Rock City Arcade

By late 1981 my family and I were living on Hollywood Boulevard in post-glamorous Hollywood, California. Sometimes, just living amidst the hookers and general squalor of the Hollywood Premiere Motel got to be a bit much.  Luckily I had a distracting refuge just a few blocks away.  In those days the Rock City Arcade existed on the ground floor of the Hollywood-Western Building at, you guessed it, Western Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, 5 or 6 blocks from the end of the Walk of Fame.

 There were a few things I did know but many things I didn’t about this place of wonder and fun.  Among the things I didn’t:  Cecil B. DeMille had the building constructed back in the Roaring 20’s to house offices for his movie studio.  The building had even been used as a movie set for various films from the 30’s to the 50’s.  The Hollywood-Western was a part of cinematic history.

By the time the 70’s arrived, the movies had departed from there, and the porn industry had moved in right upstairs.  I didn’t know any of this, and at 13 years old I would not likely have cared.  But I could see; I could see upon my first visit to Rock City that there was a Le Sex Shoppe right across the street.

Le Sex Shoppe was a franchise of sex toy and film shops that was peculiarly and distinctly LA.  I remember there being one or two of them just in my part of Hollywood.  I was occasionally interested in the goings on inside there but the mortification I would have felt at being seen – by anyone – upon entry or even cursory inspection kept me far, far away.

Another thing I could see was that there were always shifty looking older guys virtually guarding the lobby entrance to the Hollywood-Western.  The Rock City entrance was on the side front of the building, with kids and slightly older pinball enthusiasts going in and out at all times.  The management of Rock City actively discouraged the wanderers among us.

The Hollywood-Western

The Hollywood-Western

If I’d cared to consider it, I might have realized this building was a microcosm of Hollywood itself, hookers and sleazy porn people side by side with little kids and slightly older folks fascinated by Hollywood (trying to ‘make it’ in more conventional ways, perhaps).  Somehow we all just got along and minded our own business, coexisting in an un-self-aware détente.  The only things we all had in common were feathered hair and designer jeans.

By myself, Rock City seemed like a place for older people, for I considered myself to still be a little kid.  But one thing I knew right off the bat was that my sisters Laura and Mary had no interest in the place.  That meant I could splinter off, be alone and do my own thing.  I could, for a time, secede from the fem-dominated “gynocracy” that was my life.

Centipede - Shoot out the bottom row of mushrooms and ignore the critter at the start

Centipede – Shoot out the bottom row of mushrooms and ignore the critter at the start

But I needed an introduction, and luckily had a couple of friends at LeConte Junior High who kept raving about the place.  So one day I accompanied them (brothers they were) inside.

Robin and Thomas Lyle were two kids who bussed in from Watts.  They called their neighborhood IngleWatts and bragged about living close to the Forum, proud home of Magic and Kareem and Showtime.  Thomas was a little taller, older, and a little quieter than his brother (but not by much).  He had a pretty close-cropped ‘fro and spoke in a mellow, measured voice that made him seem like a wise adult.

Robin was a little shorter, younger (he seemed so too), and usually pretty boisterous.  He sported a bigger ‘fro, as if to help him catch up to his brother’s growth spurt.  Robin was a self-described clown who laughed all the time, sometimes at nothing at all.

I had the great fortune to have both of them in Mr. Cadorna’s Algebra class, and thank god for the entertainment; for back then (as well as now) algebra was a confusing mess (X can’t equal anything except another X!).

Robin and Thomas just fed each other’s foolishness, they were like cartoon characters yammering back and forth. My friend Rory and I sat in the back of the class and just ate it up.  The poor teacher, I thought “Cadorna” must have been Tagalog for “Migraine.”  The Lyles definitely took some of the heat off of Rory and me, always playing ‘asteroids’ with pen and paper.

Asteroids on paper

Asteroids on paper

From the street, the arcade seemed dark and smoky inside, but upon entry, I noticed it was pretty well lit and cleaner than I’d imagined.  With a few quarters jingling in my pocket, I was accompanied by Rory and the Lyles (great band name!) one day after school.  The Lyles were veterans and knew right where they wanted to go, Rory – kind of knew his way around.  My best friend Enrique never came along, after school he usually went over to Wilcox Avenue to help his dad out at his dry cleaners.

Rock City was in the middle of a conversion from pinball to video games.  Pinball machines lined three walls and a little back room.  Taller, older players frequented them, some of them smokers. There were knots of video game islands and rows of the smaller machines in the middle. Younger players lined up at these newer, more popular video games.  There were even a few table top games; including an excellent (everyone was saying ‘excellent’ that year) copy of Death Race 2000; that one always had people waiting to give it a try.

We all played – secure in the knowledge that we were the future and would soon sweep away those perimeter pinball dinosaurs.

Death Race 2000 - Just try to stay awake

Death Race 2000 – Just try to stay awake

Every time I was in there, rain or shine, there was a rusty bucket in the corner, collecting water or (now that I think of it) lord-knows-what from upstairs (maybe busted water beds).  Overall the impression it gave was that it was a really big place, especially combined with my unfamiliarity.

But I walked in there thinking I was probably pretty good at these games, even the ones I’d never seen.  After all, I’d spent a whole day a few months earlier being paid by Paramount Studios to play a video game on the set of “Simon & Simon.”  I had to be good by now – except – that particular one was nowhere in sight.  It was alright, I still had a backup game, Asteroids, nobody was ever on that one, I noticed.  I used to play Asteroids in the lobby of the Chinese Theater Twin, in between triple features on days where my older sister watched me and my mom was at work.

Asteroids - Just don't hit the warp button, it's usually not worth it.

Asteroids – Just don’t hit the warp button, it’s usually not worth it.

Unfortunately my Arcade Crew all told me Asteroids sucked.  It seems by late 1981 it was passé, considered just a step above those dreaded pinball games.  I needed to find something I was good at, a favorite game.

Everybody else had a favorite, Thomas liked Defender (a baffling game that I learned I really sucked at – it kept changing direction left and right) and Robin really went in for Missile Command.  Robin was already good at the game but he had a little trick too.  The trick certainly made him even better.  It also made him the envy of Rory and Kevin and I, anyone, actually who knew what he could do.  I learned about it on my first visit.

Defender - Don't accidently hit the direction change button like I always did.

Defender – Don’t accidently hit the direction change button like I always did.

He would approach the machine furtively, looking left and right and kind of giggling.  Then he’d fish a quarter out of his pocket.  It had a piece of thread taped to it, the thread being a few inches long.  Looking around again, real carefully now, he’d ease the coin into the slot, lowering it slowly until a credit appeared on the screen.  He’d pull it up and ease it back down again.

Then ding! 2 credits.  He’d rock the quarter back and forth (that kid had the touch) until the credits were in the twenties.  He could play all day, in fact he was always still there when I left; and as far as I know he never got caught.

The best part was that he always got his quarter back!  After all that he wouldn’t even spend the 25 cents!

Missile Command - Take out as much as you can at the top, or you're a goner.

Missile Command – Take out as much as you can at the top, or you’re a goner.

Rory’s favorite was the table top version of Berzerk.  I usually got stuck playing him, or should I say… losing to him.  He knew all the little hideouts for shooting the Intruders and even the weapons range. He’d hang back just far enough for Intruder energy bolts to dissipate.  “Intruder alert!  Intruder alert!”

Every once in a while, if it was available, we’d scoot two feet over to Death Race 2000, a slow moving game that was really just Pong with skulls and crosses.  It couldn’t possibly have lived up to its notoriety anyway.

After just a couple of visits I was hooked; video games could make time go by so fast I thought I was in a trance.  I’d bop around with my few quarters until they were all used up; and then watch other kids set point records on some of these machines.  Sometimes it was almost as fun to watch as it was to play.

Rock City even let me roll in on Saturdays on my skates if I tried to walk on them inside.  Hey, I realized it wasn’t 1979; but I still liked my roller skates!  On weekends I’d roll a twisty path from the motel, hoping not to be noticed. Every so often, running into Robin, I would get a few bonus credits from him (he was like the arcade manager) to keep me going on games like Centipede, where usually I just died immediately.

Berzerk - the smiley face does not equal happiness, trust me.

Berzerk – the smiley face does not equal happiness, trust me.

But I did finally find a fave, Tempest.  I just – well, understood it; plus there weren’t always people waiting for it.  I can still hear that click-click-click – whoosh! sound sending me to the next level.

Tempest - Now don't get cocky and spin the wheel while warping, you'll get spiked.

Tempest – Now don’t get cocky and spin the wheel while warping, you’ll get spiked.

1981 turned to 1982 and my family and I moved to the Villa Elaine on Vine Street.  I could stop my convoluted perambulations from the Premiere Motel to Rock City.  Come to think of it, living in such an embarrassing hovel probably did hone my evasion skills.  But I still wouldn’t recommend it.

Shortly after all that we moved out of state.  In the following years I’d play the Arcade Room at the Omni Mall in downtown Miami, noticing the gradual rise in popularity of home video game sets, starting with Atari and going through Nintendo.  Crowds at arcades were starting to thin out.

In college my girlfriend introduced me to Castlevania on Nintendo.  We also played a fair amount of Duck Hunt.

But there was nothing like Rock City, ever.  I heard in the following years the pinball dinosaurs held their ground after all (I’d seriously underestimated the power of the pinball).  In 1994, the Northridge Earthquake seriously damaged the infrastructure of the building, and all the businesses moved out, from the Porn auteurs upstairs to Rock City downstairs.  The building is still there today, I think there’s a CVS where Rock City was.  In general the X-Rated vibe of Hollywood has cleaned up considerably.

Galaxian - Just fire away!

Galaxian – Just fire away!

The years kept turning; I eagerly bought a Sony PlayStation in 1997, trying to recapture the glory.  And I did for a while, spending hours on Armored Core and Crash Bandicoot.  It was almost as good as Rock City, almost.

More years flowed by – games got really realistic and sophisticated; I let myself fall by the wayside.  Now I refer to gaming innovations like a true senior citizen (“Young man, can you show me how to use ‘The Google’?”).  I still don’t know what “The Kinect” is for.  I can’t explain why my brother, who is older than me, is utterly adept at these new gaming technologies, including “The Kinect.”

I guess I’ve become one of the pinball dinosaurs I used to just casually deride.  Though I prefer to refer to myself as an “Early Video Game Connoisseur.”

2 replies
  1. Laura
    Laura says:

    I never knew about Rock City Arcade – I was made it as far as Astroids on my break in the theater lobby!

    My first pc video game was Stephen King’s The Mist. You inserted one of those large floppy discs (into those hand-cranked computers!) and that jagged text of the 1980s black computer screens came up with the title in red.

    The entire game was in text! It was a book lovers dream (snore zzzz). Check out the image I put on your FB page.

    This was a great video game history, great writing!

  2. Rory Danelanktree
    Rory Danelanktree says:

    I do remember thinking Rock City was really seedy, but I couldn’t remember any of what you wrote, even when you were talking about me. Then I saw that picture of Berzerk and the memories came flooding back. Your memory beats mine… I think. On the subject of the drip, I was once in a basement used bookstore when water began to drip from the ceiling onto the books. The owner started cursing the junkies who lived in the apartments above, because they always let their bathtubs overflow until the whole floor was flooded and the water leaked through. Anyway, thanks for the memories.


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