Pac-Man

pac-man

He’s number one. Of all time. Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Asteroids–none of them can match the sheer number of quarters this eyeless, pie-shaped glutton gobbled down during the heyday of video arcade gaming.

Maze games always did well, because life itself is a sort of maze, and these games give the people playing them a short-lived, but potent sense of control over their own existence. But Pac-Man was more than just a “successful maze game,” it was a phenomenon that eventually reached the point of epidemic. A national fever! Listen, if you can get two living legends–Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox and Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, to come together in a studio over a long weekend to record a top ten hit you know you’ve attained some real cultural cachet.

Let’s put it another way. I never saw those nasty, annoying Centipedes get their own Hanna- Barbera TV show. I never saw Zaxxon lunch boxes. I never saw babies being named Tron. This guy was the king. He was Ali, he was George Steinbrenner, he was Justin Bieber and Elvis Presley combined.

Even today, some 30 years later, you still see people wearing Pac-Man costumes come late October. The retro gaming site Freepacman.com gets more hits than the Obamacare website does. Young girls you’d think were too young to have even heard of this yellow fellow turn out to have him tattooed on their hips or arms. The sampled sounds of Pac-Man hard at work are the source material for some of the 21st century’s most innovative electronic music. Geez Louise, in Norway, the home of black metal, half-insane Satan worshippers have been known to stage life-size games of this in huge mazes where the participants, ghosts and Pac-Man both, actually fight to the death during the course of play.

Amazing.

 

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Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre

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It was Atari money behind what was touted as the first family-friendly destination to combine, food, entertainment and lots and lots of video games. Like I said, it was Atari. The maestro of all this was a rodent that Nolan Bushnell dreamed would one day be bigger than Mickey himself. But rodents and food are never a very pleasant pairing.

In the beginning, it really did have a theatre. Every hour, the show would start and Chuck E. himself (was he named after a Rickie Lee Jones song? Or the other way around? History does not record) would strike up his band of animatronic animals to perform a rousing medley of songs and jokes. I use the word animatronic loosely. Disney World had the marvel of long-deceased politicians shuffling around the stage of the Hall of Presidents. The Pizza Time Theatre had a bunch of immobile, herky-jerky “things” that looked like they had been slapped together by 5th graders for a science project. Think of the pathetic, beak-snapping birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room and you’re just about there.

Some locations actually sold beer and wine for the parents and this could lead to trouble when disputes between kids on the arcade floor escalated into full-out brawls between their supposed “guardians.” Sometimes weapons were drawn. To expire by bleeding to death on a filthy carpet in front of a Dig Dug machine while a bunch of cheap robots sing “Happy Birthday” is an ignoble end for sure. And yet it happened a few times each year. Also, to watch your drunken mom make out with the pimply teenager collecting skee-ball tickets was never going to promote the healthy mental development of your average 8 year-old.

Once the video game era came screeching to a halt, this place became a three-legged stool standing on two legs and both those legs were pretty weak. The pizza was shit and the floor show as captivating as watching automated garbage trucks lift and empty dumpsters. And yet Chuck E. Cheese still survives to this day, with something like five hundred stores tucked away in small-market strip malls all over America. Mice can be so hard to kill.

 

 

 

Mercedes-Benz SL

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This car was a huge success for 17 straight years for two distinct reasons. For one, it’s easily one of the prettiest cars ever. The sensuous lines of the front end flowed back through a luxurious cockpit ending with a trunk lid so level you could play ping-pong on it. It’s a design almost fifty years old that can still shame almost anything for sale today. Timeless, I think they call it.

Two, it had virtually no competition at its price point! For the doctors and lawyers and TV sitcom stars who swore by these, there was really very little to shop it against. Less expensive, and thus less desirable, were things like the SAAB 900 and BMW 325i ragtops. The 900 was one of the coolest cars ever, but it was the kind of vehicle eventual SL purchasers were more likely to buy for their daughter to take to college. The same with the 3 series–it was just not quite prestigious enough, plus it had all the elegance of exactly what it was–a boxy coupe with the top sawed off. Above the Benz, you could spend a lot more money and get a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari, but a Corniche was hardly the most practical way to run around town, and a Mondial Cabriolet was probably a bit too vulgar for the country club besides being an atrocious value considering it possessed one of the most underwhelming powertrains in Ferrari’s history.

The SL’s one close competitor was the Jaguar XJS convertible and while that was a worthy adversary in the looks department for damn sure, it was also a car that was designed and built to properly run for only two or three miles at a time. That sort of unreliability simply wouldn’t do, so the advantage went to Germany, and Mercedes-Benz cranked these things out like Chupa Chups for almost two decades.

This incarnation of the SL bowed out in 1989 and its immediate successor looked like a flabby dowager next to it. And that was only the start of an inexorable downward spiral–SL design has only gotten worse with each subsequent generation. The current model has all the sex appeal of Borat in his singlet.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of these R107 models around and they are still awfully nice to look at. Living in sunny California, I’m not sure how many more years I can conceivably live without a late-eighties Navy Blue 560SL with the Palomino interior. Hemmings.com awaits!

 

The Athlete’s Foot

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This wasn’t a shoe store, it was a candy shop. From the day The Athlete’s Foot opened, it was the number one must-see store in the mall–the place you ran for as soon as you got dropped off by mommy and daddy. So long, Spencer Gifts! Nice knowing you, National Record Mart! Vaya con Dios, Video Arcade! You walked into this store and pretty much wanted one of (ok, a pair of) every single thing they carried. Despite the somewhat off-putting name, (have you ever seen a bad case of tinea pedum?) this retail establishment was a winning concept from day one.

Before the advent of these kind of specialty stores, parents bought their kid’s “sneakers” at places like Kmart or JC Penney or the dusty old sporting goods shop where they sold bowling trophies and gym bags. The shoes from these places had lame-ass names like Traxx and USA Olympics. The Athlete’s Foot offered exotic brands that identified themselves with cool things like the winged goddess of victory or Andes-roaming jungle cats.

On the sales floor, potential customers were encouraged to fondle and handle and fuss over the merchandise like each shoe was the breast of some plump carny skank. Just a few minutes in The Athlete’s Foot was all it took to send images of Nike Bruins, Puma Clydes, and Saucony Jazz dancing through a child’s head like so many sugarplums. And once the burning adolescent desire for these colorful rubber, nylon and leather objects flared up, there was only one way to “put it out,” so to speak. With a purchase.

Parents reeled. In these new stores, what was once a $9.99 commodity you plucked out of a wire mesh bin near the automotive section of Kmart was now displayed like a work of art and sold for a price 4 or 5 times as dear. And if you didn’t comply with the howls of want emanating from your offspring, it was simple. You lost your children. Once The Athlete’s Foot was in town, if you still insisted on dragging the kids to Woolworth’s and slapping the same old off-brand shoes on their feet, they would hate you until the end of time. Such is life.

The A-Team

A-Team

The “A” stood for asshole, but they were lovable assholes, so naturally America welcomed them with open arms every Tuesday night for about five years.

They were pretty much a third version of the Rat Pack, a down and dirty TV-level antidote to that era’s group of beautiful and damned film actors everyone called the The Brat Pack. Undisputed leader John “Hannibal” Smith was the Frank Sinatra of the bunch, the “roller of big cigars,” as Wallace Stevens would say. Dean Martin’s role was taken up by the oily and syphilitic Templeton “Faceman” Peck. Even down to the jewelry, B.A. Baracus was a bizarro world version of Sammy Davis, Jr.–the gentle, nimble Candyman turned ferocious and uncontrollable He-Man. “Howling Mad” Murdock was the kind of fool insane enough to make a life-long enemy of the Chairman of the Board just like Peter Lawford did.

The members of the A-Team blew up a lot of buildings and wrecked a lot of cars and fired off a lot of ammunition, racking up the most incidents of violence per hour than any show in history up to that point, but the covenant with the network was that no one ever got killed or even bled. It was all a cartoon, but children have a hard time understanding that fact when the show is using live actors instead of illustrated anthropomorphic characters. A lot of American kids were maimed and killed attempting to recreate stunts from the show. Leaping from garage roofs, stealing cars they had no idea how to operate, firing loaded guns at unsuspecting classmates–it was a half-decade of mayhem that has never been properly compiled and recorded. But if you’ve got a long weekend to spend looking at old newspapers on the microfiche machine at your local library, it just might be a book worth writing.

Like Moses once said from his perch on Mount Sinai–it’s all fun until somebody gets hurt. And many, many people were hurt by this show.