Once upon a time — way back in the 20th century — kids did not play video games in their basements or bedrooms.
There were no Wiis, no Kinects, no big screens or joysticks. In the early 1980s, FIFA 2011 was 2 decades in the future.
But Westport had Arnie Kaye. And no history of video games would be complete without him.
Arnie Kaye was larger than life — literally. A hulk of a man — 350 pounds is charitable — he wanted to build a video arcade on the Post Road. The site was the current location of Balducci’s.
In October 1981, the Planning & Zoning Commission rejected his initial proposal. They cited insufficient tree plantings and buffer space, and lack of parking.
A battle royale ensued between the town (and Green’s Farms Association), and Arnie Kaye. It reached the state Supreme Court — but not before Arnie Kaye chained himself to Town Hall. (He was unchained and arrested 10 minutes later.)
Arnie’s Place opened on June 14, 1982. Three weeks later, a Superior Court judge ordered it closed. But within a month it reopened, with a zoning permit allowing up to 50 video games.
Arnie Kaye installed 80. The fight continued.
This was Arnie's Place -- Vegas and teenage nirvana, Westport style. Note the baby in the stroller, hopefully unharmed by early exposure to video games. This photo ran in the November 1984 edition of Electronic Games Magazine, and is now on ArniesPlaceArcade.com.
For the next 10 years, Arnie’s Place was — depending on who you talked to — either the greatest place in town, or the symbol of everything wrong with teenagers, Westport and America. It was glitzy. It was gaudy. It was — gasp! — a video game arcade.
There was more, of course — pool tables, foosball and air hockey — but the video games were the centerpiece. Each standing alone in a wood and copper cabinet, they’ve been described as “seven rows of teenaged nirvana.”
Young kids flocked to Arnie’s — some with their parents’ blessing, some without. An adjacent ice cream parlor — Georgie Porgie’s — attracted plenty of families. Others boycotted the place.
Arnie Kaye outfitted kids in town with t-shirts during his legal battles. Many parents were no doubt horrified at what their children wore.
Arnie loved the controversy — and fanned its flames. Thumbing his nose at the town that had done the same to him, he threatened at times to turn Arnie’s Place over to Hell’s Angels — and to make it a porn theater.
Finally, on September 18, 1994 — done in by changing tastes as well as a decade of litigation — Arnie’s Place closed.
I know all this not because I was an Arnie’s Place fan — I never set foot in the place — but because Peter Caylor has created an online tribute to the video game emporium of his youth.
“Welcome to Arnie’s Place” is a website whose appeal is narrow but deep. The relatively small number of kids growing up in Westport in the 1980s who hung out there will enjoy it. Video game history savants will probably appreciate it. If you’re interested in the history of Westport, you might glance at it.
Yet what visitors find is intriguing.
There’s a brief history, which I have stolen liberally from (above).
There’s a comprehensive list of games. Apparently, Arnie’s was “about the only place in Connecticut (for) unusual titles like Krull or Journey.” There was also “plenty of room for sit down or cockpit games like Turbo.”
The list of games “verified” by more than 1 person, or a photo, runs alphabetically from APB to Wizard fo Wor. The “need to verify” list starts with 720, and ends with Vs. Super Mario Bros.
Brett, Aiden, Chris and Jesse play Gauntlet during Brett's birthday party in 1988. Arnie's was a favorite place for SOME birthday parties.
The goal is to create a 3-D model of Arnie’s Place — complete with playable games. It’s a work in progress.
Wandering through the site, it’s hard to imagine how something as innocuous as a video game arcade could have so consumed the town’s time, energy — and legal resources — for over a decade.
It did not turn Westport’s tweens and teens into derelicts, or juvenile delinquents. Kids who hung out at Arnie’s stayed in school, graduated, and had real lives for themselves. One even created a clever website about the place.
Kind of puts today’s debates about teenage texting, Facebook use and — yes — video game playing in context. Right?