For more than a decade, the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas has welcomed anyone with a spare quarter — or four — to play hundreds of old bleeping, flashing, flipping, clicking games dating to the late 1940s. Located three miles from the Las Vegas Strip, the quirky arcade/museum has long been worth the cab fare for visiting pinheads. Then the pandemic hit. A government mandate forced it to close for 12 weeks, and then placed limits on capacity. Tourism traffic took a wallop. All told, the Pinball Hall of Fame’s revenue is down nearly $500,000 compared with recent years.

It’s a story that’s become all too familiar. Across the country, museums and attractions (along with restaurants, businesses and nonprofits) are struggling. “No museum has been able to fully escape the impacts of the pandemic, and it has impacted museums of every type, size and location,” says Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), which represents museums, science centers, arboretums, gardens, zoos and other cultural institutions.

An October survey by Seattle-based Wilkening Consulting and AAM found that nearly 30 percent of museums remain closed since lockdown last March. Facilities that have reopened report an average of 35 percent of their previous attendance, and many museum directors surveyed said there was either a significant chance of the museum closing in the next year without additional financial relief (12 percent) or they were unsure (17 percent). Museums that rely on hands-on experiences have been especially likely to face challenges, Lott says.

To bring in funds, many institutions are getting creative. In North Carolina, the Greenville Museum of Art has offered pet portraits in exchange for donations. In California, the San Diego Automotive Museum held a raffle for one of its classic cars to raise money to pay its staff. The Tenement Museum in Manhattan has temporarily closed its physical doors but offers virtual tours, neighborhood tours and virtual school programs to help stay afloat. Zoos across the country have been especially clever, scheduling porcupines, hippos, llamas and giraffes to make appearances on video calls for a fee.

And, of course, many organizations are resorting to tried-and-true digital fundraising platforms, like GoFundMe, to ask for help. That’s the case for Pinball Hall of Fame founder Tim Arnold, who launched a GoFundMe in hopes of bringing in $200,000 needed to help pay the bills to complete construction on a new, larger building on the Strip — which was in the works well before covid-19 — that is scheduled to open this spring. To date, he has raised more than $135,000.

“We have to come up with a check for the builder the first of every month,” Arnold says. “It was doubtful we were going to make it to March 1, but with the money that came in we’ve probably got March 1 taken care of. And that leaves April 1.”

Run as a nonprofit, the pinball museum has, in the past, donated part of its proceeds to local charities. Now, with the museum’s own future in limbo, Arnold is hoping that the cast of characters who have plunked coins in the games through the years will come through, and the pinball show will go on.

Blast from the past

For some Las Vegas visitors, a trip to the Pinball Hall of Fame, with its 200 or so machines, is a part of the regular itinerary. That’s the case for Gregory Crosby, a former Las Vegas resident who moved to New York City in 2004. Crosby says playing pinball there is part of his “sentimental routine” when he returns to Las Vegas, which is about every three years.

“I love the beauty of the machines and enjoy playing them, even if I’ll never be a pinball wizard. To see them lined up, all from different eras, is to enjoy a montage of late-20th-century popular aesthetics,” Crosby says.

He adds that the Pinball Hall of Fame is a “uniquely Vegas institution. . . . I make it a point to tell friends who are visiting Vegas to seek it out, as it’s something that visitors don’t often know about.”

When — and if — the new Pinball Hall of Fame opens, it will be three times the size of the current location, with plans for nearly 750 games. In addition to pinball, Arnold owns a wide variety of video games and mechanical amusements from the last 70-plus years: Mold-A-Rama machines from Disneyland, mechanical driving and flying games, fortunetelling machines, baseball games, quasi-gambling machines.

He knows the history and highlights of each of the games — including an old BB machine gun game from the famed Riverview Park, a sprawling amusement park in Chicago that operated from 1904 to 1967. “This is a self-contained, fully operational machine gun that uses BBs that ricochet, spark and make a lot of noise,” he explains, taking the tone of a mad scientist. “It’s incredibly dangerous. We had to build [protective] covers to keep it from taking people’s eyes out. . . . It was so dangerous it was fun.”

Arnold, who is 64, is something of a relic himself. A self-described curmudgeon, he prefers to talk about his collection and the museum’s feral cat colony (named Porange and the Yard Cats) rather than his customers. Vintage phrases like “fuddy-dud” and “kids today” roll off his tongue, and he describes visitors to the museum — mostly men — as “old farts with broken parts.” And yet, what gets him out of bed each day is working on the machines and helping others, which explains his determination to continue building a kind of pinball service organization/social club. “Everybody that volunteers here hangs out, and we have fun and we have secret handshakes and all that rigmarole,” he says.

His pinball history dates to about 1972, when he was 16 and a pizza parlor near his home in East Lansing, Mich., was selling pinball machines for $150. He pooled his money with a brother and a friend and bought Mayfair, by Gottlieb, and set it up in the garage. Like a magnet, it drew in neighborhood kids, and Arnold charged them 10 cents a game, or three for a quarter. “Pretty soon that was paid for, so we went out and got another one,” he says. As other friends toiled for their money, shoveling snow or delivering newspapers, he put his pinball machines in local businesses and split the proceeds with the business owners. “I was a capitalist,” he says.

He continued amassing games, and in time, Arnold and two brothers owned seven arcades in Michigan, called Pinball Pete’s. Operating the businesses, learning to fix the machines and collecting more games was, to Arnold, far more fulfilling than the time he spent in college. “I just wanted to be a pinball pirate,” he says.

Around 1990, he sold his share in the arcades and moved to Las Vegas to work toward his dream of opening a pinball museum. He built a storage facility on his property to store his 1,000 machines, and hosted pinball parties, called “Fun Nights.” He donated the proceeds to local charities, like the Salvation Army Southern Nevada. (In 2011, Arnold donated a whole lot of quarters — amounting to nearly $500,000 — to the organization.) He also started a nonprofit organization called the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, with the goal of raising money for a building that would, in time, be home to the Pinball Hall of Fame.

Since opening in 2006, the Pinball Hall of Fame has been run purely by volunteers. There’s no admission fee, and parking is free. Machines take quarters because pulling a real coin out of your pocket and putting it in a slot is all a part of the arcade experience. As Arnold sees it, the Pinball Hall of Fame is a nod to the low-price Vegas of yesteryear. “We’re of the old model of Vegas where we throw open the doors, put the sawdust on the floor and say come on in,” he says.

Leveling up

That model was working well as recently as early 2020. “A year ago, we were doing gangbusters. Couldn’t fit any more people in here. The parking lot was full,” Arnold says. At that time, plans were moving forward for the new Las Vegas Boulevard location, where he was betting on tourist foot traffic from nearby casinos, like Mandalay Bay.

Now, to make up for lost revenue, Arnold has cut costs where he can. He’s sold some machines and hosted events. But it’s just not enough for a coin-fueled emporium in a town fueled by and, at the moment, failed by tourism.

“We’re kind of proud of the fact that we’ve gotten this far ourselves. But we had to get over our whole pride thing and realize there are people out there that want to help and can help because they can afford it,” Arnold says. “So our idea was just kind of stop being such fuddy-duds and realize there’s a time to pass the hat, and that’s what we’ve done,” he says.

He needs to move out of the current location by April 5 and hopes to open the new location the next day — assuming no delays from permitting and other matters — to eliminate any downtime. He’ll be fixing up and adding games there gradually, and people will get to experience the history not just of pinball but of Arnold’s own path. In time, if you look hard enough, you’ll find the earliest games he purchased, including Mayfair.

But Arnold’s not one to get sentimental. Rather, he’s up against a deadline. And he knows that in this game, there’s no free play. “We’re heading for the rocks here,” he says. “We need some help. What I need is dead presidents, now.”

The Pinball Hall of Fame is one of so many institutions in need of assistance. When Lott reflects on the importance of museums and institutions in Las Vegas and beyond, she says they preserve things that are important to us as a society. She believes that these cultural torchbearers can play a role in pandemic recovery — both economically and psychologically — but only if they receive the needed financial support. If they don’t, there’s much at stake. “If a museum closes, it’s likely to close forever — and its collections, stories, expertise might be lost forever too,” she says.

That’s the reality that Arnold is facing right now. If he’s not able to pay his mounting bills, then for the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame, it’ll be game over.

Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.

Please Note

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