When I was a kid, I was particularly good at Skee-Ball. I remember one family vacation to N.J. to visit my Aunt Ella, stopping at some run-down arcade with Skee-Ball and rolling a high score. This talent continued through my teen years and early adulthood. When I visited NYC in the mid- to-late 1970s, I always made it a point to stop at the Playland at 1565 or 1580 Broadway and play Skee-Ball. As I recall, I accumulated enough tickets to win a metal Statue of Liberty souvenir. Back then, every neighborhood carnival seemed to have a few Skee-Ball lanes, but these dwindled over the years until you could no longer find them. Skee Ball was relegated to a a few old school game arcades and later to party venues like Chuck E. Cheese, GameWorks, Dave & Buster’s, and the like. The balls at GameWorks are made of cheap white plastic and simply don’t have the same “roll” as the originals or well-made new balls. Furthermore, one game costs four credits which is $1.00!
The idea of a Skee-Ball blog has been percolating for some time on my brain’s back burner. The catalyst that pushed me to finally do something about it was meeting Eric Pavony at McCarren Park in Brooklyn, where they had an extended lane Skee-Ball set up and you could roll for prizes. He didn’t mention his last name, nor that he is founder and Skee-E-O of Brewskee-Ball and partner of the Full Circle Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. and a second bar in Austin, Texas. Pavony founded the first-ever competitive Skee-Ball league Brewskee-Ball® in NYC in 2005. I discovered this when I returned home from my trip and found many articles. Pavony and a friendly young woman named Kerry were enthusiastically promoting their Skee-Ball league. I rolled a 30 which won me a Genesee Beer koozie. A guy rolled a 100 while we were watching, which was amazing!
Coincidentally, two days earlier when I arrived in NYC, my daughter and I found a cool beer bar named Craft + Carry strolling down 3rd Avenue after eating dinner at Sarge’s Deli, my suitcase in tow. They have one Skee-Ball game and let us play for free without drinking. It wasn’t working very well and my daughter beat me, which proves my skills have faded. I can’t blame my short stature because it’s actually an asset to be close to the ground when you roll – I chalk this up to age and arthritis.
The Origins of Skee Ball
Skee-Ball was invented by Joseph Fourestier Simpson in 1908. A resident of Vineland, New Jersey, Simpson was granted U.S. Patent 905,941 for his game on December 8, 1908. He licensed it to John W. Harper and William Nice Jr. who created the Skee-Ball Alley Company. The game was marketed as a thirty-two foot game in early 1909 in resort towns like Atlantic City and Wildwood. The company struggled to make ends meet after Nice’s unexpected death in January 1910.
Many blogs attribute the invention to Jonathan Dickinson Este of Philadelphia, but that is incorrect. A Princeton graduate, Este began playing Skee-Ball in 1910 and became so enamored, he helped the two men revive the company in 1913. While the two Skee-Ball lanes he installed at his alma mater didn’t go over well, Este rented space on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1914 and installed Skee-Ball there. Este purchased the patent and all rights to the game from Simpson and hired Harper as general manager.
Skee-Ball is played by rolling a ball up an inclined lane and over a “ski-jump” bump in the lane to launch a ball into bull’s-eye-type rings, with the game automatically keeping score. The goal is to collect as many points as possible by making the ball fall into holes with higher points. The two 100 point rings at the very top were not installed in traditional older lanes. The game is over after a player rolls nine balls. A few machines dating back to the 1940s apparently still exist. The original balls were made of compressed sawdust, but the company that once made them opted to go into the toilet seat market! Now they are made of resin or polished Masonite, although they are supposed to be the same weight as the originals. When the balls get chipped, this can greatly impact one’s roll.
Skee-Ball Ownership Timeline
1917-1919: The J. D. Este Company built and marketed the game. Este enrolled in the military in 1917 and returned from service in 1919. By then, he was no longer interested in Skee-Ball and sold his company.
1919-1928: The Skee-Ball Company operated under this name for nine years.
1929-1936: Herman Bergoffen, Hugo Piesen, and Maurice Piesen purchased the company and incorporated the National Skee-Ball Company in Coney Island, N.Y. in 1929, also trademarking the name Skee-Ball. The company was the first to sponsor a national Skee-Ball tournament. One hundred players participated in the Atlantic City tournament, with $2400 in prizes awarded to the winners.
1936-1945: The Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company bought all the rights to the game in June 1936, produced more than five thousand Skee-Ball alleys, and began selling them in December of that year, but ceased production in 1937 when demand weakened. By 1942, Wurlitzer shifted its focus from building amusement devices to building equipment to support the war effort.
1946-1984: Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters (PTC) finalized a deal to buy the company from Wurlitzer in January 1946. In 1977, Skee-Ball, Inc. was spun-off from PTC under the same ownership.
1984-2016: Purchased from PTC by Joe Sladek and three other partners, Sladek bought out his partners and renamed the company Skee-Ball Amusement Games Inc. Sladek gave his blessing to the Brewskee-Ball league, but later filed a trademark infraction and cease and desist order against them. Brewskie-Ball prevailed in this case.
According to the website, “It is played in bars across the country, ‘from skee to shining skee.’” Since its founding 13 years ago, Brewskee-Ball has built a loyal network of teams, players and fans across the country. It is currently played in Brooklyn, N.Y., San Francisco and Los Angeles, Calif., Wilmington, N.C., Philadelphia, Pa., and Austin, Texas. Brewskee-Ball has successfully revived the game of Skee-Ball, transforming it from a kiddie game at party arcades to a mainstream form of adult socialization at local bars across the country.
I watched SBK The-Movie on Amazon Prime – that’s right, a movie was made about Skee-Ball in 2014. The movie tells the journey of Aaron Re’s quest to claim the title of World Champion in professional Skee-Ball on the boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J. It was one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen, with corny jokes, including some sexist ones and others in extremely poor taste. So many stupid scenes – and far too little about the actual championship. I doubt that you’ll watch it, so spoiler – Re comes in second. The national championships seem to be a serious pursuit for cream of the crop players and apparently there are no age restrictions – a couple of kids made the finals. I was expecting a quirky off-beat sleeper of a movie – what a disappointment!
I don’t drink or frequent bars and I’d likely be way out of my league age-wise anyway, so in lieu of paying $1.00 for the inferior experience at GameWorks, I’m kind of out of luck! For other Skee-Ball lovers who prefer arcades to bars, some old arcades with Skee-Ball are scattered across the U.S., including in Manitou, Col., Ocean City, Md.,several in Wildwood, N.J. including Ed’s Funcade, where the tournament was held, Panama City Beach, Florida, and other resort towns. If you really love old arcades games, check out the Silverball Museum in Delray Beach, Florida. They have tons of classic pinball and arcade games, and many old-school Skee-Ball lanes.
Photo sources: Arcade Punks, ebay, Ed’s Funcade, Lititz Record Express, Marty’s Playland, National Archives, NPR, Pinterest, Skeeball, The New York Times