Family Fun Arcade Prepares to Close, After Four Decades as a Granada Hills Hangout
|After 40 years, gamers will have to go somewhere else.|
See also: *10 Best Arcades in L.A.
Bathed in the glow of the flashing CRT screen, Jon "Jesus" Lemerand yanks his joystick back and slaps a button, letting loose a 2-D punch. A handful of onlookers hoots and claps. It's Friday night at Family Fun Arcade, or FFA, and a motley group has gathered to play Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, cheering each other on over the cacophonous blare of machines.
Lemerand, 26, has spent countless nights hunched over fighting game cabinets since he started playing here in 2005. But back then, he recalls, the scene was different: Mobs of spectators would crowd the screens for a glimpse of the action.
"It was a lot more lively then than it is now," he says, looking around at banks of vacant games. "There's not a lot of new blood coming to arcades anymore."
That's one big reason FFA will soon shutter its doors after nearly 40 years in business, according to longtime proprietor Ralph Sehnert. One of the oldest surviving video arcades in Southern California, the Granada Hills venue might stay open into January, but could close as early as Dec. 31. The future of Japan Arcade in downtown L.A., which Sehnert also owns, is uncertain.
News of the closure has rattled fighting game enthusiasts who once converged on FFA to test their mettle against some of the fiercest competition outside of Japan. From the early 1990s, when the first Street Fighter games drew loyal legions, to the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 age in the 2000s, top players would pour in from across the country for a shot at calling themselves the best. Elbow-to-elbow crowds packed in. Players drove from San Diego and flew in from the East Coast.
But those days are over.
"Business has just fallen off the planet," says Sehnert, 63. "They've taken us off life support and we're breathing our last breaths."
It's the same story everywhere: Arcades are dying. Two of the region's most popular - Denjin Arcade in Simi Valley and Arcade Infinity in Rowland Heights - closed in 2011. When FFA is gone, only one local oasis for hardcore fighting game players will remain: Super Arcade in Walnut, which Sehnert is in the process of selling to one-time Street Fighter champ Mike Watson.
Watson hopes to keep this last communal hub alive. Others think the effort is futile.
"Having a stand-alone arcade now is pretty much impossible," says Tim Silvers, a 24-year FFA employee who, at 53, is known among arcade patrons as "Old Man River." "We can no longer compete with the home console business."
FFA started as a family-friendly wonderland in 1973 with 31 pinball machines, air hockey tables and bright orange carpeting. Sehnert got one of the first jobs behind the register that year, and became a business partner the next. He helped bring in some of the first video games -- Pong, Space Race, Atari Football.
When Capcom released the first Street Fighter in 1987, skeptics thought it was a fad. But an improved model arrived on its heels, and Sehnert had a gut feeling. "People were saying, 'Six buttons? Nobody's ever going to be able to learn that!'" he recalls. "I said, 'I'll take it.'" That's when everything changed. Older games were cleared out to make way for the fighting game frenzy that became the arcade's backbone, putting it on the short list of legendary coin-op haunts.
It never looked the part. Tucked into a drab strip mall, it's perpetually noisy and dim. The threadbare carpet glistens with mysterious, sticky smears. Foam stuffing sprouts from torn vinyl chairs. One Yelp reviewer described the space as "a tiny and frightening tomb."
Danny "MegamanDS" Shnorhokian, 26, still remembers walking in for the first time in 2001. "My first reaction was, 'What, really? This ugly-looking hole-in-the-wall?'" he says. "But when I started to play people, I realized the competition there was so advanced. I'd thought we were good at my local place in Valencia, but it was a different ball game at Family Fun."
"It was really the heart of Southern California's arcade scene -- this was where everything happened," recalls Michael, 29, who declined to give his last name but goes by "pyrolee."
Sehnert knew how to please his customers. There may not have been reliable air conditioning, but he repaired broken joysticks promptly, brought pizza for everyone on tournament days and switched his games to free play on New Year's Eve.
Then the arcade generation gave way to the online generation. Playing at home didn't require quarters, only an Internet connection. And game manufacturers began releasing new titles on console only, bypassing arcades. Crowds dwindled; cabinets idled.
Some things are lost in the new era. "So many of my good friends today, I've met because of Family Fun. I can't form a relationship with some guy I met online," Shnorhokian says. "The arcade is a bonding experience - it's not just about the game."
And while online interactions are laced with anonymous slurs, the arcade's face-to-face intimacy bred good manners. "You learn respect," notes Andy "B.B. Hood" Barajas, 26.
Yet it wasn't always laughs and high-fives with swollen egos on the line. A petulant player once pulled off his opponent's glasses and ran out the door with them. Insults have turned into fights on the sidewalk outside.
But Sehnert insists the arcade has shunned delinquency. "In the 38 years that I've been here, I think we've had a pretty damn good record," he says.
Rent and other expenses were set to rise in January; Sehnert knew revenue wouldn't. Business is down 70 percent from its peak ten years ago, he says, while the price of new arcade fighting games has nearly quadrupled.
Sehnert still hopes that a savior might take over the location, allowing him to tend to his health. "All these years of being a hands-on owner has taken a toll on me," he says, flexing his arthritic fingers. "We provided this playground for so long, it's hard to take that away from everybody. But at the same time, it's killing me." He took barely a weekend off after surgery for prostate cancer last year.
He smiles, thinking of all his former customers who now come back with their own children. "They're not going to put it on my tombstone or anything, but it's something to be proud of."
Devotees are bereft.
"It's like part of us is dying," adds Miguel Blanco, 31. "This is our pastime, so when it's gone, it'll be like part of us is gone, too. Now everyone is wondering, what will we do?"
At the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike cabinet, Lemerand gets K.O.ed. The odds were against him, but the loss still stings.
He heads outside for a smoke with his buddies. "Good shit," someone says in consolation.
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