With tears in his eyes, Jim Rowton describes getting the news. “After 22 years in business, I get a phone call,” he says, looking like a Disney Imagineer who's about to lose his theme park. “It's like they're throwing us out with the trash.” On March 15, L.A.'s last traditional mall arcade will close its doors as Texas-based company Cypress Equities (the agent for CAPREF Manager LLC, the new majority owners of the mall) makes way for a newer, but not necessarily better, Burbank Town Center.
“A New Burbank Town Center … Coming Soon! More Fashion. More Food. More Fun.” That's the advertising copy hanging from signs posted inside the mall. Jim's arcade, and several other mom-and-pop retailers inside the mall, won't be a part of that future, as rents rise and entire sections of the mall are redeveloped.
Since 1995, Jim and his wife, Susan, have operated the All Amusement Fun Center, the arcade inside the Burbank mall, as if it were their own mini theme park. For most of the past year, I've been a part-time employee and full-time fanboy at the arcade. For Burbank residents, the All Amusement Fun Center has been the setting of innumerable childhood memories, lost weekend afternoons and first dates (including my own). The arcade has been an unofficial playground for everybody from the city's special-needs community to teenagers at Burbank High School. People have come of age inside the walls of this colorful playpen of blinking lights and plastic joysticks.
When I was hired in February, I was coached by Jim on how he wanted me to treat customers. “Greet everyone with a smile,” he told me, with the gap showing between his two front teeth. Jim always smiles. He's the happiest person I've ever met. At the time, I thought he took his smile doctrine too seriously. Today, with so many customers begging Jim to remain in the mall, I realize he isn't running a business — he's selling fun.
In the eyes of his employees, he's a working-class visionary. At 13, Jim was selling flowers on street corners in Woodland Hills for $1 an hour. By the mid-’70s, he began to work at a small arcade on Van Nuys Boulevard called Arcade USA. It's where Jim learned the basics of the old-school amusement business. Today, Jim's an endangered species in L.A.'s evolving landscape of hipster entertainment, including “bar arcades” like EightyTwo in downtown L.A. or Button Mash in Echo Park. Jim scoffs at the idea of serving alcohol to upgrade his arcade. “That's not the business I want to run,” he says.
There's also nothing pretentious about a family arcade located inside an enclosed shopping mall, which is somehow more authentic than an outdoor shopping center such as the Americana at Brand. It's the feeling you get watching a charming John Hughes teen comedy versus the feeling you get watching vapid reality TV.
“As far as I know, we're the last genuine family arcade in the city. And the last one in a shopping mall,” Jim tells me. I checked: The All Amusement Fun Center is the last family arcade located inside a shopping mall anywhere in town. The family arcade business, in general, is a nearly obsolete enterprise in a sector now dominated by corporate entertainment giants like Dave & Buster's. It's remarkable that Jim's arcade has lasted this long. One customer tells me that there's a rumor that Dave & Buster's will actually replace Jim's arcade (there's already one inside both Hollywood & Highland and the Promenade at Howard Hughes Center).
The heavy-handed redevelopment of Burbank Town Center began in April, when it was quietly announced that Cypress Equities had purchased a majority stake in the mall for $250 million. The redevelopment capital that has flooded L.A.'s underdeveloped neighborhoods had finally reached the forgotten Town Center, a mall that never really developed in the first place. After opening in 1990, the Media City Center (as it was originally known) became a consistent disappointment for the city. And so the mall's progress stalled around the mid-’90s. After two decades of surviving on pure enthusiasm inside a mall in constant decline, Jim's arcade is set to be bulldozed to create connectivity with the new IKEA, as the former site of the furniture superstore is being replaced with a 765-unit apartment complex atop 40,000 square feet of retail. The plans for the IKEA space, spearheaded by a partnership between Crown Realty & Development and CAPREF, are still awaiting approval from the Planning Board and the City Council. The aim is to revitalize the Burbank Town Center. But the proposed $60 million renovation of the mall is already underway. Some locals have expressed their concerns about a potentially flashier but less cozy shopping experience in Burbank:
“I like the shopping at the Town Center because it's not overly pretentious,” said Alyssa Pffaf in a comment on I Heart Burbank's Facebook page (the PR campaign advocating for a “New Burbank Town Center.”) “Please don't try to turn it into another Galleria or Americana. I stopped shopping at the Galleria because the stores got too pricy and overly trendy.”
Concerned for the future of his business, Jim sought to rent the recently vacated Backside Records space on San Fernando Boulevard, a few blocks from the mall. He was quickly told to look elsewhere. His arcade, according to the city, is not a retail business. The landlord of the vacated record store wanted retail or restaurants only. “The city wants restaurants along Magnolia and San Fernando, that's clear,” says a Burbank real estate broker who asked to remain anonymous. “If you look at the city's zoning laws and title reports, there's simply an outdated view of arcades as seedy enterprises, like casinos,” he says, referring to dated laws that connected pinball machines with organized crime. Until 1974, when the Supreme Court of California ruled to reverse the ban, pinball machines were outlawed in the state of California. As a result of the same logic, in Burbank an arcade cannot be located within specific zones. It doesn't end there. In the ’80s and ’90s, when movie theaters were in the business of gaming, arcades were seen as competition. “When the AMC opened in Burbank, they negotiated exclusivity clauses with local businesses and the city to keep amusement enterprises out of downtown Burbank,” the broker tells me. Scott Plambaeck, a Burbank senior planner, says he's not aware that those clauses exist. Still, the Rowtons are planning to request a public hearing to investigate this possibility.
They are also alone in their protest. A sign hangs over every token machine inside their arcade: “ARCADE CLOSING … SIGN OUR PETITION.” (For the record, I started the online petition, not the in-store version.) It's their last stand to save the business that was going to put their three kids through college.
“We were being asked to triple our current rent if we wanted to be moved to a location on the third floor,” Jim says, as small businesses are slowly being forced to vacate the mall's first floor, which looks increasingly like a consumer ghost town. “Overnight, everything was gone,” says an unnamed shop owner who saw the site of Sheik Shoes, the mall's trendy sneaker shop, become an empty glass box in the span of 24 hours. It happened shortly after the Sports Chalet, along with the rest of the La Cañada Flintridge–based retailer's stores, went out of business in April. On the third floor, the Candy Station, a local favorite for bagging sugar, shuttered in August. Shop owners throughout the mall won't talk about what's happening. Many of them tell me the new landlord is keeping them in the dark. Amid the uncertainty, there's a pall hanging over the Burbank mall. The All Amusement Fun Center is fighting the depression.
“We survived the recession, borrowed money … Susan and I won't take it lying down,” Jim declares. Besides the petition, he's asking customers to email Chris Maguire, CEO of Cypress Equities, and make sure he's aware of the arcade's value to the community. Maguire's email address is posted inside the arcade. As they fight the system, the Rowtons are struggling to find a new space in Burbank. “We've built a brand here, and in all honesty, we don't want to leave Burbank. But we may have to,” says Jim. “At this point, I'm selling off some of our machines in case we have to wash our hands of it all.”
The printed petition to save the arcade now has more than 2,000 signatures. Jirard Dragon Rider Khalil, a popular YouTuber known as “The One Video Gamer,” who recently purchased a few machines from Jim, is planning a mini documentary on the arcade for his YouTube channel.
But even with the growing support, the arcade's future grows dimmer by the day. It seems the Burbank mall — the unpretentious little shopping village that refused to adapt — is going to lose its arcade. With construction set to begin inside the mall this month, Jim's working-class arcade continues to fight for survival from within a crumbling castle of dusty consumerism. The All Amusement Fun Center is now a hardwired symbol of the mall's soon-to-be extinct localism.