Pinball pushes council review of old Merced laws

08/14/2014 7:05 PM

08/15/2014 9:21 AM

In Merced it is prohibited for a minor to play pinball or marbles. That’s right, it’s illegal.

The city of Merced is looking at cleaning up that and other ordinances many see as antiquated, an ongoing project for the city attorney’s office.

Turns out, it is not uncommon for cities to have pinball laws. “Lots of cities had regulations on pinball,” City Attorney Greg Diaz said. “This was the first one I saw that was a prohibition on minors.”

Diaz said some cities passed an ordinance that would not allow children to play the game during school hours. According to the ordinance, Merced prohibits children playing any time of day without a legal guardian’s supervision.

It remains unclear why marbles were lumped into the ordinance. Perhaps, Diaz said, city leaders took issue with players betting with the marbles themselves.

Pinball was once considered a gambling machine, particularly in the 1930s when the game did not have paddles, said Michael Schiess, director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda. Players would fire the ball into the machine and hope to be lucky.

Thousands of cities across the country passed pinball-related laws. After 1947, he said, the machines added paddles, turning pinball from a game of chance into more of a game of skill. The laws often fell out of use, he said, but remained on the books.

Oakland and San Francisco repealed its criminalization of pinball this year. Merced’s stale law could be next.

Pinball machines are not a common sight in Merced, but they are around.

Mike McBurne, the owner of Action Computers and a pinball aficionado, restored the 11 machines he owns. Five of those are in the lobby of his computer service store at 900 Loughborough Drive.

The 50-year-old said the machines are a nostalgic experience for him and others. “There was one guy that came in here – he was addicted,” he said. “He would come in four to six hours a day and play.”

McBurne said he is well aware of the ordinance because he approached the city about putting the machines in his store. The pinball restriction is a “silly” law, he said. “Now it’s a game of skill,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

Though the law was in place, he remembers slapping the paddles at arcades in the 1980s.

McBurne and Schiess both noted the old game is making something of a resurgence.

Another fan of the game, former Councilman John Carlisle, brought the ordinance to the attention of Merced City Council back in 2010, but repealing it was put on hold until recently. Carlisle, 67, said he is a longtime fan of pinball; in fact, he has a machine at home.

He also remembers pinball machines in convenience stores, arcades and pizza parlors around Merced in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although the ordinance was on the books it saw sporadic enforcement. Carlisle, who worked for the probation department, said he once accompanied officers who were handing out citations for the machines. The citations ruffled the feathers of business owners, he said, and the law subsequently saw less enforcement.

The ordinance’s inclusion of marbles left Carlisle scratching his head. “That was even a bigger joke,” he said. “Even these days, what kid growing up doesn’t have some marbles?”

Pinball machines may not drive the economy but they could make a difference to some businesses. Andrew Lute, an employee at Oh Wow! Nickel Arcade, said pinball machines are nowhere to be found among the scores of video games in the 100 W. Olive Ave. arcade.

He estimated that about twice a month, potential buyers, usually in their 40s or 50s, will come into the store looking for a machine. “Basically all the games are for sale,” the 24-year-old said.

Lute said he usually apologizes to the customer and recommends an arcade out of the area, like the Oh Wow! in Fresno.

Other ordinances that could be on their way out of Merced are those that require felons to register with the city and a review process on mobile home rents, among other changes.

Some of the changes, like the pinball repeal, were placed on a back burner while the city took on other tasks, Diaz said. Other regulations, like the registry of felons, are invalid because of changes in state law.

“Most of the items in there are things that have been sitting around for a while that ought to be taken care of,” he said.

The council will vote on the proposed changes at Monday’s meeting, which is at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 678 W. 18th St.

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