Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Cinematronics/Vectorbeam - Pt 1

Today I begin what should be a long series of posts on the "ulimate (so far)" history of Cinematronics. I say "so far" because, of course, this really isn't the "utlimate" history of the company. There are still plenty of untold stories and telling them would require talking to a lot of people I have yet to track down (not being able to locate Jim Pierce was one reason I put the book on hold back in 2002).

Cinematronics might seem an odd choice for a long series of posts given that there are already two sites documenting its history (http://www.zonn.com/Cinematronics/history.htm and http://www.cinematronics.org/history.html) plus Tim Skelly's write-up in Before the Crash but I have a good deal of info on the company that hasn't seen the light of day so far plus most of the histories leave out the pre-1977 and the post-vector era.

In some of these posts, I  will retain the chapter titles from the book.

Enough with the preliminaries:


Chapter 14
Spacewar Returns – The Rise of the Vector Game
(Cinematronics: 1975-1978)


In November 1978, RePlay magazine printed the results of its annual operator's survey. In the rankings of the year’s top video games, Atari held down seven of the top 10 spots and Bally/Midway two (Sea Wolf and Sea Wolf II). Neither of these stalwarts, however, lay claim to the year’s number one game. That honor went to Space Wars, the first hit game from El Cajon’s Cinematronics – a company that, despite more than two years of experience, had barely made a blip on the coin-op industry’s radar.




Cinematronics was founded in April 1975 in Kearny Mesa, a community in east San Diego, by Gary Garrison, Dennis Partee, and Jim Pierce. It was an unlikely combo to start a video game company. Two of the three were pro football players and the other was a farmer. Garrison and Partee were members of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. Partee had been the team's kicker and punter since 1968 and would retire after the 1975 season. Known as "the ghost", Gary Garrison joined the team in 1966 and in the late 60s teamed with Hall-of-Famer Lance Alworth to form one of the AFL’s premiere pass-catching combos. He would stay with the Chargers through 1976 and retire in1977 after a brief stint with the Houston Oilers.


Dennis Partee's 1975 Topps football card.
Gary Garrison's 1971 Topps football card.
While Partee and Garrison's interest in the venture soon waned, the third member of the trio, Jim Pierce, stayed with the company until the bitter end. Jimmie Dale Pierce was born in Missouri on February 17, 1937. In the 1970s, Pierce, who once described himself as "a tractor driver from El Centro," was a beet farmer in Imperial Valley, an oasis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert in southeastern California (Rhoades 1975). In 1975, he left his tractor behind, and headed to San Diego to try his luck in the booming cocktail video game market, joining Partee and Garrison in their new venture with an initial investment of $21,000 (San Diego Union 1/14/79). On April 11, 1975, the three appeared before notary public Cheryl Richardson to file articles of incorporation and on May 16, Cinematronics was incorporated.



From the May 25, 1975 Airzona Republic



Jim Pierce
From Before the Crash: Early Video Game History (original source, Replay magazine)
On the other hand, the company's articles of incorporation (notarized on April 11, 1975) show that Pierce was already onboard at that time.










Cinematronics’s early years are shrouded in mystery. Prior to late 1976, the company drew no mention whatsoever in the trade journals, which covered even the smallest manufacturers. Its first game was a cocktail table Pong clone, produced around May 1975 but details are sketchy at best. No flyer has ever turned up and it is unclear how or where they were sold. Not even the name is known with any certainty, with some referring to it simply as "Pong." Most sources agree that it was an illegitimate copy of an existing game, but accounts vary regarding how it came about, even among those who later worked for the company. Tim Skelly (2007) reports that Cinematronics ordered schematics for another game and built a knockoff, while Robert Shaver (2012) heard that they stripped the components from an existing board, then photographed it to make artwork for a new one. The most interesting version, which was still making the rounds at Cinematronics years later, claims that the founders visited a rival company and tried to buy its Pong clone, only to be rebuffed. As they were leaving they noticed a stack of PC boards behind the building, commandeered a few, and beat a hasty retreat (Skinner 2012).

Rare photo of Cinematronics' 1975 Video Amusement Table
From http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfWJmIxI77A

Sidebar - Cinematronics' Pong Clone


The story of the "procurement" Cinematronics' first game is unsubstantiated. If it is true, however (and that's a big "if"), who made the original? We'll probably never know. At the time, most video games companies in California were in the Silicon Valley 500 miles to the North with a handful of others in the Los Angeles area. There were very few in San Diego. Gremlin was still making wall games at the time. They wouldn't release their first video game until late 1976 and they never made a Pong clone. Of course, there could have been any number of fly-by-night video game companies in San Diego that have since disappeared into the mists of history. One such company was Video Tennis, Inc., incorporated November 7, 1974 in La Jolla - a company that has gone completely unmentioned until now. Another possible source for the game is Amalgamated Enterprises located at 4867 Mercury, about a mile from Cinematronics. Amalgamated wasn't incorporated until October of 1975 (around the same time they released a cocktail Pong clone called The Money Game), but they had been in existence since at least late July. In early 1974 a company called Amalgamated Industries (located at 7401 Convoy Court, next door to Cinematronics) introduced a cocktail Pong clone called TV Tennis to San Diego bars but it appears that they were a distributor, not a manufacturer. Then again, the whole story could be apocryphal.



More mysterious still, in 1976, Cinematronics produced a home version of the game, which it sold through local department stores and about which even less is known. (Rhoades 1976). Not much more is known about Cinematronics’s second game – a video pinball game called Flipper Ball – beyond what can be gleaned from its flyer. Yet again, the game was not original, as it appears to have been identical to Exidy's TV Pinball. Aside from these fleeting references, almost nothing has turned up about the company's first two games.



7335 Conway Court (site of Cinematronics ????-1977)  today.
From Google Maps 

 It appears that neither Garrison nor Partee took much interest in the company. At the time of its founding, both had recently been named VPs of San Diego Federal Bank and had a number of other outside interests. Both were still active NFL players and ran a football camp during the off-season. Garrison also raised quarter horses and owned 61 apartment units in La Jolla.

Perhaps due to the lack of attention, Cinematronics lost money in its first year and didn’t do much better the next. The company did, however, begin to design games of its own. Robert Shaver came to work for Cinematronics in July of 1976. After graduating from Cal Poly, Shaver knew he wanted to live in San Diego. He drove his one-ton Chevy Step Van the 300 miles from San Luis Obispo then took a bus back home to get his car. Fresh out of college and short on cash, Shaver lived out of his van for the next two weeks as he scoured the want ads for a job in the electronics industry.


[Robert Shaver]  One afternoon…as I was walking across a parking lot of a company office having filled out another in that seemingly endless succession of application/resume drudgery, I happened to look over my shoulder and saw a company name that ended in “tronics”…I was tired and it was 4PM. I almost walked on … but I didn’t. I walked back, entered the office and asked if they were hiring. The receptionist (who I later learned was Jim Pierce’s wife) handed me an application. I filled it out, handed it back with a copy of my resume and turned to leave. But she asked me to wait while she took it into the “boss”.


Engineer (later plant manager)  Lou Newell
From www.cinematronics.org (original source unkonwn, probably Replay or Play Meter)
Pierce offered Shaver a job at $1,000 a month. Shaver accepted and went to work at Cinematronics, which was then located at 7535 Convoy Court. When he arrived, the design department consisted of a single engineer named Lou Newell. Shaver soon set to work on the company's first original-concept game.



Meanwhile, Cinematronics released a video pinball game called Flipper Ball (a version of Chicago Coin's TV Flipper, which itself was probably a licensed version of Exidy's TV Pinball). The game came in upright and cocktail models. In early 1977, sweeping changes were made. Garrison sold his share of the company to Pierce and Ralph Clarke, owner of Charter Mortgage Company of San Marcos. Pierce hired Chicago Coin's Bob Sherwood as marketing director and moved the company from Kearny Mesa to El Cajon. Sherwood soon lined up so many new clients that the company found itself two months behind filling orders. By April, Shaver's game - Embargo was ready for release.



Screenshot from Embargo

In the game, the player planted mines around a pair of islands that looked vaguely like Cuba with a canal through the middle of it (which may explain why it reportedly sold well in South Florida but nowhere else). The canal was a late addition suggested by Jim Pierce to give the player more manueveirng options . After designing the game, Shaver was assigned to a technician job (Cinematronics had no technicians at the time) where he would repair Embargo boards as they came off the assembly line (almost none of which were working when he got them). Shaver didn't care for life as a technician and soon left.  Sometime after the release of Embargo, Dennis Partee sold his interest in the company. By early 1978 he had gone into the retail doughnut business in Rancho Mission Plaza. While the company's fortunes seem to have improved initially after Pierce took over, the good times didn't last long. By late 1977, the company was nearing bankruptcy (Pierce had already been through one) and in desperate need of a hit.


1044 Pioneer Way today. Cinematronics moved here in early 1977.

From Google Maps






[1] San Diego Union September 10, 1975
[2] Flipper Ball was a cocktail version of Chicago Coin's TV Flipper (which was released arund January, 1975) and probably the same as Exidy's TV Pinball (which debuted at the 1974 MOA show). While it is often listed as a 1977 game, that date seems awfully late given the release dates of the earlier games. On the other hand, flyers for Flipper Ball bill it as "another" money maker from CInematroncis.
[3] Another home game was also in development at the time, but I've found no other reference to either of them.




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