Skee-Ball, a game with deep roots in South Jersey and a tradition for generations in boardwalk arcades, has a new company making the classic alleys.
Bay Tek, of Pulaski, Wis., is buying Skee-Ball Amusement Games, now based in the Philadelphia suburb of Chalfont, Pa. The two companies announced the sale last week but didn’t disclose terms.
With that sale, Skee-Ball will move several states away from where the game was born. And although that actual birthplace almost 110 years ago is a matter of some historical dispute, there’s no doubt that there’s a close New Jersey tie to the story.
A Vineland man, Joseph F. Simpson, had a patent on the game, and the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society is proud to promote him as the inventor.
But on its web site, Skee-Ball Amusement Games credits J.D. Estes, a Princeton University graduate from Philadelphia, for coming up with the game in 1909.
There’s no doubt on this fact, though: The world’s first Skee-Ball tournament was in 1932, in Atlantic City.
And Joe Sladek, who owned the Skee-Ball brand for decades, has said a lot of the game’s history also ties in with local history.
“Skee-Ball was born and reared in places like Atlantic City, Wildwood, Cape May, Seaside Heights and Asbury Park,” Sladek said in a 1996 interview. “It had an entirely local origin.”
Sladek himself knew the game from another shore town. He grew up in Philadelphia but played Skee-Ball through summers in Ocean City, where he still owns a home, he said Tuesday.
And the game is still a big hit today on Ocean City’s Boardwalk, says Jody Levchuk, of Jilly’s Arcade.
Levchuk sees generations of families coming in to play Skee-Ball, grandparents teaching grandchildren a game they learned from their grandparents. He sees organized competitions, people walking in with “this whole schematic drawn up — you’d think it’s like the NCAA tournament,” he says, meaning the college-basketball brackets that will become a national obsession this month.
But what he never sees at Jilly’s is anybody playing Skee-Ball with dreams of winning prizes. In most arcades, the game is linked to a redemption system, in which various levels of points earn players tickets they can then redeem for toys, stuffed animals or other Boardwalk-type gifts. Jilly’s skips that step.
“They’re just playing for the glory of the game,” Levchuk says.
He’s proud to say that he also still charges old-time prices for this old-time attraction. Skee-Ball costs just a dime for the nine balls that make up one game, and the arcade even offers a volume discount off that. Eleven games costs a dollar, or basically a penny a shot.
Sam Flynn, of Egg Harbor Township, has years of Skee-Ball experience and stories. He managed six arcades on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk when the casinos were new in town, including on Steel Pier. And he sees some history just in how Jilly’s treats Skee-Ball, he said Tuesday.
“Eleven games for a dollar? You’re going back to the ’70s for that,” Flynn said, before he won a free game.
Speaking of Skee-Ball history, Thaddeus Cooper has lots of it. He’s a New Jersey native who grew up playing the game in Point Pleasant Beach, Ocean County. He lives now in San Jose, Calif., and for the last six years, he’s been gathering material for a documentary film on the history of Skee-Ball.
By his count, he now has 5,000 or so documents on that subject. And by his reckoning, there is “no question” that Simpson, the Vineland man, is the true Skee-Ball founder.
“From fairly early on, the history was already muddled. But Simpson did all the hard work and pulled the game together,” including getting a patent in 1908, a year before Skee-Ball Amusement Games gives as the start date.
One point of confusion is even in the name of the man Cooper says is incorrectly credited as the inventor. The owners give hs name as J.D. Estes, but Cooper says the real last name was Este.
Simpson sold the patent to Este. The two apparently knew each other from Philadelphia, where both families owned property before Simpson moved to Vineland in 1890. That’s all according to Cooper, who hopes the documentary — the current working title is “Seeking Redemption” — will be ready to screen by the end of this year.
Cooper says the game was also a hit on the West Coast early on, but he also sees no doubt that the game’s real roots grew much closer to the Atlantic Ocean.
“I absolutely agree ... it’s a New Jersey institution,” he said.
(To join a notification list for "Seeking Redemption," the documentary history of Skee-Ball, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)