Family Fun Arcade Prepares to Close, After Four Decades as a Granada Hills Hangout

After 40 years, gamers will have to go somewhere else.
After 40 years, gamers will have to go somewhere else.
Drew Barillas

See also:

*10 Best Arcades in L.A.

Bathed in the glow of

the flashing CRT screen, Jon "Jesus" Lemerand yanks his joystick back

Upcoming Events

and slaps a button, letting loose a 2-D punch. A handful of onlookers

hoots and claps. It's Friday night at Family Fun Arcade, or FFA, and a

motley group has gathered to play Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike,

cheering each other on over the cacophonous blare of machines.

Lemerand,

26, has spent countless nights hunched over fighting game cabinets

since he started playing here in 2005. But back then, he recalls, the

scene was different: Mobs of spectators would crowd the screens for a

glimpse of the action.

"It was a lot more lively then than it is

now," he says, looking around at banks of vacant games. "There's not a

lot of new blood coming to arcades anymore."

That's one big reason

FFA will soon shutter its doors after nearly 40 years in business,

according to longtime proprietor Ralph Sehnert. One of the oldest

surviving video arcades in Southern California, the Granada Hills venue

might stay open into January, but could close as early as Dec. 31. The

future of Japan Arcade in downtown L.A., which Sehnert also owns, is

uncertain.

News of the closure has rattled fighting game

enthusiasts who once converged on FFA to test their mettle against some

of the fiercest competition outside of Japan. From the early 1990s, when

the first Street Fighter games drew loyal legions, to the Marvel vs.

Capcom 2 age in the 2000s, top players would pour in from across the

country for a shot at calling themselves the best. Elbow-to-elbow crowds

packed in. Players drove from San Diego and flew in from the East

Coast.

But those days are over.

"Business has just fallen

off the planet," says Sehnert, 63. "They've taken us off life support

and we're breathing our last breaths."

It's the same story

everywhere: Arcades are dying. Two of the region's most popular - Denjin

Arcade in Simi Valley and Arcade Infinity in Rowland Heights - closed

in 2011. When FFA is gone, only one local oasis for hardcore fighting

game players will remain: Super Arcade in Walnut, which Sehnert is in

the process of selling to one-time Street Fighter champ Mike Watson.

Watson hopes to keep this last communal hub alive. Others think the effort is futile.

"Having

a stand-alone arcade now is pretty much impossible," says Tim Silvers, a

24-year FFA employee who, at 53, is known among arcade patrons as "Old

Man River." "We can no longer compete with the home console business."

FFA

started as a family-friendly wonderland in 1973 with 31 pinball

machines, air hockey tables and bright orange carpeting. Sehnert got one

of the first jobs behind the register that year, and became a business

partner the next. He helped bring in some of the first video games --

Pong, Space Race, Atari Football.

When Capcom released the first

Street Fighter in 1987, skeptics thought it was a fad. But an improved

model arrived on its heels, and Sehnert had a gut feeling. "People were

saying, 'Six buttons? Nobody's ever going to be able to learn that!'" he

recalls. "I said, 'I'll take it.'" That's when everything changed.

Older games were cleared out to make way for the fighting game frenzy

that became the arcade's backbone, putting it on the short list of

legendary coin-op haunts.

It never looked the part. Tucked into a

drab strip mall, it's perpetually noisy and dim. The threadbare carpet

glistens with mysterious, sticky smears. Foam stuffing sprouts from torn

vinyl chairs. One Yelp reviewer described the space as "a tiny and

frightening tomb."

Danny "MegamanDS" Shnorhokian, 26, still

remembers walking in for the first time in 2001. "My first reaction was,

'What, really? This ugly-looking hole-in-the-wall?'" he says. "But when

I started to play people, I realized the competition there was so

advanced. I'd thought we were good at my local place in Valencia, but it

was a different ball game at Family Fun."

"It was really the

heart of Southern California's arcade scene -- this was where everything

happened," recalls Michael, 29, who declined to give his last name but

goes by "pyrolee."

Sehnert knew how to please his customers. There

may not have been reliable air conditioning, but he repaired broken

joysticks promptly, brought pizza for everyone on tournament days and

switched his games to free play on New Year's Eve.

Then the arcade

generation gave way to the online generation. Playing at home didn't

require quarters, only an Internet connection. And game manufacturers

began releasing new titles on console only, bypassing arcades. Crowds

dwindled; cabinets idled.

Some things are lost in the new era. "So

many of my good friends today, I've met because of Family Fun. I can't

form a relationship with some guy I met online," Shnorhokian says. "The

arcade is a bonding experience - it's not just about the game."

And

while online interactions are laced with anonymous slurs, the arcade's

face-to-face intimacy bred good manners. "You learn respect," notes Andy

"B.B. Hood" Barajas, 26.

Yet it wasn't always laughs and

high-fives with swollen egos on the line. A petulant player once pulled

off his opponent's glasses and ran out the door with them. Insults have

turned into fights on the sidewalk outside.

But Sehnert insists

the arcade has shunned delinquency. "In the 38 years that I've been

here, I think we've had a pretty damn good record," he says.

Rent

and other expenses were set to rise in January; Sehnert knew revenue

wouldn't. Business is down 70 percent from its peak ten years ago, he

says, while the price of new arcade fighting games has nearly

quadrupled.

Sehnert still hopes that a savior might take over the

location, allowing him to tend to his health. "All these years of being a

hands-on owner has taken a toll on me," he says, flexing his arthritic

fingers. "We provided this playground for so long, it's hard to take

that away from everybody. But at the same time, it's killing me." He

took barely a weekend off after surgery for prostate cancer last year.

He

smiles, thinking of all his former customers who now come back with

their own children. "They're not going to put it on my tombstone or

anything, but it's something to be proud of."

Devotees are bereft.

"It's

like part of us is dying," adds Miguel Blanco, 31. "This is our

pastime, so when it's gone, it'll be like part of us is gone, too. Now

everyone is wondering, what will we do?"

At the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike cabinet, Lemerand gets K.O.ed. The odds were against him, but the loss still stings.

He heads outside for a smoke with his buddies. "Good shit," someone says in consolation.

See also:

*10 Best Arcades in L.A.

Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

Upcoming Events


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >