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Popular Business Began With Humble Roots

By Tim Camerato for Laconia Citizen

Bob Lawton, right, on the mini-golf course with his brother, John, who died in 2003.

LACONIA, NH - If it isn't clear by now, it should be: video games are big business. Between 2009 and 2012, the industry grew four times faster than the U.S. economy, according to the trade group Electronic Software Association. Whether played on a console, a computer screen, or a smart phone, video games pumped about $6.2 billion into the American economy during that time, the group reported in November.

It gives pause to reflect that, well within living memory, video games were regarded as largely the province of burnouts and teenage marauders who wasted their spare time clustered in dimly lit arcades, pumping scrip-like tokens into huge machines with names like Punch Out and Double Dragon.

I fondly recall, for instance, Funstop, a dark and forbidding spot in the now-demolished half of Manchester's Parkade, where the clerk slid your tokens to you from the other side of a barred window, like a gas station in a particularly bullet-riddled neighborhood.

I kind of preferred it that way, to be honest, which is why I was delighted to learn of the existence of Funspot in Laconia, NH, the Guinness Book of Records certified largest arcade on earth and a defiant holdout against a world of professional trade shows and iPhone puzzle games.

"It's impossible to explain," said Mark, an old friend who lives in Manchester and makes monthly pilgrimages to Funspot. "You have to see it to understand it."

That's true: from the outside, Funspot looks like a fairly nondescript collection of tan buildings along Route 3. Inside, though, it's a gradually unfolding series of wonders, comprising three giant floors that hold, among other delights, a miniature golf course, bowling alleys (candlepin and ten pin), a restaurant, bumper cars, and, perhaps wisely, a bar.

LEFT: A playable "Pong" machine. RIGHT: A token used for any of the hundreds of video games and pinball machines at Funspot.

And, of course, the games: located on the third floor, which carries the grandiose name the American Classic Arcade Museum and boasts a rotating roster of about 300 video games and pinball machines, with another 100 or so kept in storage.

Anyone who remembers the dim, noisy video arcades of the early 1980s - before Nintendo and its descendants drove everyone indoors, hooked up to their television sets - will feel as if he or she has stepped back in time. Pac-Man is here, along with Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man Jr. Donkey Kong is here. Pong is here. Joust. Moon Patrol. Galaga. Space Invaders.

Games that you never knew existed, like a Donkey Kong bootleg called Crazy Kong, are here. One of my favorites was Tapper, a Budweiser-sponsored game in which the player attempts to pour and serve a series of beers to an increasingly demanding clientele. It's hard to imagine that one getting developed in our more sensitive times.

The American Classic Arcade Museum occupies the top floor of the Funspot entertainment complex in Laconia, NH.

A particular favorite was Trivial Pursuit, an odd rendering of the perennial board game favorite, with characters named Cleofactra and Smartacus competing to answer questions about East Germany, CB lingo, and the television show Surfside Six.

Bragging is an unbecoming habit, but in the interest of full disclosure I should note that I departed Laconia with the new high score on the game.

Far from being strictly a 1980s throwback, though, Funspot has a history that goes back well before the days of even barebones video amusements like Pong.

LEFT: The Museum offers its customers information about its 1970s and 1980s games. RIGHT: Some of the prizes on display at Funspot.

Founded in 1952 as Weirs Sports Center by a 21-year-old named Bob Lawton, the entertainment center originally specialized in miniature golf and occupied a single upper floor of an old-fashioned arcade across from the boardwalk on Weirs Beach.

Twelve years later, Weirs Sports Center became Funspot when Lawton bought 21 acres on Route 3, where the current complex now stands. Funspot has offered many different types of entertainment in its history, ranging from small, storybook-inspired theme parks to a pool hall, and even expanded to include six satellite locations in New Hampshire, Maine, and Florida, all of which have since closed.

Somewhat incredibly, Lawton still runs Funspot, often strolling through the cavernous building greeting the people and pumping tokens into the machines. Since 1992, he's also published a weekly newspaper, The Weirs Times, which, New Hampshire being New Hampshire, runs toward the libertarian side of the right wing ("Who is John Galt?" the Ayn Rand fan's battlecry, is regularly displayed on Funspot's large electronic sign).

Although Funspot is, naturally, perfect for families with young children, you can also spot men and women of a certain age strolling around the third floor, with a certain wistful gaze in their eyes. None of ACAM's machines were manufactured after 1987 - "That is pretty much about the time when we noticed that the video game industry was starting to change," museum curator Gary Vincent told Edge Magazine. The music system plays a steady diet of hits from the Reagan years.

It's enough to take you back to some lost afternoon in 1983 or 1984 although thankfully without the jean jacket and bad teenage mustache.

If you go: Funspot is open every single day except Christmas, and stays open late: midnight on Saturdays, 11pm every other night in the summer, and 10pm during the rest of the year. It's located on Route 3 in Laconia. If you're using GPS, the address is 579 Endicott Street North, Laconia, NH. The website is www.FunspotNH.com.

A 20-lane bowling alley, for both candlepin and ten pin games, is one of the attractions at Funspot, which also features kiddie bumper cars and indoor miniature golf.

Funspot has a restaurant and a bar, but if you're hungry for good, old-fashioned comfort food, you could do much worse than the 104 Diner nearby in New Hampton, a SOS-style eatery with generous portions (I particularly recommend the mac and cheese), friendly service, and, in lieu of music playing in the restrooms, a recording of a woman with a thick New Hampshire accent telling stale jokes. You might want to steer clear during presidential campaign season, though; during our visit, we were warned the diner is a popular stop for that particularly unwelcome breed of human, the presidential hopeful.
 


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