. It was war on pinball, sure. But the real war, some say, was against mafia who had ties in Kansas City to illegal gambling supported by mafia heads in Las Vegas. Personally, I’ve never believed that the mafia cared that much about pinball in The 60s. Why would they? Drug trafficking and prostitution was more lucrative. Instead, I believe that the IRS, greedy for kickback from politicians eager for political approval, attacked pinball parlors and arcades because it caught the attention of parents who believed arcades were dens of inequity luring children.
Either way, no one was going to break free from the grip of the IRS’s tentacles without a fight, jail time or hefty fines…or all three.
Not wanting any trouble, McGuire and his partner paid the fines and taxes in a timely manner, then filed for a refund, confident it would all work out and they’d receive their money and license to operate the pinballs back. Others had. But that didn’t happen. The IRS stood firm and denied McGuire request for a refund or his license. Then, thinking McGuire would admit defeat and walk away with his ruined business, McGuire filed suit against the IRS.
In 1968, prior to going trial, The U.S. District Court for the Western (Kansas City) Division of the Western District of Missouri ordered that Wonderland Arcade have it’s premises photographed as evidence. Those photographs, as well as 232 court documents related to the lawsuit, survived.
Court Documents can be found HERE
What follows are color film photos of Wonderland Arcade taken by The U.S. District Court in 1968. Many of the machines remain from the LIFE 1940s photos. It’s wonderful seeing them in full color. I’ve tried to identify all the penny arcades, games and pinballs that I could.
1977: Kansas City Magazine (June Issue)
By the time The 70s rolled around Wonderland Arcade, still managed by Sam McGuire and his partner Chester “Chet” Alumbaugh, had eased into the “Pinball Wizard era” with as much grace as could be expected having just barely survived being eaten alive by the Feds and the IRS the decade prior. To many people this was the arcade’s greatest era and a time when it flourished above and beyond what anyone ever expected.
The old Bally flipperless Bingo pinballs had since been replaced with hot new models, like Evil Knievel, Capt. Fantastic and Galaxy. Because Pinball was no longer illegal and no longer seen as a gambling device, the hobby began to finally come into its own around this time and with it, Wonderland Arcade was there.
In June 1977, Elvis Presley came to town and disco, the bane to some people’s existence and the dream come true to others, burst free the underground scene to take over as “America’s second greatest pastime” next to foosball. Sadly, in less than two months Elvis would be dead and pinball in the arcade would follow suit in less than a year.
But it was also the year that Wonderland Arcade found themselves again captured in photos. Notes from the former magazine editor indicate that 36 photos were taken April of 1977. For me, as a researcher, it’s a bittersweet moment. “Sweet” in that Wonderland was able to leave some sort of record of this turning-point in coin-op history where, for a moment in 1977, pinball reigned supreme, but “bitter” because other than two photos, the rest of the 34 photos the photographer allegedly shot have been lost. Nothing kills me more in the soul than lost photo evidence pre-video craze, and probably because its so typical of the era.
In the autumn of 1978, Space Invaders, a coin op video game phenom, would completely eclipse pinball’s popularity and usher in what history would refer to thereafter as “the video craze” (1978-1984).
Wonderland Arcade’s 1977 photo chronicle, as I mentioned above, consists of only 2 images scanned from Kansas City Magazine’s June 1977 issue, but the quality is poor. Three other images were taken by David Poe in 1972.
80s Video Craze: Wonderland’s Last Hurrah
“It’s spell begins in neon, pleasantly garish in orange, understandably immodest: “The World’s Finest Arcade”. The hype challenges cynics, who know better than to trust anything written in electricity. It forces them inside. They must test this claim.”
So writes David Firestone in an amazingly poetic article for Kansas City Magazine, published in November of 1980 with photographs taken by Kevin Vivers. You can tell he cared about the place, perhaps inhabited the arcade as a kid in The 60s, obviously unfamiliar with the modern games yet understanding of what compels people in through Wonderland’s doors. He knows because they drew him in, too, once.
According to various sources on the internet who remember the Wonderland in The 80s, the arcade –like every other street location arcade in America at the time– was struggling to keep up with larger chain and mall arcades like Aladdin’s Castle and Space Port, venues that were seen as safer, more wholesome environments for kids.
Whether chain and mall arcades were safer is more a matter of opinion than fact. Drugs, petty crimes and pedophiles frequented all arcades during the video craze -not just street locations.
Even so, Wonderland, who’d seen hard times before, made it through . So by 1981, with the new flux of space shooters, like Defender, Vanguard, Tempest and Galaga dominating the arcade scene, Wonderland was thriving.
“Regardless of what people tell you now, that arcade was hopping up until the day it closed,” Tim Johnson, formerly of Kansas City tells me over the phone. He spent a lot of time there as a kid and lived just a neighborhood away from Wonderland.
“Sure, we had our problems. Every arcade in every city had it’s problems with vagrancy, scammers and what not. Once in awhile there was a fight. But we felt like a family there. We loved that place. We really did.”
“I had the highest score anyone had ever seen on the Pac-Man in that place, ” Melvin Squires, of Overland Park informs me. “Guys tried to beat it but couldn’t. I was 14-years old and felt pretty cocky about that. We moved away in 1982 so I never got to defend my title. I’ve always wondered how long (my score) stood.”
Sometime around 1984 “urban renewal” struck and the Wonderland Arcade, housed in the Bonfils Building, was told their lease was up. The building was being gutted, renovated and leased to a new tenant.
After operating over 40 years in the same location, Wonderland Arcade, the place where dinging bells, cheers and laughter had lived for four decades, finally fell silent. Neon, the god of dreams, never danced there again. In 1985 it became a print shop.
I wonder how many people missed it once it was gone; how many stood waiting for the bus at the corner just as people had for 40 years and felt the absence of light and sound, something that they’d all maybe taken for granted? Did the corner lose all connection to life outside of the hum of buses and the stink of gasoline and exhaust fumes? Was there a collective longing for the scent of cotton candy and the sweet sirens of childhood ringing in bells, electronic whirs and whistles? Oh, you bet there was. On any given day I guarantee you someone’s heart outside on the sidewalk heaved in remembrance of days spent inside Wonderland Arcade blissfully unaware of the world outside. An arcade’s love never leaves you.
Maybe one day someone with a rebel’s sense of abandon and the eyes and heart of a visionary will reopen Wonderland Arcade in the same spot again. Arcades, like libraries, are as important as books for the lessons their games teach us. They should be plentiful and everlasting. God knows there aren’t enough of them anymore.