Going Back To Wonderland: 1972 Pinball Scene Revealed in New Photos

Last year I published a story on Wonderland Arcade,  a coin op entertainment center and cafe that operated for over 40 years from the corner of 12th and Grand in Kansas City, MO. It was fortunate to have been photographed in the 1940s and again in 1968, but to date only a few scattered photographs from The 70s and 80s survived, or so I thought.

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Wonderland Arcade photographer David Poe in 1972.  Photo courtesy of David Poe

Last week photographer, David Poe, contacted me to reveal that, while as a student at  The Kansas City Art Institute in 1972, he’d photographed Wonderland Arcade. Three of his “70s photos” appeared in my first article. However I had no idea that there were more that had never been published. He sent me a link in an email to a Blurb account where he’d downloaded the photos. I clicked it and followed. It took me to straight to Heaven.

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Wonderland Arcade’s back “pinball alley” in 1972.  Note the group on the left huddled around Lawman (Gottlieb 1971)  Gottlieb’s 4-player version of the game, Sheriff, was also  released the same year using the same backglass art as Lawman. Photo by David Poe

There it was. Wonderland. The much remembered yet still mysterious arcade that I’ve been chasing images and the history of for over a year. Like a ghost hunter stalking  the shadowy and the unseen, I’ve lost count of the days and hours spent searching for new information on a place I can’t get enough of. An arcade I never stepped foot in yet whose myths have wrapped enchantments around my mind, compelling me to search and retrieve lost images of its past just so I can get that much closer to knowing how it might have felt to be there at that moment in time and relay it back to others.

Not a single person who’s ever gazed upon The 1968 photos of Wonderland has ever easily looked away from them. Something makes you want to take your time with them. Check them out closely. Mull them over and dream awhile. David Poe’s 1972 photos sustain that feeling. Although closed for over  30 years, Wonderland still pulls us in like a magnet, its attraction just as strong as it was when it first opened in 1941.

Jetson David 1972 (1).jpg“In my first semester at the Kansas City Art Institute, in the fall of 1972, we discovered Wonderland,” Poe relates, taking me back to the day when he photographed Wonderland for the very first time.

“It was a great arcade downtown at 12th St. and Grand. We (himself and friends) would hitchhike the five miles downtown and hang out, playing pinball or taking our 20 shots at the shooting gallery for a nickel. Twice I brought my camera along and took pictures, once in the afternoon and once at night. Nobody seemed to care that I was taking their picture. Some liked it, but most were just interested in getting a high score and a free game.”

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A group of guys enjoy playing and watching a game of Air Hockey. Invented by Brunswick Billiards in 1969, Air Hockey was popular during  the early 70s. Photo by David Poe

To historical researchers, particularly those interested in gaming cultural history, Poe’s 1972 photos of Wonderland open more doors to a past long sealed from public view. I say “doors” because the entryways are plural and ever-expanding. On one hand you have a door opening wider on the history of Wonderland arcade itself, Poe’s photos being another set to add to its growing cache of photographic documentation. The more photos found, the better.

Then you realize that you have an even wider and clearer visual record of arcades  before Midway’s Space Invaders in 1978 and the bombastic “video craze” that followed  momentarily wiped out pinball-dominated arcades for a long time.

But you also have Black History here since Poe’s photos record more black people playing games in an arcade than I have ever seen assembled anywhere before. This is important to note because, if you were to trust gaming industry photographers over the last 40 years (which I don’t) as having made an accurate record of who played pinballs and video games in The 70s and The 80s, evidence would suggest that neither women nor black people played video games or pinballs  -only white males, preferably of the suburban variety.

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Two young women play Skee Ball at Wonderland Arcade. Photo by David Poe

Poe’s 1972 photos are a treasure trove, showing that black people enjoyed themselves in an arcade just as much as white people did. In fact, they hung out together. Both sexes, too. Instead of photographing only white people, like an overwhelming number of arcade photographers in The 70s and 80s did, Poe allowed his camera to record evidence of the real American arcade in 1972.  He recorded what was really there. He altered no perspective. The greatest legacy any photographer can leave behind in his or her work is  honesty.

After all, you can’t record accurate arcade cultural history by just looking at games and quoting industry statistics.  Humanity doesn’t live there. It never has. The true story lies in the people who played the games and the arcades who housed them.

 

America in 1972

 

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

-Neil Young

By looking over the photos, a process that took me hours to scrutinize every detail of, I couldn’t help but think of what was going on in the world when these photos were snapped by David Poe. You can see more than just a little apprehension in some of the people’s faces and it isn’t coming from Poe taking their photo. It’s coming from somewhere else. It’s the same kind of expression I see in people’s faces these days. There was a lot going on in America in 1972 that seems to be going on today. Some of it’s pretty heavy stuff. Despite how we tend to look back on The 70s with rose-colored Elton John glasses, in reality not a lot of what was happening in 1972 was groovy.

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The 70s decade was cursed with gas shortages. Photo by History.com

For starters, America was still emotionally haunted by The Kent State shootings of 4 unarmed university students on May 4, 1970 by The Ohio National Guard who opened fire on political demonstrators. Nine other students were injured, including one who was left paralyzed for life.  The Kent State shootings touched off counter protests across the country and left a permanent scar on American history.  National Geographic Documentary Links   (1) (2)

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In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by The House prohibiting  discrimination of women on the basis of sex, but failed in The Senate due to some men still believing that women weren’t equal with men. Celebrations and counter-protests took to the streets.

beyondbelief

A lot of feminism going on in 1972. Women were fed up and rightfully so. Male chauvinism responded by going ape-crazy in advertising, a place where men still dominated the executive workforce. In a form of pre-internet trolling, advertisers began doing over-time depicting women as subservient, childlike zombies who worshiped the ground men walked on –while naked of course– or as mindless bimbos with vacuous eyes, dying to have her space violated by Sidney Sideburns, wearing a turtleneck and smoking a cigarillo with a velvet tip. The ad read, “Blow in her face…”.

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Watergate was also just beginning, a political nightmare not unlike today’s, where citizens felt unsure of where they stood with one another due to loss of common ground between political parties. They were also stunned by the stark realization that they didn’t trust their government, either.

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This was also the year where the word “terrorism” was heard by many for the first time. The event that ushered in this new terminology for The Me Generation occurred when Arab gunmen took hostage, and then murdered, 11 Israeli athletes at The Munich Olympics.

tv shows 72

As if in tandem with the downswing of the world, television and radio echoed the sullen, depressed mood of the country by airing cop and medic shows, like Emergency!  with it’s angst-ridden intro music and M.A.S.H.  whose intro music was unbelievably titled “Suicide Is Painless”.

Click the YouTube compilation above for a sample of all of the largely depressing  and horrendously morose “Billboard #1 Songs From 1972”.  Pretty telling, really. 98 percent of the songs are downers. 1972 radio stations played endless songs about personal loss, being eternally alone, divorce and death. Michael Jackson, frontman of one of the most upbeat bands of all time, The Jackson 5,  released a song about a dead pet rat that, despite dozens of happy songs The Jackson Five did, was the one the radio played the most that year.

But worse yet,  Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s “Alone Again Naturally , with the most depressing lyrics ever written, spent six weeks at Number 1 on U.S. charts and reached number 3 in the UK charts. The song’s about contemplating suicide by jumping off a tall building. If it weren’t for Chuck Berry singing about his “Ding-a-ling” that year someone may have.

The Viet Nam War was still going on, too, and wouldn’t end for another four years.

happy faceBut like every decade before that had faced hard times in one form or another, humanity’s need for entertainment and distraction won out and despite the bummers, the good times rolled. Foosball, coin op table-top soccer,  was rapidly becoming a major pastime in America. It would organize and hold its first tournament in 1972. By 1974 it would become a multi-million dollar nationally competitive sport, one that competitive video gaming would later model its first tournaments off in 1977.

Fashion and product advertising became really luscious with color at this time, almost as if there was an orchestrated movement to overwhelm everyone so as to detract them from the political nightmares going on. It worked.

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Peter Max 7-Up ad 1972. More brilliance can be found here

As per usual in most decades rife with political, economic and/or social conflict  –for instance, the 1930s and the late 80s–  color exploded in fashion and advertising in 1966  and didn’t stop until around 1976 when glitter and glamour took over. But 1972 really pushed the spectrum as hard and as far as it could, often becoming gorgeously garish.

Torana Psychedelia
1972 car ad
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1972 Burger King postcards that came with kid’s meal boxes

The Jackson 5 were huge in 1972. Their images adorned everything from cereal boxes to Saturday morning cartoons. Their music, a mixture of pop and rock and roll was seasoned by Motown to reach mass appeal status that few acts today can ever hope to obtain. They oozed happiness, celebration and were universally loved as much as The Beatles had been in the previous decade.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars  shocked and awed people with his wild androgynous look,  Soul Train brightened every Saturday afternoon after cartoons and, if you were lucky, you may have even caught The O’Jays inviting the “people of the world” to “join hands on The Love Train”.

If rail travel wasn’t your thing, no worries. These four lovely PSA Flight Attendants in short, tight hot pink uniforms stood behind their ad campaign slogan, “We’ll Give You a Lift”.

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But enough of the history lessons. Let’s get to the photos.

 

Wonderland 1972
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A fully stocked snack bar offering everything from chips, drinks, hot dogs and burgers greets customers as soon as they enter. Photo by David Poe
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Longer shot of the snack bar area shows a row of electromechanical rifle arcade games beginning with the exceedingly rare Super Circus Rifle Gallery (Chicago Coin 1969), Flying Carpet (Midway 1970) among others. Photo by David Poe
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A night waitress with an extraordinary “barrel curl bouffant” attends to the counter. These hairstyles required a great deal of upkeep and were expensive to maintain. According to the menu, a hot dog and a large soda was under $1 (around $4.50). Photo by David Poe
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The lunch counter shows the cook in a fresh white apron, serving coffee to what appear to be mostly pensioners enjoying some afternoon conversation. Note the older man in the foreground is wearing a WWII Army uniform. To the left of the frame, Bonanza (Williams 1970)  and Haunted House (1972) stand guard. Photo by David Poe
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Pink Poodles, housewares and coin purses. Coupons earned at games could be traded for a variety of prizes. Photo by David Poe
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A group of  teens enjoy playing  Helicopter Trainer (Amusement Engineering 1968).  Next to it and out of frame is  Periscope (Sega 1968). Across from them is Tank Commander. Behind the teen on the left is a rare Sega Missile (1969) and Defender Machine Gun (Chicago Coin 1971) Photo by David Poe
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A man plays an unidentified game. Meanwhile a very rare Sega Rifleman (1967) sits out of frame on the left in the foreground. Next to the player on the right stands Sega Missile (1969) and Drag Race (Allied Leisure 1971). Note the policeman is eyeing the photographer.  Photo by David Poe
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Rifleman (Sega 1967) Photo by buford610
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Two older men, perhaps pensioners looking to pass the time,  stand next to Periscope (Sega 1968) while a teenager makes a call on the telephone.  To the man checking his watch: Wonderland’s clock says it’s 7:18. Photo by David Poe
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Pondering whether or not to give Periscope (Sega 1968) a try. Photo by David Poe
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Periscope was originally created as a 3-player unit. Read more about that here
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Learning To Fly:  Helicopter Trainer (Amusement Engineering 1968) has a taker.  This game was fun but exceedingly difficult to master.  One of the first “coin eaters”. Photo by David Poe
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Skee Ball lanes were largely manufactured by Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company from 1936 until 1946.  Note the unusual driving game with dual steering wheels in the background.  Photo by David Poe
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Another view. Photo by David Poe
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Incredible style. Those pants. The fur hat. The pants on the man on the left look just like a dancer’s pants on a 1972 Soul Train episode.  Photo by David Poe
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Hands down the coolest guys in the arcade. Photo by David Poe
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Fast Ball (Williams 1969) finds a fan. Gridiron (Williams 1969) stands beside him. Note man to the right is wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket. Photos by David Poe
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Pro Football (Gottlieb 1973), 4 Square (Gottlieb 1971), Doodle Bug (Williams 1971), Play Ball (Gottlieb 1971) and an unidentified title.   Black and white photos hide the vivid colors these pinball designs were known for. Purple, hot pink and bright yellow were common colors. Photo by David Poe

doodle bug line up

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Grand Slam (Gottlieb 1972), Flying Carpet (Gottlieb 1972), and Drop a Card (Gottlieb 1971). A young woman seems transfixed by Flying Carpet’s dominate pink design. Photo by David Poe

best Fdlying Carpet

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A man plays Lawman (Gottlieb 1971) while a group of men congregate in the back corner beneath a sign that reads “You Must Be 16-Years of Age To Play Pinball Machines”.  Until 1977 most States maintained age restrictions on pinball machines.
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An avenue of pinballs dominates a long wall where serious players focus their game. (Judging from a previous photo, the player in the foreground  is playing Play Ball (Gottlieb 1971). Photo by David Poe
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Left to right: Spanish Eyes (Williams 1972), Super Star pinball (Williams 1972), Klondike (Williams 1971), Grand Slam (Gottlieb 1972) and Flying Carpet (Gottlieb 1972). Photo by David Poe
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Game Over. A man fishes in his pocket for another coin while his buddy looks on defeated. Meanwhile, a confident teenager wearing a black leather jacket walks in. Photo by David Poe

 

red quarter

Until next time, may all your quarters be red ones

 

BONUS: Sesame Street’s 1976 Pinball Segment

 

 

 

 

 

 

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