Atari Nerd Chronicles: R.I.P. My Boyhood Classic Arcade, Castle Park, Redondo Beach CA.

Most video game fans from the “golden age ” (roughly 1978-1983) frequented an arcade that they felt was “their own”. For many kids in the South Bay cities of Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach in Southern California, that arcade was Castle Park in Redondo Beach. Castle Park was built in the mid-1970’s. It consisted of two 18-hole miniature golf courses separated by an Arthurian castle that housed the ticket booth, birthday party rooms, a snack bar, bathrooms, and a huge arcade. It was situated (unfortunately in some cases) a golf balls’ throw from the 405 freeway in an industrial area right near a set of railroad tracks.

The first time I went to Castle Park was in 1979, was just after the first year I played AYSO soccer. I recall the correlation because, as a player in AYSO in 1978/1979 you had to sell “Entertainment Books” (basically coupon books for local businesses) for $5.00 each. My mom opted to to buy a couple books because they contained multitude of Straw Hat Pizza coupons. Because we ate Straw Hat Pizza nearly every Friday night, the books easily easily paid for themselves within a couple weeks. However, Straw Hat coupons were not the only worthwhile deals in the book. Among the coupons for dry cleaning and shoe repair, stuck far back at the end of the book was a coupon for “Buy 1 Get One Free Miniature Golf at Castle Park”. My mom saved the coupons so we could use them in the dead of summer, and sometime around July or August my brother and I found ourselves walking through the faux-wooden door entrance to the medieval fortress-shaped arcade at Castle Park.

I had played some video games before, mostly at the arcade at the Old Towne Mall in Torrance, but I was not prepared for the what Castle Park had in-store for us. Clusters of video game machines in the center of the room were surrounded by rows and rows of pinball and skee-ball machines along the walls. I had never seen so many different coin-operated machines in one place before, and I was compelled to try them, however, our mom insisted that we use the miniature golf coupons first and quickly ushered us through the gauntlet of games, past the snack-bar, and out the other side to the golf kiosk. However, her moves were not quick enough to prevent the the indelible image of Castle Park arcade on my mind. The blur of our quick exit created an intoxicating mix of sights (Space Invaders – seen here by me for the first time ever, Atari Football, Super Breakout, Lunar Lander), sounds (tokens falling, skee balls rolling, credits popping, Space Invaders shooting) and even smells (a mix of stale churros, spilled Icee, and evaporated sweat) that beckoned me to return.

While the miniature golf was enjoyable, it was hard to fully concentrate on putting golf balls into fake houses while visions of all those arcade games swirled in my head. I imagined those machines impatiently waiting for me to feed them one of the few quarters I had in my pocket so they could spring to life and challenge me to the contest held within their digital circuits. When we finally finished our game, I literally ran back to arcade, sprinting towards the Space Invaders machine that waited close to the back entrance. I popped my quarter in, and 30 seconds later the machine had the best of me.My brother tried as well, with similar results. Space Invaders never became a favorite of mine, but it was still the first game I ever played that I was  “thrilled” to spend my money on. After Space Invaders I played Lunar Lander with similar results, and then a round of Skee Ball. After our mom treated us to Cherry Icees in the snack-bar, we started to leave, but not before I used my final quarter on the Super Breakout machine near the entrance. This was the game for me that day, as I managed to play for about 5 minutes and rack-up my best score ever before exiting into the sunlight and back home. At that moment, Castle park represented pure childhood joy to my brother and I. While we returned to Castle Park hundreds more times over the next 10 years, this first visit left such an impression that I can almost totally recall it today.

Over the next few years Castle Park grew in popularity and by the 1981 it was THE local spot for video game players in the South Bay. Ex-employee Terrence Poublon described the Golden Age of the arcades at Castle Park this way:

“I worked evenings and weekends primarily.  Friday and Saturday nights were noisy and chaotic.  The supervisor was known to crank up the rock music on the sound system which had us shouting to be heard by the customers.  The place was always packed.  Patrons lined up at the machines to test their skill at the latest games.  ”

Like every good arcade, Castle Park changed their mix of games often, and always kept them up-to-date with the best offerings from Atari, Bally-Midway, Sega, Williams, etc. had to offer. My routine was to play a round of my favorites once each, and then return to play the games that I was “hot” on that particular day. These games included Asteroids, Star Castle, Pleides, Galaxian, Swimmer, Fire Truck. Pole Position, Black Night pinball, and my all-time favorite Castle Park trio: Galaga, Bosconian and Time Pilot. Not only did they add new games, but the park itself expanded, and by 1982 they built a water-park on the premises complete with a boat ride and a set of skin-removing concrete water-slides.

At the same time, Castle Park became a hang-out for some honest-to-goodness classic video game heroes. Mattel Electronics was located just down the street from Castle Park. The Blue Sky Rangers, programmers and designers of nearly all the classic Intellivision games plus many Atari 2600 games frequented the establishment on a regular basis. In 2004 they had a reunion at the arcade that you can read about on their web site.

“The site of the event, Castle Park, was familiar to the Blue Sky Rangers; Mattel Electronics hosted a party for the programmers there in 1983. And for their tenth reunion, the Blue Sky Rangers stopped into the arcade for a couple hours of play before having dinner at a nearby restaurant.”

The summer if 1983 brought the crash of the video game market straight to Castle Park. That summer, crowds were sparse so they created an “8 tokens for a dollar” promotion during the week days. This meant that with just a couple dollars and skills we had built over the previous years, we could stay and play at Castle Park for nearly 2 hours without needing any extra cash. This was great for us, but obviously not a boon for the owners of the establishment. However, even though the games industry was having trouble, some of the best games of the era were still arriving for us to play. That year we blasted the Death Star into a billion tiny vector lines in the Star Wars arcade game, and watched others try to maneuver Dirk The Daring through the Don Bluth animated halls of Dragon’s Lair, much to their frustration and our delight. However, by the end of that year though, the lure of any arcade was wearing thin. That Christmas my brother and I got our first Atari 800 computer, and and my love for gaming took a sudden turn into a love for exploration of the machine and programming. By 1984 I discovered my favorite rock band, The Alarm, and then entered High School where my interests expanded further to girls, running, and computer science. While we still visited Castle Park from time to time, it’s importance as the mecca for our entertainment was severely diminished

Post video game Crash, Castle Park struggled to survive. It was not a coincidence that we stopped going to the park. An entire generation of kids had grown-up and out of the arcades at nearly the same time, and it left places like Castle Park wondering what to do next. For Castle Park, it was expansion into other areas (adding batting cages, re-doing and ultimately tearing down the water-slides) and curiously, as a filming location. Castle Park got its 15 minutes of fame as a location for an episode of the TV show CHiPs. This was during the 6th and final season of this cop-show in which the tailored uniform wearing, sky diving, jet skiing and hang-gliding Highway Patrol Officers spent their time chasing UFOs, playing with robots, fighting off “Devil Take Me” and Donny Most and in an unlikely turn, going under-cover at High School to find a ring of car thieves who liked to play arcade games. Castle Park was used as the location for this episode, as was the closed-down Aviation High School just around the corner in Redondo Beach. Still, even this kind of exposure could not save the place, and not too long after it was sold to Malibu Grand Prix and became Malibu Castle.

In the summer 1988, after high school graduation, some friends and I returned to Castle Park for one last visit before going to college. I can’t recall the exact reason for the visit, but I do recall that our plans were not to simply have a “good time”. To be honest, we just wanted to be a-holes, which was not exactly in-character for our geek squad. We snuck-in booze, acted rowdy in the arcade, and then played a round of golf backwards while breaking a few light-bulbs and chipping away at the concrete steps and walls with our golf clubs. We pushed our way through people, yelled at each other and basically acted like numbskulls. At about hole #6 we were surrounded by security and calmly escorted out of the establishment. I suppose the whole idea was to “rebel” and to get “caught”, and at the time it seemed really “cool”, but soon after it just seemed like a hallow attempt to for some relatively “good” kids to be “bad” for no particular reason.

It’s hard for me to remember that night these days without cringing when I think about the little kids and families that might have been there. The ones who maybe had their first wondrous experience at Castle Park ruined by some teenage idiots looking for a way to stamp their “end of innocence” on their home-town before leaving for college. I guess this “night of rebellion” was my way to shed my childhood on verge of becoming an adult. Whatever. It was still really lame, and I knew it right away. The park was already having a tough time as it was. It had a gained a reputation as gang hang-out, and was struggling to survive. I basically crapped-bagged one of the few remaining landmarks that meant something to me as a kid. “Et tu Steve?”. Yeah, me too. I was so embarrassed by myself that I vowed to never return to Castle Park and I mostly kept that promise for the better part of a decade.

When I did return to place in the mid-1990’s, it was with my wife for a few games of pinball. I did not spend any serious time or money there until about 2001, a few years after  I started working at Mattel Toys. We were were trying (successfully by the way) to build-up our web group into an online game development team. We tried to come-up with ways to get our team to think about games, and retro-games in particular, as the inspiration for games on our web sites. We brought in classic game developers for seminars, held game-making contests , and we also took our team on field trips. We got free tickets to E3 for everyone, we went on the Price Is Right with Bob Barker, and for short time, we took weekly trips to the batting cages and arcade at Castle Park. In a way I suppose we were trying to re-capture some of the classic feeling our Mattel brethren in the Blue Sky Rangers had cultivated 20 years prior. It worked, for a few months anyway, but to be honest, the arcade games at Castle Park were simply too different from the stuff we were trying to create for Mattel. There was no one-to-one comparison in video games like there was back in 1981. The arcade was filled with gun games and redemption machines, which were both far away from what we could accomplish online. What might have worked in the Golden Age of the arcade did not translate well in the 21st century. Sadly, we stopped going and did not return as a group.

The next year I tried once again to re-capture the magic of my youth at Castle Park. In 2002  I took my then 4 year-old daughter there one lazy Sunday afternoon. So much time had passed since the “High School” incident that I had pretty much stuffed it to the back of my mind. My desire was not to make amends for that night, but to re-capture some of the magic I felt for the place and have my kids find joy there as well. At first, it seemed to be working. We had a pretty good time playing miniature golf, even though we had to overlook the decaying condition of the course. Afterwards we ate stale pretzels, mostly ice Icees in the snack bar, and my daughter was all smiles. For a moment I felt like a successful father who was dutifully transferring his own experiences down to his children. However, it didn’t last for very  long. When we got to the arcade our luck changed. Most of the machines were not working correctly and we lost a bunch of tokens, which made may daughter very sad. When I took my her to play Skee-Ball, she hit her hand on some exposed metal at front of the machine while throwing her first ball, and starting wailing in pain from a large cut on her finger. We left right away, her uncle carrying her to the car as I silently cussed myself out for being so stupid. She would never hold Castle Park as important the way I did as a kid. How could she? In reality, it was now a dump, and we should not have gone here there in the first place.

Soon after, in 2002, the snack bar at Castle Park was closed down by the health department. It was then sold to chain named Boomers that promised to revitalize the location. It never happened. In 2006 it was sold again, then closed. The fake Castle that had stood next to the 405 freeway for 30 years was demolished along with one of the miniature golf courses, the parking lot and nearly everything else. Soon, promising new signs went up that said “New Look Coming Soon” and then, plans for several pirate and beach themed rides and attractions were posted on the fence along Marine Avenue. I stopped there with my kids, and showed them what was coming, which made myself and them fairly excited. However, a few months later those plans were removed, and nothing has been seen since.

The remaining miniature golf course has been brutally ransacked and vandalized in the ensuing months, and now the whole location resembles a Scooby Doo “Abandoned Amusement Park” episode more and more every day . Even from the air, it looks like a disaster area. For all intents and purposes, Castle Park is no more. A few years ago,  I drove by and saw  a group of skaters trying to find a way into the park so they could film themselves doing stunts in the empty pools and on the broken rails of the remaining miniature golf course. However, they were having trouble finding a pathway through the barbed-wire to the lot beyond. I did not stick around long-enough to find out if their quest was successful, but it makes me happy to imagine that somehow they made their way into the park so they could ride around make their film.

In the last couple years, the place has seen a few new visitors.  Once a place of joy, the area has become a refuge of sorts for the most desperate in society.  A recent local news story revealed that a group of homeless people now live on the site.

On a recent afternoon, three tents rose from the ruins of the old miniature golf course. The drone of traffic from the San Diego (405) Freeway echoed in the warm air.”

If that’s not enough, it’s also seen it’s share of tragedy. The place that is now a figurative cemetery for my youth has become a real one of sorts.  The same local news story  story goes on to describe a suicide that took on the site of miniature gold course earlier this year:

“On a late afternoon in early February, a 26-year-old transient hung himself from a tree towering above the old golf course. Friends painted a mural on the site paying tribute to the man”

The Castle Park site is now occupied by a couple of brand-new high-priced motels disguised as hotels.  The kind of places families rent with large rooms, interior corridors, and and free HBO. I suppose many of the people staying at that location are tourists using it as a strategic launch point for trips to local attractions like Disneyland and Universal Studios.    Little do they know that the place they lay their heads and eat their free continental breakfasts, was once a glowing mecca of fun and attractions all itself.

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