The Home Amusement Co. opens like a geode inside a flat, brick warehouse. In a rabbit's warren of showrooms shine a thousand unearthly lights, and down this fluorescent labyrinth lies a fine madness.
It's an arcade of the eccentric, a wish list of the upwardly mobile -- a collector's carnival of jukeboxes, pinball tables, slot machines, gumball bubble-tops, Coke machines and carousel horses.
Video games beep and whistle, pinball mazes shudder and clang, and the upended fans of old 45s seem to shimmy under jukebox hoods in the tavern light of neon signs. A block off Rockville Pike, Ali Baba's cave lies waiting. Do you know where your dream machines are?
"When I started this, people thought I had lost my mind," says Chuck Neidinger, owner of the 10-year-old Home Amusement. "Now, anybody who lays claim to running a business like this more than one-tenth this size, I'll tell him right to his face he's a liar."
To run away to Home Amusement is to join the circus. Brassy, old-fashioned cash registers face off with bulge-fronted slot machines. The synthetic primary colors of neon beer ads warm the dull homey sheen of refinished wood.
A walk down the pinball aisle is a travelogue of baby-boom trends -- a sociological shootout at the fantasy factory. Every briefly famous character or TV show -- Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, Charlie's Angels, Hell's Angels, Sheena, sharks, surfers, skateboarders -- left a mark on the garish, cartoon cover of at least one pinball machine.
Most magnetic of all are the jukeboxes, the metal-flake Rock-olas and the late-'50s Seeburgs with Caddie-like chrome fins, the modern flat-tops and the high-domed Wurlitzers that hark back to the console radio.
"This is the jukebox -- the Wurlitzer 1015," says John Conversano, one of Home Amusement's 20 employes, patting the 1946 collector's item on its half-moon "bubbler" hood.
"This is our specialty; we try to always have one in stock. We had two this morning, one on each side of the doorway, but we just sold one."
The usual price tag for a 1015, with its 78 rpm cartridge replaced with a 45 stack, is $9,500.
The real rarity, Wurlitzer's 1942 model 950, with its languorous peacocks and ornate curlicues, can cost twice that.
Neidinger says he has two standing orders for 950s from collectors willing to pay more than $16,000 apiece, but, "I've been trying for two years to get one. I thought I had one for $16,400, but the deal fell through."
Fewer than 3,500 of the 950 models were made, Neidinger says, and "the usual rule of thumb in prewar antiques is that the retention rate is about 10 percent, so there're probably only about 300 of them left."
But the craze for this most Deco-dent of jukeboxes is so strong that Sharper Image, the apogee of upwardly mobile toyshops, offers a spanking-new replica of the Wurlitzer 950 for $8,400 (or $8,600 stocked with 100 45 records).
The mystique of the jukebox has partly to do with its evocation of a bygone innocence, encompassing both the "American Graffiti" era of soda shops and Saturday night cruisers, and the American heartland of long-necked beer bottles and short tempers and shot glasses.
But in an era of high-tech and personal stereos -- of VCRs and CDs and VCDs and Walkmen and Watchmen and underwater-men -- a jukebox is a presence, a solid social center of popular music.
And that's part of the fantasy.
None of Neidinger's dreams comes cheap. Restored, reconditioned, resplendent, most of the adult toys at Home Amusement are part of the 1980s life style of the rich and nostalgic.
Although prices start in the lower hundreds for some of the pinball machines and more modern jukeboxes, most new pinballs go for $3,000 and up, and a carousel horse, even unrestored, can scarcely be had for under $10,000.
In fact, the more elaborate animals, featured in a recent Sotheby's auction catalogue, were estimated at prices that would suggest they were gold-plated and fully automated.
"Ninety percent of the people who want this stuff can't afford it," Neidinger jokes, "and the 10 percent who could wouldn't have it in their house. That doesn't leave me with a lot."
Among Neidinger's more famous clients are Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan, boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard, sportscaster Irv Cross, oil maven and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, and various Kennedys and Carters.
In the 18,000 square feet of warehouse space in Rockville, Neidinger keeps about 300 jukeboxes, 500 pinball tables, 100 slot machines, 200 video games and uncounted smaller entertainments. The central showrooms are surrounded by extra storage (pinball tables three deep) and a half-dozen minishops where the jukes and games are restored and rebuilt in a thick cloud of varnish and machine oil.
The carousel animals have their own menagerie to the side, the various round-shouldered Coke machines are lined up in a sort of alley, and a merry-go-round of four humpbacked worms is waiting outside.
There is also a storehouse and reconditioning shop in the former Norfolk & Western railroad station filled with not only the unrestored models but the items like bumper cars and back yard carousels that won't fit in the Rockville warren.
What is now a family obsession -- Neidinger's three sons and daughter are employed at the firm -- began as a garage sale.
About 1974, Neidinger says, "We were like most families, we'd be sitting around the kitchen table and we'd say, 'Let's go down and fight about what we're going to watch on TV.' I had this great big game room with nothing in it but a ping-pong table. And I don't play ping-pong. So I got a couple of pinball machines and a shuffle alley."
In those days, Neidinger says, old arcade machines "were almost guaranteed not to work; they'd been beat to shreds, looked like they'd been in the river, and once you closed the door, that was it" -- no repair, no return. So as Neidinger bought machines, he began fixing them up a little cosmetically, and hiring vending servicemen he knew (he used to run a TV repair and hotel vending machine service) to work on the insides.
"So I'd buy a new piece, and I'd put the old one in the garage, and finally one day my wife said, 'You've got to get rid of this stuff -- I can't get the car in the garage.' So I put a two-day ad in The Post, and all hell broke loose."
Soon Neidinger was buying, restoring and turning over a garageful of machines every six months. Three years later he opened a store, and in 1978 he moved into the warehouse on Parklawn Drive.
In the last 10 years, Neidinger says, the market for jukeboxes and the like has almost priced itself out. The latest jukebox fanatics are Europeans, who can use the favorable dollar exchange to buy even the most valuable boxes.
"You never know where the market will go," Neidinger sighs. "In 1977 I sold a pair of 1015s for $300 each. I kept the bill of sale as a reminder."