Philip DeVencentis NorthJersey
Published 9:20 p.m. UTC Jun 9, 2018
HAWTHORNE— The Wellema brothers picked up right where they left off in the 1980s, fussing over which one is the best pinball player.
The brothers found the right place to fuss— Billy’s Midway Arcade, a gallery of classic games now open in the two-story building at the southwest corner of Diamond Bridge and Lafayette avenues.
Bruce Wellema, 52 and David Wellema, 58 had their choice of 20 pinball machines. Another 60 games and air- and bubble-hockey tables line the walls of the arcade— a former jewelry store. The classic games include Donkey Kong, Frogger and Ms. Pac-Man.
“No one has to explain the instructions to us,” David Wellema, of Dania Beach, Florida, said as he jerked the joystick attached to the “Tron” game. “We know these games – these are throwbacks.”
The story continues below the gallery.
On the opposite end of the arcade, Bruce was prepping for a match against his brother on one of its classic pinball machines, the oldest made in 1954.
“There’s no place to play pinball anymore,” Bruce Wellema, who lives in Prospect Park lamented.
He stepped back from the machine for a moment, stuck out his thumbs, and said, “I used to have the worst callouses. I’ve been playing pinball since 1972 – that’s a lot of quarters.”
At Billy’s Midway, there is no need to bring a pocketful of loose change.
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The arcade’s owner, 45-year-old William Smith rigged the machines with free-play buttons, so feeding them money is not necessary. Customers instead get charged for the time they spend in the arcade: $7 per half-hour, and $10 per hour. It costs $25 for an all-day pass.
Smith keeps track of customers’ time by giving them wristbands marked with barcodes, which are scanned when they leave the arcade.
Smith said wristbands were required to obey an antiquated borough ordinance still is on the books that limits the number of coin-operated arcade games in a place.
“Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong hadn’t even come out yet, and they already had codes saying you couldn’t have more than three games in a location,” Smith said.
Opening an arcade fulfills a lifelong fantasy for Smith, who said he grew up hopping between local delis and pizzerias, or where ever he could find games to play.
“The athletes had their football games and baseball games and cross-country,” said Smith, a borough native and 1990 graduate of Hawthorne High School. ”Those of us who were little, skinny kids – 98-pound weaklings – we had to do something. It was either go home and play with our computers, or go out to the arcade and hang out.”
Smith, who still lives in Hawthorne with his wife Allyson, bought his first arcade game – Ms. Pac-Man – for $250 in 1996, the same year they wed.
At the time, Smith was working for a camera shop in Closter. He eventually took over the business, but it folded amid the rise of digital film in 2001. He then worked for a year for Classic Pinball Corp., a supplier of arcade games and pinball machines in Clifton, before becoming an engineer for the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway.
Smith said he was forced to quit his job with the railroad in November 2015 due to a series of disabilities he sustained, including herniated discs and migraines.
Meanwhile, Smith amassed a huge inventory of arcade games, most of which he kept in his detached, two-car garage.
“I had all of these games,” Smith said, “so it was time to do something with them.”
Smith said he was pleased with the reception of his arcade, so far, but daily repairs to the games are keeping him very busy. ”I get some games working just enough to survive a day, or two,” he said, “while I have to pull other ones off of the floor and give them a good work-over in the back.”
On the bright side, the games already seem to be appealing to another generation of children.
Gabriel, 11, and Eric, 12, sixth-graders at Lincoln Middle School, said at the arcade that they only had seen such games in movies and on TV.
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“It’s actually really cool,” said Gabriel, who was playing pinball. As he propelled the ball with the machine’s plunger to start another round, he added, “It’s cool to have access to these types of games.”
Smith said he intends to add about 20 more games to the arcade. He said he also plans to hold tournaments for some games and, possibly, give prizes to the winners.
Billy’s Midway Arcade, at 312 Lafayette Ave., is open from noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday, and to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
Email: [email protected]
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