Few Rhode Islanders seem to know it, but the World’s Oldest Penny Arcade is located in the northwest corner of the state. That’s the claim made by Spring Lake Arcade, which opened in 1931 and features a number of machines that predate its opening. Located just outside of Glendale (a village so small that the US Census doesn’t recognize it) the arcade faces Spring Lake, a freshwater beach owned by the Town of Burrillville. In Rhode Island driving terms, it’s about 10 minutes past Wright’s Farm.
AMUSEMENTS at Spring Lake.
The parking lot is divided into separate areas for locals and non-residents, but on Memorial Day the dozen or so cars in the outsiders’ lot all had Rhode Island plates. Visitors included a few groups of middle school-aged kids, a dad playing a racecar game with a Baby Bjorn strapped to his chest, and a handful of people from Providence who made the trek up to see a beloved place from their childhoods. There was even an elderly woman who met her husband nearly 50 years ago on the old Arcade’s porch.
Though the business dates back to the Great Depression, the original arcade building was razed in the 1990s to make room for a sturdier, more waterproof structure. Today’s single-story building is split roughly in half, with around 50 antique games occupying one side and the larger, more modern games on the other. (There’s a bit of crossover. Area 51, an Atari game from 1995, rests with the antiques, while the newer section boasts Peepshow Popeye, an example of something called a Mutoscope, which is sort of like a flipbook you crank by hand and watch through a tiny window.)
“On a slow day like this, people come here for the antique games they remember when they were kids,” says John Bateman, the arcade proprietor. “But on a hot weekend day, it’s all kids playing the ticket games. They all want to win tickets.”
Ticket games keep the business afloat, but Bateman waited until 2006 to install them. They’re just not as charming as the antiques, which include Ski Jump, a deceptively simple but maddening game requiring navigating a marble down a slope. There’s also Sky Fighter, a missile shooting game from 1939 featuring a screen backlit with two incandescent bulbs; the white one lights up when you insert your nickel, and the red one lights up when you hit your target. “It came out right as World War II was breaking out,” says Bateman, who is happy to talk about the history of every game. “But if you look at the picture on top, the soldiers are actually still in World War I-era uniforms.”
Bateman gets excited when asked about how scoring in pinball has changed over the decades, or the little machine from the 1940s that intentionally delivers an electric shock. (The jolt “Increases Your Circulation” and “Purifies Your Blood,” it promises.) The oldest game of all is Rose Bowl, which looks downright primitive today. Faceless football players in helmets and knit sweaters move their delicate legs in unison, looking more like dancers than football players. The whole thing looks a little like a child’s papier-mâché project, but the game has been at Spring Lake since before the arcade was even built.