Iconic Playland Continues Legacy
Family Arcade on Santa Monica Pier Still Thriving After Nearly 70 Years!
The word iconic is often overused in today’s lexicon, but it’s a fitting one for Playland Arcade, which has been owned and operated by the same family on the historic Santa Monica Pier in Southern California for nearly 70 years.
It’s the last of the family businesses on the pier, a pier that might have been torn down half a century ago if not for the arcade and the many others who fought to save it.
This Feb. 27 marked the 50th anniversary since a group of citizens successfully convinced the city of Santa Monica not to demolish the pier – a date of celebration for the Gordon family, owners of Playland.
“Everybody was fighting to save the pier,” said Marlene Gordon, the co-owner whose grandfather Morris, father George and uncle Gene started what became Playland Arcade in the early 1950s.
Among those leading the fight was actor Robert Redford, a native Santa Monica resident who had filmed The Sting there in the early 1970s when the battle for the pier raged. (The movie used the carousel, also owned by the Gordons at the time, so the family got to have lunch with Redford and co-star Paul Newman during filming – just one of their many brushes with Hollywood over the years.)
“They were going to demolish the pier and put a luxury island out there,” said Joanie Gordon, Marlene’s sister and fellow Playland co-owner. “But the whole idea was this was a pier for everybody and a family pier – and it’s free. You can come down here and not spend a dime.” Marlene quipped about the proposed island: “It probably would’ve sunk.”
Luckily, the island as an idea sank and the Gordon family was able to continue with Playland for another 50 years and counting.
All in the Family
With help from “Pops” (Morris) Gordon, brothers George and Gene began their business with a route of arcade games and kiddie rides that spanned Los Angeles, including a small arcade on Ocean Park Pier (which was later revamped as Pacific Ocean Park).
In 1954, they had the opportunity to bring the arcade up the beach to the Santa Monica Pier, and the rest is history.
Marlene said her grandfather knew the lease holder of the pier, a Mrs. Enid Newcomb, and the Gordon family went on to secure deals on not only Playland but some adjacent buildings and the carousel as well.
“At one time, aside from the food concessions, we rented every building on the pier,” Marlene explained. That included a small kiddie park, too.
Following their Uncle Gene’s untimely passing in the early 1970s, Marlene added: “Joanie and I stepped in to help my dad out and here we are. We’re still here.”
Of course, it’s not like the sisters weren’t ever there. Joanie started taking tickets at the merry-go-round when she was 11. Marlene worked next door in the archery station, which used real arrows, by the way. Their late sister Barbara started off working in the shooting gallery, which used real rifles for target shooting.
“It was amazing growing up here,” Marlene said. “We used to line up along the railing outside and on 4th of July the big ships would come in and Barbara and I would take the little dinghies out and get on the ships.”
Their mother June would gather the whole family on that day – usually the busiest of the year. “We would get pizza for everyone and just before 9 p.m., we would go on the roof of the arcade to watch the fireworks,” Joanie said. “It was a night filled with excitement.”
Adding to the family affair, their cousin Barry even met his wife working the carousel ticket booth. “It was a different pier then,” Joanie added. “Everyone kind of knew each other. Each business was a family business.”
It was natural that Marlene and Joanie would take over the arcade biz. “When my uncle passed away, my father was devastated,” Marlene said. “This was his younger brother. My mother said to me, ‘You’ve got to go down there. Your father needs you.’ So, Joanie and I did what we had to do.”
Marlene was a buyer for a chain of pharmacies and Joanie was in college getting her teaching credential. “I said to the pharmacy, ‘I’ll be back in a few weeks. I’ve just got to help my dad out.’” She never did go back, adding: “This is the greatest thing that ever happened in my life.”
George Gordon stayed involved with the business until his death in 2005 at age 91 with the sisters taking the reins more and more over the years. “My father was 91 and I’d still drive him here,” Marlene said, noting he liked to hang out in Playland’s back office and monitor the arcade from there.
“My mother was weeks away from 100 (when she passed away) and would still come down here. It’s a love being here. She always used to say to my father, ‘You’re married to the pier,’” Marlene said with a laugh.
Today, it’s still very much a close family operation. The arcade is run by Marlene and Joanie, and also their nieces Monique Giroux and Dana Picore (Barbara’s children).
Joanie added: “Our hope is that our children, Shannon Kroner (Marlene’s daughter), Kym Forkner and Valerie Gordon Beltran (my daughters), and Mikayla and Jaden Giroux (Monique’s children), will someday be involved in the operating of the arcade. The next generation after that would be Griffyn and Sebastian Kroner (Marlene’s grandchildren) – so there is a lot of family and generations to keep the legacy alive.”
Most of Playland Arcade’s employees have been aboard long enough to qualify as family, many for 30 years. “They all love the business,” Marlene said. “If you want to have longevity with employees, you’ve got to treat them like family. Our employees are very important to us.”
The New Playland
Obviously, in the course of some 70 years, the arcade has undergone numerous changes. The building’s footprint is essentially the same as it always was. It was torn down and rebuilt in the early 1990s. During that time, the arcade didn’t miss a step as a tent was erected on an adjacent site and the games continued buzzing.
That adjacent site is now Pacific Park (opened in 1994), a new landmark that prominently features a Ferris wheel and roller coaster. Marlene said Pacific Park was a godsend because it brought renewed focus on the pier and gave it a jolt of new life.
Joanie explained that the Santa Monica Pier used to be more of a local destination. Over time, that changed, too. “Now, it’s world-known and it’s a tourist attraction.”
While the business honors its roots, Playland Arcade isn’t stuck in the past either. They have around 160 machines in total – ranging from the latest video games and cranes to air hockey, pinballs and a smattering of arcade classics like Pac-Man.
Some of their newest games include Perfect 10 from Pipeline Games, Bay Tek’s latest Skee-Ball iteration, VR Rabbids (LAI Games), King Kong of Skull Island VR by Raw Thrills and the dance game StepManiaX. Rabbids and King Kong are among their top earners, as are Break the Plate (Coastal Amusements), Taj Mahal (Smart Industries), Halo (Raw Thrills) and E-Claw (Elaut).
After years of consideration, they also finally made the switch from quarters to Intercard’s cashless card system. Unfortunately for them, the system was installed in March 2020. Like much of the world, they were forced to close up shop for Covid-19 on March 15. Unlike much of the world, they were forced to stay closed for 15 grueling months.
“Covid shut us down for a long time,” Joanie said, due to their “amusements” status. “The whole pier got to open before us, actually. We had to learn how to work the cashless system again once we finally reopened.”
They were thrilled with their decision to do that, since the card system made it easier to host birthday parties and other events. Plus, it’s just as easy for cash carriers to buy a game card.
On the recent weekday afternoon RePlay visited, the arcade was quietly abuzz with visitors – those likely from out of town and perhaps a kid or two playing hooky from school with Dad.
The arcade sees all types of guests – from locals to international travelers to youngsters and the elderly. “This arcade is for everybody,” Marlene said. From her business perspective, she added, “I think it keeps you alive with an energy. I intend to stay here until my last breath.”
Joanie replied: “Just like Dad.”
You can learn more about the business at www.smpierplaylandarcade.com.