Arcade owner maintains fading bastion

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2012 - 3:04 PM

A Hopkins pinball palace -- a throwback to the whizzing, clanging glory days -- has but 13 machines, and relies on its regulars to survive.

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Jaida Schweiger, 10, visited SS Billiards with her parents. Owner Lloyd Olson's dog, Prada, likes to run around the legs of the machines.

Photo: Bre McGee, Special to the Star Tribune

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One of the oldest pinball arcades in the country sits in a Hopkins strip mall, nestled between a Chinese take-out restaurant and an insurance agency.

The sign above the small storefront says SS Billiards, but most people just call it "Lloyd's."

Lloyd Olson has run this meager pinball palace for 40 years, almost entirely by himself. "I can't afford to pay any employees," he told me last week.

The place is frozen in time. The dusty brown carpet hasn't been replaced since 1987. The pool tables haven't been reupholstered in just as long.

Still, the whizzing, clanging, beeping sounds of pinball draw regulars to Olson's humble corner of the world.

But his is a fleeting dominion. Pinball has found a healthy existence in the home collector sector, but arcades such as SS Billiards are nearing extinction.

"I feel like a dinosaur on a hill, wondering where all my friends went," Olson said.

Until a recent buzzcut, Olson's white stringy hair made him look like Albert Einstein without the mustache. He'd brush it back when reminiscing about the old days. He grew up in the business. His father repaired pinball machines and jukeboxes. His mother bought SS Billiards in 1972 from a man named Sam Snelling (thus the name). Olson, 58, eventually took over, shepherding the arcade through pinball's heyday.

He's now down to 13 machines, having sold a handful to pay the bills. Much of his family is gone, too. He's divorced with no children, and his parents passed away a long time ago.

His closest companion these days is a friendly beagle-terrier cross named Prada. "She came with that name," he said.

The small white dog is the first face customers see at SS Billiards. After a few sniffs, she'll run away, bobbing and weaving under the machines as if they were obstacles for her amusement. On some days, the old games are good for little else. Olson can go for hours without seeing another soul.

When pinball was at its zenith, the "Addams Family" game, based on the 1991 movie, became the highest-selling flipper of all time with 20,000 machines in circulation.

Today there is only one company manufacturing new games. "X-Men" caused quite a stir this summer, but the Twin Cities release party was held at Mortimer's, a Minneapolis dive bar that houses a handful of recent titles.

Olson's most current machine, "Spider-man," is five years old.

An opinionated pinball sage

"A friend once told me, 'Even if a guy doesn't have money, he has pride,'" Olson said.

In that sense, Olson is a rich man. He contributes regularly to online forums, dispensing free repair advice to other enthusiasts. Pinball News, a website based in England, has called SS Billiards a "worldwide destination for serious pinball players."

But Olson's no-nonsense personality doesn't click with everyone, and he'll be the first to tell you.

A lot of the great players won't play here, he said. Minnesota is home to a few experts, including Paul Madison, who's ranked 87th in the world by the International Flipper Pinball Association.

"They all go up to Blainbrook," Olson said, referring to the suburban bowling alley. Blainbrook is home to three times as many games and is hosting Pinnesota, a three-day tournament that starts Friday. Olson is holding his own tournament a few days later to celebrate SS Billiard's 40th anniversary.

As we talked on a recent afternoon, in walked 31-year-old Michael Edelstein. He turned to the counter and yelled, "Lloyd!"

Olson didn't recognize the young man, probably because the last time Edelstein sat foot in here was 15 years ago.

"I can't believe this place is still around," the mortgage banker said. He stopped in on a whim; his girlfriend's car was getting a tune-up nearby.

After greeting Prada, Edelstein made a beeline to "Medieval Madness," a favorite from his junior-high days. His index fingers began tapping the buttons like he was teenager again. Today's Xbox and Playstation consoles don't interest him.

"All that stuff is too complicated, too many buttons," he said.

For him, the only thing different about the arcade was the pricing. Olson raised the coinage to 75 cents a few years ago, some are now $1.

On this particular day, Olson opened the arcade later than usual -- he'd been at a meeting with Hennepin County.

His house has fallen into foreclosure.

Yet, it's difficult for him to feel completely glum when Prada is always at his side, nudging him for a friendly belly rub.

"I'm still a believer," Olson said. "If I could get a few things rolling, I'm convinced I could eke a living out of this place."

He looked at Prada, who was chewing on a green rubber ball and wagging her tail -- oblivious to her master's predicament.

 

  • Tom Horgen
  • 612-673-7909
  • Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen
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  • Lloyd Olson

  • SS BILLIARDS

    Where: 732 11th Av. S., Hopkins.

    Hours: 2-10 p.m. Sun., noon-midnight Mon.-Sat.

    Events: 40th anniversary party and tournament on Sept. 20. Pinball Circus tournament Oct. 27-28.

    Info: 952-938-9259 or www.ssbilliards.com.

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