KINGSPORT — The Marcus family at Action Amusement Co. is continuing a half century of arcade machine history started by the late Carl Lawson.
Travis Marcus operates the business, and his son, Todd Marcus, is managing its route operation, while long-time employee Harry Hall is the machine technician for the business, following in his father’s footsteps.
“We all work on them, but he’s the main guy,” Marcus said, adding that most modern arcade machines run with a Windows operating system in the background unlike older equipment that relies on mechanical levers and electrical contacts. “They’re just like a computer. They are a computer.”
Even newer pinball machines are computerized, as are newer jukeboxes.
The computerization is just one of the changes in the amusement business Marcus has seen. Marcus has worked for the business for 25 years and two years ago began to operate it after the death of Lawson, whose wife still owns the business.
Todd Marcus has formally worked in the business for about a year but was no stranger to it when he went to work there.
“I’ve hung around here all my life, but I’ve worked here for a year,” the younger Marcus said.
The family lives in Johnson City, but Todd Marcus said he and his friends spent a lot of time at Action Amusement in Kingsport or in the family’s basement.
“I was the only kid that had a different arcade game in my basement every week,” he said.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Marcus said a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t wish he could ask Lawson just one more question, explaining that Lawson knew a lot about amusement equipment.
Lawson, among other ventures including the amusement business started in 1956 and restaurants, owned and operated the Hillbilly World amusement park in the Doe River Gorge area of Carter County, near Elizabethton, that operated in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, according to a Web site by the Doe River Gorge Ministries, a Christian group that owns the property and operates a camp there.
“In the late 1960s, about 2.5 miles of rail were re-laid on the gorge right-of-way and a train ran again as part of an amusement park. It operated until about 1974 and then again briefly around 1977,” according to the site www.doerivergorge.com.
Another Web site, www.johnsonsdepot.com, mentions a Doe River Gorge Playland that operated in that area in the late 1960s.
Marcus said the energy crisis and high gasoline prices put the park out of business.
Marcus said Lawson at that time was the only individual in the United States to own, by himself, a railroad. The 2.5 miles of track looped around a small mountain and back. The passenger cars remain in use as dormitory-type rooms for a camp there, Marcus said.
At the park, Marcus said Lawson would roam about with a lion named Sampson, held by piece of yarn, and also appeared with George, a monkey that wore bib overalls and lived with the Lawson family.
And a calliope Lawson built using an old wagon was often in Kingsport area parades and at other events. It was featured in a color front page of the Feb. 3, 1977, Kingsport Times-News on display in the office Marcus uses. He said Lawson sought out the unique and different.
Marcus said Lawson also had a very charitable side. Born with a club foot, he said Lawson spent most of his youth in the Shriners hospital and that throughout his adult life made substantial financial contributions to that charity.
Because Lawson grew up around mostly adults, Marcus said, Lawson was “educated” at a young age and attributed the experience to his later business successes.
Marcus also recalled that Lawson once wanted to buy the fixtures of a shoe store that was going out of business but was told by a manager that he’d have to wait until the stock was gone.
Instead, Lawson decided to buy the remaining shoes and the fixtures. However, instead of selling the shoes, Marcus said Lawson went to Cloud Park and gave them away to the youngsters and adults who lived there.
Another time, Marcus said that Lawson and his wife went to buy a Christmas tree and paid $85 for it. Afterward, Lawson went to North Carolina to get a load of trees and set up a roadside lot to sells trees — for $6 each. That covered the $5-per-tree cost and $1 for shipping.
“He said everybody should be able to afford a Christmas tree,” Marcus said.
After selling for a few days, Marcus said, the city went to check on Lawson’s permit or license to sell trees based on complaints from other tree vendors.
Told he couldn’t sell trees without a permit, he gave away the remain 80 or so trees.
Marcus said he’s tried to continue the charity of Lawson, supplying temporary juke boxes to area nursing homes and to this weekend’s Kidspo at the MeadowView Conference, Resort & Convention Center.
Selling to the public
Action and other amusement businesses historically run routes and place arcade games and machines in a business, sharing revenue with the business owner and maintaining the machines, which the amusement business owns.
However, the Action Amusement store front at 115 Commerce St. was first opened to the public in November of 2007, expanding on holiday sales to the public.
“We just kind of always ran an ad at Christmas time that we had a jukebox for sale or a pinball (machine) for sale,” Marcus said. “We used to have paper up over the windows.”
In contrast, the business has been doing displays that feature old jukeboxes and other arcade equipment, most of it for sale.
The main part of the business is to provide arcade-type amusement equipment to businesses, serving an area that includes Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City, as well as the greater Tri-Cities north to Clintwood and St. Paul, Va., and southwest to Pigeon Forge and Knoxville.
Marcus said the higher emphasis on sales to the public is necessary because as the business has expanded and has to buy more of the latest vending equipment, he needs a way to find new homes for the used and sometimes vintage equipment.
The business, which keeps an inventory of spare parts and old machines, will provide or sell jukeboxes, pinball machines, air hockey games, pool tables, video games and foosball games, as well as gum ball machines. Machines for sale carry a 30-day guarantee.
Among the most popular items for sale to the public, Marcus said, are the Ms. Pac Man, Asteroids and Galaga video games that date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, the heyday of arcade video games.
“This is the real deal. This is the coin op (coin operated),” Marcus said.
He said that other popular games are golf and other sports games.
“I’ve got video games from $150 to literally $10,000 or $15,000,” Marcus said. Pinball machines run from $500 to $2,500, with gum ball machines generally from $50 to $60.
Marcus said that some customers balk at the $800 or more price tag on the commercial pool tables the business sells, saying they can get a new one cheaper.
He and his son said that’s true but that people need to realize the commercial tables and other coin-operated equipment is made to stand up to heavy use and abuse.
“You get what you pay for,” the elder Marcus said, while his son added: “Built to take on 50 drunks a night — that’s what they’re designed for.”
Most buyers pick up the machines and other equipment in person, but the company has a Web site and can arrange shipping in some situations.
“We’ve had people put them (arcade games) in the back of an SUV and take them home,” Todd Marcus said.
Among items for sale, the business has a flight simulator game that Marcus said is a realistic simulation of piloting a jumbo jet.
Across the room is a 1964 “Pit Stop” pinball machine. Unlike the computerized games, Marcus explained, it is all “old school” mechanical and electrical operation with no computer chips.
Jukeboxes include a compact disc remake of the iconic 1947 Wurlitzer “bubbler” machine, which glows with neon color.
But instead of records, it plays CDS. The cost is about $6,800 new or about $4,500 in good used condition, while an original can fetch much higher prices.
“Everything has just about gone to CD,” Marcus said. “We do have a few 45s. The newest thing is digital.”
Where a jukebox using 45 records usually has 100 selections, a CD machine has about 1,200 songs and a digital jukebox — connected to the Internet — has about 880,000.
Among items not for sale but on display are two circa 1950s Coke machines and two arm wrestling machines, made by an Italian company called Zamperla that is known for making carnival and fair ride equipment.
“They’re not for sale. They can’t be bought,” Marcus said. He said they were used at the Space Needle in Gatlinburg and that one took a direct hit when lightening struck the structure.
Travis Marcus said one of his favorite things about the business is when parents bring their children in to explore a store front with flashing lights and games.
“When these kids come in here, I just plug them all up and let them play,” Marcus said.
A Halloween display taking shape in the front window includes Freddie Kruger standing between a Freddie Kruger pinball machine and a closed casket with an arm bone hanging out the side.
On the other side is a creature standing next to a House of the Dead pinball machine.
At night, the scene is lit with a strobe light and fog light.
Amusement business shifts but still has future
Over the years, the elder Marcus said, the arcade game and jukebox industries have changed dramatically.
In the old days, he said Sega, Nintendo, Williams and other game companies would send out new games in arcade form to drum up interest in and support for those games.
“A year later, they’d release it on a home version,” Marcus said.
Now, however, he said new games are often released simultaneously on the home and arcade markets.
Likewise, he said that recording artists and their labels depended on jukebox play to generate calls to radio stations for their songs.
Now, he said, jukeboxes generally play songs only after they are popular, and the commissions paid to offer the music on jukeboxes have increased.
“Now it’s reversed on us. We get the music after it’s popular,” Marcus said.
Still, Marcus is banking on jukeboxes, video games, pinball machines and other arcade items popular in the 20th Century remaining so in this one.
For more information on the business, go to www.actionamusement.com or call (423) 246-2903. The business is open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment Saturday.