It’s up to Thomas Perez to bring Trayvon Martin’s killer to justice.
Perez runs the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights division, which is leading an inquiry
(in concert with the FBI) into the tragic shooting of the black teen from Miami. If the state attorney's office in Florida declines to file charges
against the gun-wielding George Zimmerman—the beneficiary of questionable police work and broad firearm and self-defense
regulations—Perez and his colleagues in Washington could step in and file any number of charges, including police misconduct or even a hate crime.
It should come as a relief to Martin’s family that Perez is on the case; there are few lawyers in the nation better suited
to manage an investigation of this nature. Since taking over the politicized and demoralized
Civil Rights division in 2009, Perez has reinvigorated what Eric Holder once called the “the conscience of the Justice Department,” enforcing loads of civil rights laws intentionally ignored by the Bush administration. And as a young prosecutor working in the department he now leads, the Buffalo native racked up several high-profile convictions in cases targeting shady cops and white supremacists, including the arrest in 1994 of three Lubbock men
who attempted to launch a “race war” by luring African-American locals to their car and firing a shotgun at them from a short distance, killing one and injuring two others.
Martin’s murder isn’t the only racially-motivated shooting Perez is currently investigating, either. Less than 30 days ago, his staff issued a fresh series of indictments
in a notorious 13-year-old cold case, a double-murder described by a Las Vegas homicide detective at the time as "one of the more heinous crimes” his wicked city had ever experienced (Las Vegas Review-Journal
, January 11, 2001). It’s a heart-wrenching story about skinheads, anti-racist activism, and two charismatic young men taken well before their time. Tabling the obvious fact that the states’ suspects are presumed innocent until proven otherwise, let’s revisit this fascinating and newly-relevant massacre.
To understand the context in which the crime was committed, it helps to detour briefly into the history of skinheads
, a complex and misunderstood British subculture that arose in the late 1960s. A multiracial appendage of the mod scene, the original skinheads were not outwardly racist; in fact, they patterned their style off of Jamaican ska and reggae singers, which many had grown familiar with while working next to Caribbean immigrants on London’s docks. The look was distinctive: shaved heads, piercings, workers' boots (often Doc Martens), suspenders, tight jeans. Unwavering working-class pride, along with a modest disdain for “feminine” hippies, was the only major requirement for joining in.
That all changed in the mid-1970s, when England’s economy stumbled at the same time as immigration from its former colonies intensified. The meager job prospects of young white bulldogs proved a handy recruiting tool for white supremacists, who added a swastika armband to the unofficial skinhead uniform and set about expanding their ranks. "They take our jobs and our homes," one representative neo-Nazi told People
in 1981. "If they went back where they came from, look at the opportunities there would be for us."
Suddenly, skinheads were divided into rival camps — anti-racist and racist, SHARPs
and “boneheads.” When the movement migrated to the United States 30 years ago, the split remained intact. To be sure, only a tiny portion of the population identified with either strand; by 1998, an expert with the Southern Poverty Law Center pegged the total number of racist skinheads in the States at 4,000. (Don Terry, reporting
for the New York Times
in 1998, joked that “there are probably more Elvis impersonators [in Las Vegas] than skinheads.”*) Even fewer took up the anti-racist mantle. Yet the animosity between the two groups was real, and violence —vandalism, bullying, street fights—erupted with troubling frequency. In Las Vegas, young Nazis often congregated outside of Durango High School, where they reportedly beat black and Mexican classmates with bats and screamed "race traitor" at white pupils who didn’t share a similar sensibility about fashion or politics.
In 1998, the city’s most popular skinheads were Daniel Shersty and Lin Newborn, best friends and co-founders of the Las Vegas chapter of Anti-Racist Action
. Neither had a bigoted bone in his body. Shersty was an “All-American” boy; before enlisting in the Air Force to earn money for college, the handsome Floridian played trumpet in the school band and started on the varsity lacrosse team. His true passion, though, was acting, and he broadcast his love of the theater by tattooing on his left shoulder the masks of comedy and tragedy, one black and the other white. Newborn, called “Spit” by just about everyone, was a few years older than Daniel and the father of a two-year-old son. He was also one of the only black skinheads in the country, a man steeped in the history of the movement’s inclusive origins. An employee at a body-piercing shop, he maintained a reputation as a responsible and thoughtful guy. One police officer who patrolled the neighborhood where Newborn worked called Spit “a super-nice kid,'' who was “looked up to by the kids in the area.” That included Shersty, who met Newborn after arriving for duty at the nearby Nellis Air Force Base.
The twosome bonded immediately over music and their attraction to pretty girls with nose rings, and they organized the nascent ARA chapter by appealing to working-class kids in search of a like-minded community of peers. “We pay our bills, and we don't do drugs. We drink, but we don't drink and drive,” one member told the Review-Journal
on July 7, 1998. “We look out for each other." An old friend of Shersty told the Orlando Weekly’s Lynda Edwards
that his activism “filled an intellectual thirst in him, and much more.” It also left the pair vulnerable to abuse. In 1996, Newborn’s house was shot at by unknown assailants after he delivered a speech at a gathering of SHARPs. In June 1998, Shersty’s car windows were smashed and a stack of ARA brochures left inside were “methodically torn to confetti” (Orlando Weekly
). Both received harassing telephone calls. The message was clear: they were being watched.
Neither were too concerned with their personal safety when two blond women walked into Newborn’s parlor on July 3, 1998 and asked for navel piercings. Shersty was coincidentally visiting his friend that day, and the foursome joked and flirted while Newborn completed his work. The ladies, as it turned out, were on their way to a Fourth of July party in the desert and wanted to see if their new friends would accompany them later that night. Newborn and Shersty enthusiastically agreed. Because the route to the gathering was confusing, one of the girls told Newborn to meet them at a highway exit just outside of Las Vegas so they could follow them for the rest of the drive. Mark Isquith, the parlor’s owner, watched as the boys celebrated their good fortune by high-fiving on the sidewalk outside of his shop. A store receipt shows that they purchased six-packs of Newcastle and Beck's shortly after 12:30 a.m. before pulling onto Centennial Parkway
Prepped to party, they drove right into an ambush. Prosecutors and police agreed that Newborn was the primary target. Footprints suggested the black skinhead was grabbed first and dragged from the car. Shersty likely dove after the attacker in an effort to free his friend. He was shot dead on the spot with a shotgun. One of the assailants then lugged Newborn 150 yards away and executed him, too. Neither victim was robbed, nor did either carry a criminal record. Newborn was 24, Shersty was 20.
Three men driving ATVs in the desert the next morning stumbled upon a curious sight. Not only did they find Shersty’s body lying next to a Chevy Cavalier, but they saw two men and a woman emerge from a nearby patch of land—where Newborn’s body was ultimately discovered—and drive away quickly. The ATVers jotted down the license plate of the fleeing car, which police traced back to the parents of Melissa Hack, a girl who happened to be dating John Butler, the leader of a small, local neo-Nazi group called the Independent Nazi Skins. Ten days later, police spotted Butler, carrying a handgun, and took him into custody.
During Butler’s trial, which took 18 months to get underway, his attorneys tried to convince the jury that their client was not present at the time of the murder and only offered to help friends cover up the killing hours after it occurred. "He is guilty of being stupid," his lawyer said during the opening statement, according to the Review-Journal
(December 8, 2000). "But he is not guilty of murder." Joseph Justin, the other man spotted at the crime scene, provided a much different account during his testimony. He contended that on their way to collect stray evidence early that morning, Butler spoke freely of his involvement in the slayings, identifying Melissa’s brother Ross Hack as the mystery co-conspirator. It didn’t help Butler’s case when prosecutors pointed out that Nazi websites commonly promoted Independence Day as an ideal time to kill “race traitors.” After more than three days of deliberation, the jury sentenced the skinhead to two counts of murder. He was initially sent to death row, but his sentence was later reduced to life-without-parole thanks to a technicality during the penalty phase of the trial.
Though pleased with the outcome, it always irked local authorities that Butler was the only person for which there was sufficient evidence to prosecute. It seemed obvious to them that Butler had help pulling off the complex plot. "We have one bird in hand and are watching several in the bushes,” U.S. District Attorney Christopher Laurent told the Orlando Weekly
at the time. “We're collecting the evidence. They're gonna fall."
It took 13 years, but Perez’ Justice Department is finally getting closer
. On February 29, the feds charged both Hacks, as well as a man named Leland Jones, with murder and firearms offenses. According to a statement, “prosecutors expect to introduce evidence at trial that all three defendants were associated with racist neo-Nazi skinhead groups at the time of the slayings.” The Hacks are eligible for the death penalty, so the trial should garner significant headlines. Like the investigation into Martin’s killing, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the proceedings.
*This is certainly true; between 1995 and 1999, the city’s gang unit documented just 132 racist skinheads, according to the Review-Journal.
I hope you spend a few minutes reading my new feature
for The Classical
on the House of David and its famous barnstorming baseball team of the 1920s and 1930s. The piece was a ton of fun to report and I’m thrilled my friendly editor
decided to publish it relatively early in his site’s run, which has gotten off to a great start already. Y’all should definitely reward the crew over there with pageviews and follows
While digging into the history of the program, it was striking to see how often members of this tiny Michigan commune played with or against genuine baseball legends. One HoD ringer whose name did not make it into the piece was pioneering female pitcher Jackie Mitchell
, and I thought I’d use the space here to flesh out her fascinating biography. Let’s call it the HoD director’s cut.
Mitchell was not the first professional female player, a designation that belongs to Lizzie Arlington
, but she’s certainly one of the most decorated. Born sometime between 1912 and 1914 in Massachusetts, Mitchell was raised by a supportive and athletically-minded father, an optician who encouraged her to swim and play sports at an early age. She also had the good fortune of living next door to Dazzy Vance
, a Dodgers great who won the NL MVP award in 1924 and struck out over 2,000 hitters in his 16-year career
. During the 12 months they shared adjoining apartments, Vance took a liking to his little neighbor and taught her how to throw a drop ball, otherwise known as a sinker, among many other tricks. Jackie absorbed it all. By 1930, she had earned a spot on a womens team in Chattanooga run by the chief scout of the Washington Senators, Joe Engel. According to her father’s own scouting report
at the time, Mitchell “has one of the most deceptive pitching deliveries, hits fair, and fields way above the average that a boy of her age can field.” The local Middletown Times Herald
added these relevant details: “Interviews have found her distinctly feminine – she cooks and plays a piano.”
On top of running the Engelettes, Engel
oversaw baseball operations for the Chattanooga Lookouts, one of the Senators’ farm clubs. During the Depression, the "Barnum of Baseball” tried just about every promotion
he could dream up to attract fans, from raffling off a house to staging a (papier-mâché) elephant hunt on the field. And in the spring of 1931, he got the bright idea to call up Mitchell for an exhibition game against the mighty New York Yankees, who were traveling through Tennessee en route to the Big Apple following spring training.
The novelty of watching a small teenage woman with an odd sidearm delivery toe the rubber against the greatest hitters in the world drew 4,000 fans to the ballpark. Mitchell did not disappoint. After Chattanooga’s starter gave up two hits to kick off the contest, the manager immediately brought in Mitchell to face the meat of the Yankees' order: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzari. Ruth took two huge cuts on the first two deliveries, whiffing on both. Frustrated, the Sultan of Swat asked the ump to check the ball. It turned up clean. After a pitch outside, Mitchell painted the corner with another sinker, catching Ruth off balance for the third strike. Disgusted, the slugger “flung his bat away in high disdain and trudged to the bench” (New York Times
, April 3, 1931). Gehrig fared no better, swinging through the first three pitches he saw for the second out of the inning. Lazzari earned a four-pitch walk before the skipper turned back to the bullpen, ending Mitchell’s day. The Yankees went on to win 14-4, but it was Jackie’s incredible inning that dominated headlines the next morning (and for weeks after). The New York Daily News’
characterization was typical: “A swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick.”**
If you think the story sounds a bit fishy, you’re not the only one. To this day, nobody has been able to determine conclusively whether or not the Bambino and the Buster -- unbeknown to Mitchell -- took a dive in exchange for an under-the-table settlement. If I had to wager, I’d say the evidence points toward some type of deal. The previous season, Ruth and Gehrig posted OPS’ of 1.225
respectively, both of which still rank among the top 25 single-season offensive performances in Major League Baseball history. Combined, they only struck out in 9 percent of their at-bats, and those came against top-tier pitchers, not 130-pound amateurs who, as the Washington Post
reported at the time,
had “been laid up with a sore arm.” Not to mention the contest was originally scheduled
for April Fool’s Day, but had to be pushed back 24 hours because of rain.
On the other hand, Lazzari claims he went to the plate looking to hack. And MLB commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sure didn’t think Mitchell’s performance was a hoax; embarrassed by the spectacle of a lady taking down his superstars, he voided her contract
with Chattanooga within days, calling baseball “too strenuous for women.”*** Maybe her stuff on that April afternoon was just that damn good?
Once booted from the Scenic City, Mitchell played briefly in the Piedmont League and toured with Babe Didrikson before signing a contract with the House of David in 1933. Here she is, in the left corner, courtesy of the HoD museum in Addison, Michigan:
The commune paid the “typically boyish” hurler $1,000 per month (NYT
, July 15, 1933) and allowed her parents to travel with the team. (Not that there was much in the way of carousing on road trips with Christian Millennialists.) She laced up her spikes for the Jesus Boys until 1937, when she quit baseball and took an office job with her father's company. Officials from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which debuted in 1943, couldn’t even pull Mitchell out of retirement. I guess when you’ve struck out Babe Ruth and played several seasons with the most popular barnstormers in the sport's history, pitching for the Fort Wayne Daisies or Muskegon Lassies doesn’t sound all that appealing.
There are some neat photos of Mitchell here
, including one in which Dazzy Vance’s protege is introduced to Ruth and Gehrig. And if you still haven’t read my House of David piece, you can find it here
. I hope you like it.
*It was also hilarious to look at hairy photos.
**The Atlanta Constitution
added another dollop of sexism in its coverage of Mitchell on June 27, 1931: “If you’ve never seen her pitch, you probably think of her as one of these stuck-up, temperamental woman athletes possessed with a sense of her own importance and hard to get along with, don’t you? You should change your mind. Jackie Mitchell … is a shy little girl, who blushed under her sunburned face when asked her full name.”
***The MLB formally banned the signing of women to contracts on June 21, 1952.
In 1895, the famed architect Jarvis Hunt
and two fellow cycling enthusiasts opened the Chicago Saddle and Cycle Club.
The men “felt the necessity,” as the Chicago Tribune
would later report (May 14, 1899), “of having some place where they and their friends might be able to rest after a spin without being obliged to patronize the public gardens.” They choose for their clubhouse a small patch of beachfront land near Foster Avenue on the city’s North Side, where it was “no libel to call a club there built on the lake a country club” (June 3, 1945). Four years after opening for business, Hunt designed a beautiful veranda-festooned building, which overlooked a pool, horse stables, a boat house, and a three-hole golf course. The city’s financiers and socialites who could afford memberships joined the exclusive club in droves; like many of the city’s turn-of-the-century athletic associations
, it provided the 1 percent with a relaxed atmosphere for networking and seclusion from the rapidly developing city. (“Tall skyscrapers are so near,” the Tribune
reporter noted in 1945, “that in the future of helicopters, it could probably not even be a landing field.”)
Louis Straub was the Saddle Club’s nighttime bartender. For 12 years, beginning in 1923, Straub would come to work after collecting delinquent bills for Commonwealth Edison during the day and sling drinks to Chicago’s rich and famous. And in the early morning hours of February 3, 1935, having closed up the Saddle Club after another night of revelry, Straub was shot seven times with a .38 caliber pistol and left for dead “crumbled in a basement closet” (UP). He was 46 years old.
Straub’s slaying, “as baffling as a modern detective thriller” (AP, February 3), was never solved. Having read through the Tribune
archives, which included several lengthy front-page stories detailing the crime and subsequent investigation*, here’s what I can piece together about the night in question.
It began routinely enough. Straub left his home, at 901 W. Argyle, at roughly 6:30 p.m. He carried in his wallet $54 dollars. His 34-year-old wife Helen, a former showgirl, went to play bridge at a friend’s house. The Saddle Club’s manager, who happened to be Straub’s brother, left the premises after the departure of Luke Williams, a former college tennis star, around 9 p.m. The other employees followed, entrusting Straub to serve the only remaining party, made up of six Gold Coast residents “well known in the younger social set.” During the course of his shift, Helen called Louis three times to find out when he might finish and if he would like a ride home, a favor she offered two or three times per week. “The last time I called him,” she told police, “he said he would be ready in a few minutes as a party of young people were just leaving.”
After playing bridge and consuming somewhere between three and six bottles of beer, Helen Straub left her card game at 1:30 a.m. and dropped off two friends at their homes. (Ellen Billie Edlin, one of those two women, told police she got home around 2 a.m.) Next, Helen swung by her own apartment to pick up her “white spitz dog” and drove to the club, which was quiet and dark when she arrived. Worried that Louis’ high blood pressure might have caused him trouble, she roused the night watchman on duty, Gus Schwartz, and began searching the campus, a spot “well isolated from the eyes of the curious” by “tall trees, dense shrubbery, and a high wire fence.” At Straub’s suggestion, the pair eventually opened a first-floor door on the north end of the building, one that Schwartz was confident had been locked on his last inspection three hours prior. It wasn’t. At the end of a 25-foot hallway was a lavatory, where Helen discovered her husband's “bullet-torn body” (AP). Said Schwartz: “I felt for Straub’s pulse, but could detect none. Mrs. Straub did not touch the body. She merely looked in the doorway. Then I took her outside.” The watchman called Straub’s brother and then a doctor, who pronounced the bartender dead at the scene. At 3:15 a.m., the quartet finally alerted the police, who held Straub and Edlin in custody as material witnesses.
The cops came to several firm conclusions within the first 24 hours of their investigation. Given his attire, Straub was waiting outside (and probably smoking a cigar) as the assailant approached. Somehow, he was coaxed back into the building’s basement, where he was “sprayed with a withering fire” (February 4). Because of club rules, Straub would not have let a man into the building that late at night, particularly one he didn’t know. And it wasn’t a botched robbery; though his wallet was emptied, the club’s safe and Straub’s watch were not touched. More likely, the murder was committed by a woman who was familiar with the interior of the club and thus knew Straub personally. In other words, it was a crime of passion, or perhaps vengeance.
Helen Straub proclaimed deep love for her slain beau. “Louis was the best husband in the world,” she told police on February 5, as reported by the Atlanta Constitution
. “I knew of no other women in his life. We were very happy.” But detectives unearthed several “clews”** that complicated the picture of their relationship. For starters, Schwartz testified that Straub frequently entertained ladies at the bar “during the midnight hours.” Police corroborated this fact, telling reporters on February 6 that “it was easy to discern that as a husband he may have left something to be desired.” Helen Straub, it seems, found solace among her female friends, especially Mrs. Edlin, to whom she had given a $150 watch for Christmas two months earlier. “It had been no secret among this group [of bridge players],” the state’s attorney’s office learned, “that Straub and his wife had been on the verge of a break since last summer over Mrs. Straub’s affection for Mrs. Edlin.” The Tribune
added its (quaint and homophobic) two cents, writing that “this strange tangle of lives and loves … probably deserves the attention of a neurologist as well as a policeman.” Curiously, the Straubs also lived in a lavish apartment that no bartender could afford even on income from two jobs. And the pair had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy on Louis’ life that contained an indemnity clause doubling Helen’s payout in case of violent death. Obviously, seven slugs to the chest qualified.
The authorities thought, for a fleeting moment, that they had cracked the case wide open on February 7, when a taxi driver named Kenneth Colling came forward and admitted that he picked up a woman closely resembling Edlin and drove her to the Saddle Club about the time of the murder. As Colling described the sequence, he waited outside for 15 minutes as the meter ran before his fare burst out of the building, sprinted into his cab, ordered him to “get the hell out of here,” and asked to be dropped off at a bar somewhere along Argyle Street. He did what he was told. Witnesses at the watering hole Colling chose remember seeing someone purchase a pint of whisky before quickly exiting. Edlin, not-so-coincidentally, went missing the day after she was released from custody. Upon searching her apartment, investigators stumbled upon a dresser drawer that contained “a pair of women’s suede gloves, stained with some dark liquid.” This was suspicious, to say the least. Yet that promising lead, teased out before DNA testing
was available, hit a dead end: when pressed, employees of the liquor store expressed confidence that Edlin was not
the woman who bought their booze, and she was dismissed as a possible suspect.
Stray clues emerged over the next week. The most intriguing was a lidless brown casserole dish, filled with turkey and spaghetti, that was found in the Straubs’ apartment. The club’s chef said he had prepared the concoction so Louis could enjoy a late-night meal, but the coworker could not explain how the dish got back to Louis’ house while the bartender was still on duty. (This fascinated the city’s crime reporters, who peppered their copy with questions about the mysterious casserole, even after one of the partygoers admitted “he could not be positive that the bartender was in the club all of the time during the preceding five hours.”) During a second round of questioning, Helen Straub also divulged that she had bought a .38 caliber pistol from her father several months prior to the murder and sold it for profit to Peter Breckie, a 51-year-old electrician with whom she had carried on a decade-long extramarital relationship. She further contended that Breckie “once threatened to kill Louis so that he and I could be together.” Her suitor admitted “improprieties” but firmly denied that he had purchased any weapon, that he had it in for Louis Straub, or that he was anywhere near the Saddle Club on February 3. Brickie’s wife substantiated his alibi.
The state’s attorney didn’t know where else to look. The last Tribune
story filed about the high-profile saga, datelined February 18, described how “police met blank walls at every turn in the investigation of the mysterious murder.” They couldn’t figure out who hopped into Colling’s cab, what substance was splattered on Edlin’s glove, why Straub might have allowed a woman to enter the building late at night, or how the victim maintained such an expensive home in the first place. And just like that, two weeks after the grisly crime was perpetrated, the Saddle and Cycle Club murder went cold.
There is a brief coda to the story. In September of 1936, Helen Straub and Louis’ brother Ernest entered into a civil proceeding to determine who should receive the $20,410 life insurance payout for Louis’ violent death. Attorneys representing the bartenders’ sibling set out to prove that Helen herself was the killer, calling 50 witnesses to testify. They included a neighbor who remembered seeing Helen cut Louis with a butcher knife and strike him in the head with a vase at different points in their marriage as well as a night clerk at the hotel Louis lived in as a bachelor, who said Straub told him he had survived another
late-night shooting attempt at the Saddle and Cycle Club sometime in 1926. Helen even took the stand; 20 pounds heavier than when Louis died, a court reporter described her as “nervous,” adding that she “became more petulant during cross examination.” Still, in a lengthy ruling, the presiding judge freed the widow of any blame and awarded her the cash. Then, three years later, taxi driver Kenneth Colling was arrested as a co-conspirator in a robbery, having arranged the hold-up of an auditor for the Sievert Electric Company. His connection to the Straub case was never fully explored, which to these untrained eyes seems like a giant missed opportunity.
The Saddle and Cycle Club, 77 years after its veteran bartender was shot, continues to operate along Lake Michigan. In 1996, the Tribune called it
“the city's last true upscale country club.” If you’ve got the money, join at your own risk.
*Every citation in this piece comes from the Chicago Tribune
, between February 3 and February 18, unless otherwise noted.
**How the Tribune spelled “clues,” hilariously, in the mid-1930s.
The original pinball wizard wasn’t deaf, dumb, or blind, but he was lucky.
On a gloomy Chicago day in 1937, Steven Kordek
—who passed away last month at the age of 100—was wandering down Ashland Avenue without an umbrella when the skies opened up. To stay dry, he jumped into the lobby of the nearest building, then occupied by the Genco Pinball Company. The snap decision was serendipitous; Kordek needed work after stints with Idaho’s Forestry Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the gaming firm was in the market for a solderer. Within minutes, a woman on site offered him a job in the factory for 45 cents-an-hour, which he promptly accepted.
Genco made a wise investment. Over the next decade, Kordek was promoted from the production line into the engineering department. In 1947, his bosses assigned him an important solo project: build a game that improves upon the standard design of the day, in which a player would release a ball and then shake the table manually until it landed in a hole. Borrowing an idea from a rival company, Kordek placed two electrified flippers near the drain at the bottom of the board, giving the pinballer more control and the power to shoot the ball up the playing surface rapidly. “Triple Action” was an instant hit, debuting to wide praise at a 1948 trade show. Once manufactured in mass, teens fell in love with Kordek’s innovation, flocking to pizza parlors and arcades with quarters in tow. “It really was revolutionary,” says David Silverman
, executive director of the National Pinball Museum in Baltimore, “and pretty much everyone else followed suit.”
I’d like to say I shot my first pinball game at the Lincoln Mall
arcade, flanked by my Dad and brother on one of our periodic (and beloved) “Men’s Club” nights. Like many Americans born after 1976, it’s more likely I pulled back my first plunger at the adjacent Chuck E. Cheese’s
, a peculiar American institution with a fascinating corporate history.
Chuck E. Cheese’s (originally called Pizza Time Theater) was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell,
well known in tech circles for inventing Pong and founding Atari. The concept, developed over a two-and-a-half-year period in the mid-1970s, was strongly informed by Bushnell’s job experience and personal taste. While in high school and college, Bushnell—an admirer of Walt Disney—worked at an amusement park in Utah, where he took a particular interest in the skill-based midway games set up in between rides. Later in his career, the video game entrepreneur realized that few establishments catered to children who craved the lights and competition of an arcade but were too young to visit one on their own. If designed properly, he figured that a family pizza joint stacked with games could square this circle, allowing young kids to play in a controlled environment while their dinner baked in the oven. In 1976, at the tender age of 33, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications for $28 million. The next year, his new company opened
its first Pizza Time Theater in San Jose.
The Californians who walked into Bushnell’s restaurant encountered a bewildering sight. Mounted on the wall of the dining room, at “center stage,” sat Chuck, a robot rat with a patterned vest and a thick 'New Joisey'' accent. (The character, voiced by John Widelock, was randomly based
on “Muggs McGinnis,” a pugnacious yet lovable thug who turned up in the 1940s movie series The East Side Kids
.) Chuck, who acted as master of ceremonies, was joined by 15 other pneumatically operated characters, a diverse assortment of personalities who wisecracked and sang two-minute “original” songs from various stages around the perimeter.* There was Pasqually, an Italian chef; Sally Sachet, a disco skunk; Dolli Dimples, a piano-playing hippopotamus; The Beagles, a rock-and-roll quartet; and Helen Henny, a folk-singing chicken. A reporter for the Wall Street Journal
hilariously described the spectacle as “dinner theater for the preteen set.” (March 31, 1994)
Games occupied the rest of the room. Kindergartners jumped onto kiddie rides or into a ball pit. Those with more gaming experience tried their luck at pinball, skeeball, or Atari games like Asteroids. Teens weren’t welcome at all
; as the marketing director told the New York Times
in September 1981, ''if another teenager never sets foot in our stores, that'll be just fine with us.” The only troublemaker these “neighborhood Disneylands” accommodated was the giant rat with the toothy grin on the sign outside.
Shortly after cutting the ribbon at his first restaurant, Bushnell had a falling out with Atari’s new parent company, so he repurchased his San Jose outlet along with the rights to his idea for $500,000. This proved to be a profitable decision. Over the next half-decade, Chuck E. Cheese’s became the hottest restaurant chain in the country, one that Fortune
felt comfortable anointing
(PDF) the “future for the family restaurant business” in its July 1982 issue. Targeting “middle-class suburban areas where there are enough young couples with children willing to spend as much as $20 at each visit for pizza, ice cream, or sandwiches,” (NYT
, September 1981), Bushnell opened up an average of one shop every five days. Visiting Chuck E. Cheese's was less expensive than a trip to an amusement park and more exciting than a comparably priced trip to the cineplex. And by instituting
a token system for his games, kids spent their distracted parents’ money quickly. In 1980, a hotel mogul from Kansas City launched Showbiz Pizza Place,
an enterprise patently modeled after Chuck’s brand. Two years later, amid a national recession, Bushnell’s company registered a 453 percent increase in profit from the same quarter in 1981. Its stock price eclipsed $30 per share. “It's a very high revenue business," one analyst told the Baltimore Sun
in August 1982, "much higher than the average fast food chain.”
Building a sustainable business, however, required Chuck and his friends to convince families to make repeat visits. And Bushnell’s champions on Wall Street failed to make two simple observations about the early Chuck E. Cheese’s: the pizza wasn’t tasty, described by various reporters at the time as “less-than-superior” or “unexceptional,” and a trip to the noisy, rat infested parlor was a horrible nightmare for parents. Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly
(December 20, 1982) describes a typical scene, which is both manic and depressing:"Enter to bedlam: On the right, the "cabaret." A wildlife movie in progress, a half-dozen families consuming pizza in a darkened, cafeteria atmosphere. A tot of two weeps hopelessly on his father's shoulder as Chuck E. Cheese himself, larger than life and possibly twice as threatening to some youngsters, vainly tries to comfort the child. To the left, the "lounge." Again the cafeteria motif but the far corner features canned Beatles music piped through a quartet of dog robots—The Beagles—jerking to some nameless rhythm dictated by their gear and sprocket innards. Childish cries of joy and sorry grow louder at the video game arcade."
To make matters worse, the company built so many restaurants so quickly that the individual franchises were forced to compete with each other directly, making it difficult to recoup the hefty fixed costs—$1 million per store—it took to open up in the first place. In the end, a stressed family might outsource birthday party planning duties to Chuck once every 12 months, but few made the pizza joint a regular dinning destination. It was just too insufferable. “Within two years,” the Wall Street Journal
reported in March 1983, “the entire concept was in trouble.” After patronage dipped** and Wall Street investors dumped 500,000 stock shares in one day, Pizza Time Theater was forced into bankruptcy in 1984. Many of its franchises followed.
But the big rat didn’t go down without a fight. Brock Hotel Group, which owned the derivative Showbiz Pizza chain, bought out Pizza Time Theater shortly after it went under and immediately started rehabbing its image. Right off the bat, McBiz brought in new prizes, expanded its menu, reworked its pizza recipe, and beefed up its beer and wine list. A few years later, the chain ploughed $120 million into a massive remodeling project, giving face-lifts to almost 250 outlets. Most importantly, the firm realized that a sarcastic, creepy rat was probably not the most appealing spokesperson for a themed restaurant. With the help of the Zambrelli LLC advertising agency, the owners traded in Chuck’s trademark tuxedo for “skater-chic baggy shorts” and knee pads. "We need to ratchet up the coolness factor," an executive who worked on the project told Nation's Restaurant News
in 1997. As corny as that strategy sounds, it worked; by 1998, Chuck E.'s parent company was operating more than 300 stores in 44 states and routinely posted record quarterly earnings. There are over 500
today, with more on the way
Bushnell, who spends his time hawking memory games
, is probably happy to see his brand still kicking after 35 years in the game. Sure, it's a stressful place to visit. But parents now have fewer legitimate reasons to deny their kids the pleasure of eating in front of Chuck from Jersey.
*The software program synchronizes voices, body, and facial movements to songs and dialogue offered in original presentations.
**Deep in denial, executives at Pizza Time Theater first blamed their poor performance on the popularity of “E.T.” and then “unusually rainy weather."