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Skee-Ball: The Making of a Seaside Classic

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Cape May Magazine

Somehow, Skee-Ball seemed easier to play when I was smaller. I didn’t have to bend over to roll the ball down the alley, and my lower line of sight made it easier to bank shots off the second set of screws on the left side of the lane. I learned last week, however, from the owner of Skee-Ball, Inc., I’d have scored higher if I’d aimed lower on the alley.

Skee-Ball cost a nickel to play from the 1930s to the 1960s. Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

For those of you who grew up without the sound of wooden balls smacking into the ball return, Skee-Ball is a popular arcade game played up and down the Jersey coast, and, today, on every continent. There are even 10 Skee-Ball lanes in Moscow’s Gorky Park. The game started much closer to home, however, just up the parkway and across the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, 101 years ago.

Skee-Ball is an easy game to play. You simply roll balls down an alley into holes assigned various point values. The object is to score points, which generate tickets. Tickets are redeemable for prizes. For many of us, Skee-Ball tickets were practically a form of currency when we were growing up.

I started playing Skee-Ball when I was a child spending summers at my grandparents’ house in Cape May. It cost a nickel to play in the 1950s, the same as it cost my mother to play the 1930s. My cousin and I used to earn our Skee-Ball money by asking people on Philadelphia Beach if we could have their “empties – their empty glass soda bottles – which we’d redeem at the beach stand for 2 cents apiece. Occasionally, we’d work late, past the stand’s closing time, and have to bury our bottles in the sand behind the rock pilings until we could turn them in the next day. Unfortunately, a neighbor of ours also worked the beach, and, one time, found our stash and cashed it in.

We played Skee-Ball nearly every night in the summer and didn’t have much patience waiting for family members to finish dinner so we could race down to the boardwalk. Most of the time, we saved up our tickets all season so we could buy something really good. I remember saving for a present for my mother – a ceramic butter dish with a red-and-brown rooster on its cover. I haven’t seen that dish in decades, but I know it’s in our house somewhere, just waiting to be pressed into service again.

I recall another summer when I was about 10 and I was not in a gift-giving mood. Annoyed I’d been made to try tomato aspic at dinner, I decided to run away and get a job at the Skee-Ball arcade. Rising early the next day, I pedaled off to Frank’s Playland to find Frank and ask him for work. Frank Ravese was short, solid and brusque, at least with 10-year-olds. He always had a cigar in his mouth, a straw cap on his head, and a change apron around his middle that sagged under the weight of hundreds of nickels. His response to my job request was simply, “Kid, you don’t look like you need a job.” Devastated, I pedaled home.

Child’s Play

Women flocked to the game when the lanes were shortened and the balls made lighter. Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

Skee-ball was invented for a child, which may explain its enduring hold on children and the young-at-heart and why it tugs so strongly at our memories. Philadelphian J. Dickinson Estes built the game for his son’s birthday in 1909. His gift consisted of a 36-foot-long alley, wooden rails on the sides, and heavy metal balls you’d drop into one of three holes. The game was a hit with his son, so Estes decided to introduce it to a larger audience at the town fair. By 1911, he was manufacturing alleys for the public. but he didn’t advertise, so sales were slow.

A family in the outdoor-amusement industry, the Piesens, bought the rights to Skee-Ball in 1914, propelling the game into a wider and more lucrative market. The game was also made much more player friendly. Lanes were shortened to 14 feet to encourage their use indoors. Metal balls were replaced with heavy plastic, and two circles were added to the target board. Suddenly, women and children could lift the balls and go the distance on the alleys, so they flocked into the arcades. Skee-Ball also became a competitive sport, with an arcade in Atlantic City holding the game’s first national tournament. As the game’s popularity grew, the lanes got even smaller. Ultimately, they were cut down to an even 10 feet, which is the standard size today.

A Philadelphia Story

Skee-Ball has been a Philadelphia company ever since Estes’ son rolled his first ball. The Wurlitzer Company purchased rights to the game in 1935, and sold them a decade later to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, which modernized the game with electronics, and officially incorporated “Skee-Ball, Inc.” Joe Sladek, a native Philadelphian and a former CPA with Price Waterhouse in New York, bought the company in 1985.

“The owners of Skee-Ball were looking to sell and I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time,” Sladek explained. “I wanted to come back to Philadelphia, and I wanted to start working for myself at a company I could grow old with.”

Skee-Ball became a competitive sport in 1932 when the first national tournament was held in Atlantic City. Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

Two of Sladek’s children have since joined him in his dream. Son Michael runs operations, and daughter Eileen Graham handles marketing and HR. There’s also a grandson, four-year-old Liam, coming up in the business. Liam likes to play Skee-Ball while his mother’s working, so he’s the product “tester,” according to his grandfather. Sladek is CEO and Jeff Hudson is company president.

Today, the family business is based in Chalfont, Pennsylvania less than five miles from where Skee-Ball was created. The company currently manufactures about 2,000 games a year and estimates it has 125,000 alleys in the market today. Customers range from the Chuck E. Cheese and Dave and Buster’s chains to the Family Fun Center and Victoria arcades in Cape May. About 20 people have games in their private homes.

Starting in the 1990s, the company began to expand to a full line of ticket-redemption games, which includes Tower of Power, Super Shot and Skee Daddle, a pint-sized version of Skee-Ball for toddlers in which they simply drop the balls into holes. Ahh, were it that easy for the rest of us.

Staying current with technology is Sladek’s biggest business challenge today.

“Skee-Ball is a very old game,” he said, “and it needs to be constantly updated.”

He’s very proud of one update. A year ago, Apple added a Skee-Ball app to its iPhone offerings. Quickly climbing to Apple’s top10 list of most popular apps, Skee-Ball is still on the list.

Classic Skee-Ball, however, must be played with real balls and actual alleys. Skee-Ball, Inc. sells two models today, the “New Classic,” which sells for $4,000, and the Centennial, which goes for $5,500. The latter was launched last year to commemorate the game’s 100th anniversary. With the exception of 21st century technology, it replicates a game from the 1930s the family found in storage when it bought the company.

“It’s the oldest game we’d ever seen,” said Sladek’s daughter, “It’s made of maple. And it’s like a beautiful piece of furniture.”

Hard Sell

Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

Sladek may make his living selling Skee-Ball now, but he wasn’t always a fan. He didn’t even like the game growing up. He preferred video games. His future wife would change that, however.

“She was a fanatic about Skee-Ball,” Sladek remembered. “She used to clean my clock when we played and she still does.” Pressed for actual scores, Sladek will only share that his wife routinely rolls between 240 and 300 points a game and he rolls “less than that.” It’s become a family joke, he said.

Sladek remained a holdout on Skee-Ball even when his kids were young and played pretend Skee-Ball on the beach in Ocean City, New Jersey. Gradually, however, he began to see the benefits of the game.

“Anyone who can pick up a ball can play,” he said. “You don’t have to be 20 and in shape. You can be four or 94. It’s also a very family-oriented experience. There’s competition but there’s also camaraderie.”

Aside from Skee-Ball’s appeal, there are more subtle cues pulling people into the arcades to play. Skee-Ball has distinct music, capable of galvanizing parents as well as their children. It’s music Sladek built into the game in 1986, and it’s music he continues to use today.

“People recognize it,” he said. “It’s like the start of a horse race.”

The Only Games in Town

You can hear those notes only in two places in Cape May today – the Family Fun Center and Victoria Arcade – on the boardwalk. Both are owned by Adele Tiburzio, whose family has been in the amusement park business for 100 years.

“My father wanted to put Skee-Ball in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York,” Tiburzio recalled, “so he applied and got permission to rent two buildings in the fair’s amusement area. We had 100 lanes in those two buildings! I remember my mother taking me to see it when I was 14. It was packed. It put my father on the map.”

Photo courtesy Skee-Ball, Inc.

A year later, Tiburzio joined her father’s business as manager of a Skee-Ball arcade in Willow Grove Park in Pennsylvania. Preferring to own, however, she bought Fun Land from the Tennenbaum family in 1975, and moved to Cape May to run it. Eight years later, she purchased her second arcade, Frank’s Playland, making her – then as now–Cape May’s reigning Skee-Ball operator.

“Everybody loves Skee-ball,” Tiburzio said, who has kept the cost of the game at a quarter so more children can play. “It’s a game of skill and you win prizes. The more you play, the more you get. It’s addictive.”

At 84, Tiburzio still rolls an admirable 300-320 points a game.

“My father taught me how to bank the ball so I could get higher scores,” she said. Bank off the right side, not the left, she advises players.

There were four Skee-Ball venues in town when Tiburzio moved here – Fun Land, now the Family Fun Center; Frank’s Playland, today the Victoria Arcade; Skee-Ball Palace, a former neighbor of the Beach Theatre; and Rickers, a concession on the boardwalk that is vacant today. While there is some debate about which store was the first to offer Skee-Ball, Rickers seems to edge out Frank’s for that distinction. Rickers had two Skee-Ball alleys at the back of the store. My mother and her friends learned to play there in the 1930s. She is candid about her lack of Skee-Ball skills, however. he sometimes over-shot the lane, she said, and her ball would go flying out of Rickers’ back door, presumably rolling into the ocean and scoring nothing.

Standing behind her counter, Tiburzio has watched several generations of families learn, play and teach Skee-Ball. orking 13-hour days over a lifetime of Skee-Ball seasons, she has gained a sort of “Skee-Ball wisdom” about why people play and how their motivation often changes over time.

“The kids play for the pleasure first and the prizes second,” she said. “The older players play purely for the joy of the game. I tell the kids to stay nearby and often people will give them their tickets.” Donna Laudeman, a lifelong resident of Cape May and hostess at the Lobster House, exudes that joy when she talks about Skee-Ball games past and present.

Photo by Macy Zhelyazkova

“I remember the thrill of dropping the nickel in, pulling back the handle, hearing the click as the balls come down one-by-one, and hearing the sound of the balls when they hit,” she said. “It was incredible.”

The game has taken on an even deeper meaning for Laudeman now that she’s an adult.

“I went to play the other day with a friend,” she said. “We were laughing and carrying on, and when we were done, we looked around the arcade for a child we could give our tickets to –someone with a cup of tickets who didn’t have as many tickets as the others. We ended up giving them to girl who was totally surprised. She couldn’t fathom people giving tickets away. The smile on her face was a beautiful thing. It was a win-win totally.”

The game changes for many of us as we grow older. Similar to life, perhaps, we scramble for empty Coke bottles to play the game to win the prize when we’re young. We play for the joy of playing now – or the smile on a child’s face – and we’re happy helping others work toward their prize when we’re older. Who knew a ball, an alley and a set of circles could impart such insights.

Now if I could just find that rooster butter dish.