“C’mon. It’s no big deal…”
It’s staggering how many childhood dares involved that line. And that includes the dare that involved some older friends trying to get me to enter a dive bar when I was still in elementary school.
To be fair, the dive bar in question was a familiar Wading River landmark with a rich history, characterized by all sorts of odd rumors and innuendo. Judge’s Hotel was a place that held a lot of mystery for me, but maybe because it was a dark, divey place that I never should have been allowed in as a young kid. And perhaps because the rumors about Judge’s that filtered down to kids my age were about sex. Someone had told me Judge’s had been a brothel long before I was born. But I was a young kid and didn’t know anything about sex, much less about what a brothel was.
I had seen the inside of the place a handful of times, though, largely because Judge’s had sponsored my dad’s slow-pitch softball team, and it was customary for the neighborhood dads to drop by the bar after games.
It was one thing to accompany my dad into Judge’s, but another thing entirely to ride up there on my bike in order to play video games. My (older) friends had told me that Judge’s had a couple games there, but I wasn’t sure I believed them.
So here I was, in front of Judge’s Hotel, being goaded by my friends into stepping into the front door of the bar – something they claimed to have already done several times – so that we could play a few games. I stammered and stalled until one of them got bored enough of standing around to call me a wussy and lead the group of four of us into the bar. He barged in through the front door. We followed tentatively. And there it was.
It was clearly an arcade machine, but this looked different from anything else I had ever played on. I was used to standing up at arcade cabinets. This game was something you sat down at. It was almost like somebody had built an arcade game into a coffee table somehow. Quarters dropped into slots in the side of the table, and players sat at the machine facing one another. If you played a two-player game, the image would flip upside down when it was player two’s turn, and back again for player one. The joysticks and buttons were built into recessed areas at either end.
And Vanguard had plenty of buttons. Players controlled a little spaceship that navigated through some tight tunnels and caves, firing in four different directions, so there was a joystick and four different fire buttons to worry about. The player’s spaceship had a limited amount of energy, but successfully shooting down enemies would replenish it.
But the coolest thing would happen when the player encountered an energy pod, which happened from time to time. Run the little spaceship into an energy pod and it would become invulnerable for a short time. The player could kill enemies just by colliding with them, and all the while the machine would play this cool music that I had heard only once before – in the Flash Gordon movie my Dad had taken me to see at the movie theater.
A few other things made Vanguard stand out. It used synthesizer voices, and it would warn you with “be careful” as your invulnerability power-ups were about to run out. The game also scrolled in multiple directions, which was atypical for the time. Just about every other game, if it scrolled at all, tended to pick a direction and stick with it. Not so with Vanguard, which changed orientation several times during play, even scrolling diagonally along the way.
I was awful at Vanguard, for much the same reason I was awful at arcade versions of Defender – too many controls and too many dimensions to worry about. And I never really got good at it because I didn’t know of any other machines within biking distance other than the one at Judge’s, and the handful of times I went up to Judge’s to play Vanguard, I knew I was probably only a few minutes away from a concerned adult or a barkeep asking me to leave. That never happened, but the stares from people who had undoubtedly come to Judge’s in order to get some time away from their own kids would make me uncomfortable enough to not want to come back.
I often wonder if sampling that forbidden fruit is responsible for my enthusiasm for both dive bars and for arcade cocktail tables. I’m known for picking divey places if anyone asks me to meet up for a drink. And as for cocktail arcade machines…
Not long after we moved into our home in Holtsville, I became aware of a company building custom multicades. My kids were young, and I wanted to share the experience of coin-op video games with them, so I ordered one about four years ago. And for a while, my kids were enthusiastic about playing games against me and against each other, especially Frogger, Mr. Do and Dig Dug.
After a couple years, the pull of next-generation consoles and the easy access of tablets lured them away. Perhaps not permanently, but the kids have many screens and their attention is divided between all of them, so the cocktail table tends to be unplugged and dormant for much of the time.
But I will occasionally fire it up, and Vanguard just so happens to be one of my favorites to play on that machine.
As for Judge’s Hotel, today it’s Phil’s Restaurant, where many of my longtime friends will gather when they visit their hometown. Phil’s managed to preserve the historical feel of the old Judge’s Hotel, while filtering out the seediness and shining some light into the dark corners. But it’s still fun to think about the rumors that used to circulate about Judge’s Hotel. And while I’ve never seen evidence that it was once a brothel, I did turn up this old tidbit in the December 1, 1945 issue of Billboard Magazine, which indicates some people associated with burlesque shows were managing the entertainment there.
Who knows? Maybe after the war, some of the returning GIs enjoyed a burlesque show there, and that’s where the rumors came from.