A hundred boardwalks, gone but not quite dead, await a new dawn
Right in the middle of Wildwood is an old Woolworth’s, locked up and closed. If you glance into the windows, you could mistake it for a storage space, though you might do a double take at the giant bear that waits, ready to attack, inside the door.
But if you stop and peer inside, you’ll see that it is packed with arcade games from the past century. It’s the result of a decades-long obsession of Randy Senna, a Jersey native who has devoted his life to preserving the midway games of his youth.
Senna runs Flipper’s Fascination on the boardwalk, rotating an item or two from his massive collection in and out to his Fascination parlor every summer. But the parlor is just the tip of his ambitions.
“I grew up as a kid on these boardwalks. We were all on here all the time,” he says. “As a kid I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I wasn’t into sports, so my friends became the machines in the arcade. They didn’t fight with you.”
After he acquired his first pinball machine in sixth grade, Senna’s obsession grew; he worked fixing machines on the local boardwalks along the Jersey Shore, in towns like Keansburg and Seaside Heights, and would accept old ones instead of money. Then, at age 13, came Fascination. “I started getting into it. You were accepted. It was part of a group, and it filled a void for me,” he says. Senna started playing 12 hours a day. Then came the fall from grace: “My reward was that they threw me out! You don’t throw someone out for being good!” Senna had become so skilled, beating everyone who tried to play against him, that he was banned.
“I was traumatized for two to three years,” he says. But he continued his feverish collecting of boardwalk remnants as the old arcades of the Jersey Shore disappeared. Asbury Park’s famous Palace Amusements and other smaller arcades were demolished and the remains sold. Senna, though only in his twenties, scavenged when he could and bought when he had the means. “Every time one of them closed, I was there,” he said.
And then, vindication. The very Fascination parlor that had thrown him out was up for sale, and Senna bought it. He used the Fascination tables from that purchase, among others, for his first attempt at an arcade museum, in 1996. After a few months, it was closed because of structural problems. The Woolworth’s is his second attempt to bring these bits and pieces back to life. With artifacts like the original 1956 sound machine from the haunted house at Asbury Park, including tapes for the cackling of a devil and W. C. Fields, Senna is primed to re-create all the boardwalks of the past. Beyond the Woolworth’s 21,000 feet of Zoltan machines, monorail lights, and giant clowns, 27 trailers’ worth of more stuff sits in central Jersey, awaiting its chance to whir and click again.
But Senna is also engaged in a bitter and complex battle with the city, and only time will tell if Randyland, his hoped-for museum, will ever open. In the meantime, Senna spends 14 hours a day at his boardwalk post, keeping up a rhythmic patter: “Diagonal lines play free! I hear that magic Tinkerbell sound! Only 20 cents a game!”
Flipper’s Fascination (4104–4106 Boardwalk at Young Avenue) is one of the few remaining Fascination games left in the country. Randyland (3210 Pacific Avenue) is currently closed but worth a walk past its windows. —C.L.