It's game over for St. Pete Beach Amusement Center

For the St. Pete Beach Amusement Center, where generations of children flicked pinballs, whiplashed friends in bumper cars and blew apart fields of asteroids,, the game is finally over.

Nearly 40 years after it opened in an old evacuation center, the all-you-can-play center wasn't drawing the families it used to. Owner Lenny Stamos, 61, said a drop in tourism and newfangled games have hurt business to the point where the space is more valuable than the income.

So this morning, the childhood favorites go to the highest bidder.

"The consumer is going to set the price," said John Harris of Randy Kincaid Auction Co. as he stood amid the chaotic beeping of more than 200 games.

When the Amusement Center opened on July 4, 1969, it had all the latest crazes in Florida vacation fun. Indoor miniature golf. Bowling. Ski Ball.

Founder Jerry Rodgers opened two other amusement centers in the area and pioneered indoor bumper cars, which rolled around with poles scraping the metal roof.

Sunburned kids would finish off a day at the beach with some air conditioning and button-pounding. They snacked on soda, junk food and ice cream. There were never tokens or quarters to worry about. Just an admission fee and hours of fun.

Before they moved to the area, Lenny Stamos and his grade-school-age son visited as tourists from New Jersey. Derrick Stamos sat on his dad's lap and drove a bumper car for the first time.

"It had the biggest collection of pinball machines I'd ever seen in my life," Derrick Stamos said.

In the 1980s, the cars gave way to the golden age of stand-up video games — Galaga, Asteroids and Pac Man.

In the '90s, Rodgers trimmed down the building to make way for a widened Blind Pass Road. He thought it would be good for business.

About six years ago, Lenny Stamos bought the building from Rodgers, who was in his 80s. Stamos had been leasing the space for his bike and surf shop, next door to the center.

But Xbox, PlayStation and Wii haven't been kind to the pixelated games of yore.

Linda Stamos, 60, who ran the center many days, said kids would come in and comment that they had all the games on their computers.

Now, their value lies in nostalgia, in capturing a piece of a long-gone childhood. The cavernous hall was filled Friday with rapt men hunched over machines as they previewed their purchases.

"They make new pins, but the age of the pinball is in the past," said Ben Chertok, 41, who was scouting out the goods. With six machines in his game room and even more pinball glasses decorating the walls, he knows something about it.

Lenny Stamos looked around at the activity and commented, "If they had to pay to get in here, there'd be nobody."

Stamos, who plans to focus on his surf shop and lease the other space, said Rodgers, now in his 90s, understands why the center has to close. The clientele for retro video games has shifted from the general public to a select group of avid fans.

That's whom he expects at the auction today.

Derrick Stamos, now 37, will be there too, but he doesn't think he'll buy. His wife has advised the Air Force pilot against it.

"Who knows?" Derrick Stamos said. "If I get a sudden strike of nostalgia, who knows?"

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727)892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

>>fast facts

If you go

The auction begins at 10 a.m. at the center, located at 7525 Blind Pass Road on St. Pete Beach.

A nostalgic look

To view an audio slideshow of the St. Pete Beach Amusement Center, go to pinellas.tampabay.com.

It's game over for St. Pete Beach Amusement Center 04/25/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2008 8:58am]

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