Let sleeping dogs lie:
Avoid interfering in a situation that is currently causing no problems but may well do so as a result of such interference.
So goes the proverb. There’s an argument in classic arcade collecting circles, that if you do let the proverbial dog lie, you will end up with a pretty mundane collection of cabinets. The dedicated collector should be turning over every stone, following up every lead and making the phone calls that might snag him his next classic arcade cabinet. It’s all about the hustle.
The arcade forums across the globe are full of tales of collectors who pull off amazing grabs by going the extra mile, or stumbling across situations that they investigate, resulting in a new acquisition. Arguably, the harder the prep, the bigger the result – either in terms of volume of cabs acquired, or the rarity of said machines. Simple really – most people won’t bother putting the effort in to track stuff down; those that do, tend to reap the rewards.
But what happens when acquiring an abandoned arcade cabinet leads to an extraordinary series of events? It happens. What follows is a summary of one such story, which turned into an amazing adventure for one arcade collector from California.
Back in 2010, an arcade forum user made what was an unassuming post. He linked to a set of pictures that he’d stumbled across on a site called Artificial Owl, that documented a disused restaurant located somewhere in the Sierra Nevada. The pictures were a fairly standard set in the Urban Exploration style, showing various abandoned rooms, associated junk, tables, upturned chairs and general squalor of a place uninhabited for many years.
If you’re interested, you can see the full set of photographs here.
But one shot in particular caught his eye:
What you see there, is a Sundance arcade cabinet. This is a very very rare vector game designed by the legendary Tim Skelly for Cinemantronics Inc, manufacturer of a handful of late 70’s arcade vector machines. The game had a very low production run, estimated at around 1,000, and was plagued with poor manufacturing processes by the third-party supplier of the 23″ vector monitor. Operators reported taking delivery of the machine, switching it on, only for the monitor to burn up instantly. The failure rate was over 50%. Those that survived the initial switch on, were very fragile due to the overall hardware design elsewhere within its circuitry. As a result, most Sundance cabinets were destroyed or removed from arcade floors pretty quickly.
To give to an idea of its rarity, just 3 of these machines are known to be in existence today. And so finding information on it is pretty hard, but this game play video has surfaced on YouTube:
I think the game looks interesting. The player has to “catch” bouncing suns by manipulating the hatches at the bottom of the screen, using one of nine buttons on the control panel. Each button represents one of the nine hatches within the grid.
What followed the initial post above, was a remarkable series of events that no-one could have foreseen.
The immediate responses were mostly other collectors jumping in and telling someone, anyone, to get down to the place and grab it. The photographs were geo-tagged with an exact location which you can still find on Google Maps, so it wouldn’t take much detective work to establish where the cab was. One comment said:
Someone needs to get a rescue party together to grab this thing. It could potentially be the story of 2010…
How right he was.
Others though, put forward a more cautious opinion:
I hate to be a killjoy, but doesn’t it bother anyone else that the stuff in that place clearly belongs to someone? Abandoned or not, it doesn’t belong to us.
What followed were several pages of posts of opinions, suggestions, and even hints that a lot of activity was going on in the background. It appeared that several collectors were making attempts to contact the owner of the building to make an offer for the cabinet. What is bizarre, is they posted that information within the thread on a public forum. And for every collector posting in the thread, updating their progress in obtaining this cab, you can bet there were many others just getting on with their own detective work and not sharing that info on the forum.
Seven pages into the debate and the original poster pops up again:
I’m wondering if I should kick my own ass for even starting this topic…
The debate continued. Tensions start. People become more guarded about what they know, who they’ve contacted, what progress has been made. All the while, the Sundance remains sitting in this disused restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
Or does it? One forum member, John, appears in the thread out of the blue, and drops a bombshell:
OK so seriously, here’s my dilemma: Shortly after this thread was started I went and got the game. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal at first, but after reading some of the responses here I thought I should contact the guy and offer to purchase the game. Of course, he might say he wants me to return it and if so, I would feel obligated to do so. So I did some research before I went on vacation last week. I got a name and phone number but the number was dead. And his address is just a PO Box. I tried several routes to contact him but haven’t had any luck yet. Still working on that. So basically, I don’t feel like I can call it mine. Plus I know some others on here were going after it and I feel badly like I jumped the gun. I want to make it right with both the owner of the property and anyone else on here who feels like they have some claim to it. But I’m not sure what the best way to go about that is. If anyone has had luck with actually communicating with him, please let me know.
So it appears that John, on reading the thread did what no other collector thought to do, and just jumped in his truck, found the place, got in, grabbed the cab and made out of there. You snooze you lose. But after taking his vacation for a week (with the cab still in the back of his truck), he returns to what is now turning into an epic debate on the forum, and realizes that he might have “hot” goods on his hands, and in a wave of guilt posts his confession. The arcade cabinet that got the community so excited was no longer there. It was now in his garage.
Some wag pointed out to John that his post on a public forum, confessing to what on paper amounted to breaking and entering, grand theft and trespassing, might require him to be prepared to take a few days off work to sit opposite the LA Police and answer some searching questions. Others questioned John’s claims. Had he really picked the cab up?
Upon his return home, those questions were answered:
There it was. Photographed by its new owner (for the time being), John. Given its age, and how long it had been sat in this decaying restaurant, open to the elements, it was in remarkable condition.
To his credit, John was being cautiously open about the whole thing. He made it clear that after reflection, he regarded himself as custodian of the cab, having rescued it from what he described as a “meth house”. He even emailed the owner of the property explaining that he had the cab in his possession, and suggested he came to pick it up.
But then the real fun started. Words like “Felony” were bounded around, and opinions from both sides of the fence were thrown into the mix. It was claimed that the property owner was up to date on his taxes on the place, and therefore what John did was in fact on the wrong side of the law. One poster said he felt it his duty to report what went down to the authorities. Reading between the lines, given that this poster appeared to be very knowledgeable about the property owner, one can’t help thinking this was a case of sour grapes – he missed out on the cab and now perhaps had an axe to grind?
But he wasn’t the only one. It became apparent that lots of collectors had their noses put out of joint, as they were trying to claim the cab legally, by contacting the owner.
“Time, money and effort” as one poster stated, by many people, had been put into trying to find the owner of the Sundance cabinet. There were some very pissed off collectors involved now, and it seemed they wanted revenge. As one person put it:
My take from this thread is seeing the true colours for some. Collectors I’ve known and have been friends with since I began seriously collecting in the late 90s…. Seeing the possessiveness, judgements, entitlement, and even stretches of attempted manipulation just tells me volumes about that person’s character.
It seems that many collectors had been doing a lot of investigative work. Ringing round the local community, finding information about the owner of the property. Another user posted:
Many people were called in several cities and messages left with them to contact with the offer of a finder’s fee to get in touch with the owner. My brother has been poking around and getting info leads from the locals. That’s how most of the out-of-town contacts were found…….The place is run down, but it’s not abandoned. It’s no different from you kicking in the door of someone’s vacation home and taking the TV out of it to rescue it….
…This was not some sort of treasure hunt.. Everyone knew where the prize was. Someone just decided that stealing it was the way to go. You guys just don’t get what small town life out there is like.. Everyone knows everyone out there. We found out stuff about the guy that we should never have been told….
And then the armchair lawyers arrived. People started quoting Wikipedia, and local California statute law. The thread was descending into chaos. Grown men were fighting each other verbally, based on rumour and speculation.
But what of the property owner, arguably the lynch pin in this story? Someone stated that they’d heard he owed a lot of people a lot of money, which was why he was difficult to track down. What’s more, he hadn’t checked his PO Boxes for over two years. So arguably, any messages sent to him (one including a cheque to secure the cab with a promise of more money) hadn’t reached him. But again, I should point out this was one person’s take, based on their own research.
The bizarre thing is, if you were to summarise the story so far, everyone started by saying “Hey! there’s a super rare arcade cabinet in this abandoned place. Someone go pick it up!”.
But now it seemed everyone was saying “WHY THE HELL DID YOU PICK THE DAMNED THING UP!”
We are now 50 pages into the 130 page thread. The original poster (remember him?) arrives back with a one liner:
Note to self: next time I come across abandoned property with rare game inside – let it rot.
Brilliantly understated, given the circumstances!
But then John, The Sundance custodian dropped a bombshell:
Well, I just got a call from Tuolumne County’s finest…
Clearly, the police had been made aware of the situation, and wanted to speak with John…
So the witch hunt had started. Had someone ratted on John? Speculation was rife, with the finger-pointing at one or two posters who seemed to have invested a huge amount of time in researching the owner of the property. But John came back and put the record straight:
OK guys….there are a lot of people with a dog in this race. Every day I learn about people who are in the background trying to get their grubby hands on this game. Many are not vocal at all. Some don’t have anything to do with [this forum]. And on top of that, a LOT of people are talking to employees and officials at all levels all around town trying to get information on the owner. Business folks have been contacted. Phone calls have been made to anyone who might conceivably be a relative.
With this level of activity it was inevitable that I would eventually get a call. Nobody ratted me out.
They confirmed that the place was in fact a crack house of some sort, and said that to describe it as “abandoned” was a gross understatement. He reported seeing pounds and pounds of tin foil coated in “sludge”, a furnace and a terrible chemical smell inside some of the rooms. In short, they said, John as a collector, did the right thing in removing the cab from where it was. The place was trashed, and not in a good way. The cab was surrounded by dangers and grimness the likes of which he had never seen before. In fact he stated that it was the worse situation he had ever encountered in his life.
Concerns are now raised that the cab is potentially a health hazard and is in some way contaminated by the toxic fumes produced inside the abandoned building by the crack heads inhabiting the place. John arrives back to the thread to put out the flames:
So, does anyone in Northern California know much about Cinematronic monitors? It would be nice to play a few rounds before heading off to prison.
Still playing it like a cool cat, John, with potentially the most to lose in all this, is holding his head while everyone else is running around shouting at each other. He went on:
I have been in contact with the owner of the property known as “Little Sweden” and he asked me to let everyone here know that he is extremely displeased that people have entered his property. This, of course, is not surprising. There should be no reason for anyone to go in there anyhow. But he wanted to be sure that folks here were aware that he is very serious about this and will use extreme measures to protect his property. Stay away. Keep out. There’s nothing to be seen there.
Of course, people wanted to know what had happened to the Sundance. John was keeping tight-lipped about his recent conversation with the local police, but clearly, activity was afoot in the background:
Sorry for being evasive. There are other players and it’s complicated now. I’m sure it won’t be long until the story comes out. Be patient and avoid speculation because you will probably be wrong.
Around this time, the tale made the local news. If you read the story, there is more information about the property where the game was found, and the property owner is identified as a Don Williams. The article goes on to introduce a new player to the story, Greg McLemore, the curator of the International Arcade Museum. He spoke on behalf of everyone in the arcade collecting community:
I think we all just want to make sure it doesn’t end up in a landfill.
Which regardless of the shenanigans that have gone on so far, is fair comment. Further, in what appears to be a response to that article, this somewhat bizarre post was made by someone who appeared to be acquainted with the owner of the building.
A few days later, John surfaces again and puts everyone out of their misery:
I’ll let the new owner tell the story. But yes, I was out-manoeuvred. No hard feelings….Truly the one thing I most wanted was to get to fix it. That’s what I enjoy doing the most and this is the only chance I will ever get to fix up a game like this. But alas, someone else will get that pleasure.
So the Cinematronics Sundance cab finally appeared to have a legitimate owner. And it wasn’t John – the guy who grabbed the machine in the first place. Greg, mentioned above, was also in contact with the property owner, and made an offer which trumped John’s and was accepted.
In a final hurrah, John posts a handful of pictures of the machine cleaned up for the community to see:
The cab is stunning, and judging by these pictures was in amazing condition for its age. And of course, was one of only four known to exist. Short of cleaning up the cab and doing an initial inspection of things, John had not done any work on the cab. He reported that the game worked, but that the monitor was not showing a picture.
Greg had a few words to say on the matter:
Re: civil and criminal liability and the owner. I have spent enough time on the phone with the owner to begin to gauge his personality. Additionally I have encouraged the owner to drop the matter which I think is likely to happen. And I have advised John on my strategy for making sure the owner doesn’t pursue any action. If any action were to happen at this point, it would likely be the result of an emotional response on the owners part.
I think the words ‘cooperation’ and ‘respect’ towards the owner are the best way to make any potential trouble disappear.
So Greg and John in a remarkably civil manner, agreed a way forward for the machine.
Having paid the property owner for the machine, and in the process, effectively transferring ownership, Greg offered to pay for John and his family to visit Disneyland in exchange for him safely delivering the cabinet to Greg personally, to which John agreed. Here is John loading the game up ready for its final journey to its new owner in Pasadena:
This was quite the adventure for John. He made some enemies along the way which is a shame, but a couple of years after the event, he remains reflective:
I went public on many occasions, including posting an ad in the [local paper] asking for information on the property owner so that I could return the game or purchase it. It doesn’t make it right that I took it. But it was the best I could do under the circumstances. I paid my own money to track him down to try to make it right. I lost out on the deal and the owner decided to sell it to someone else. Perhaps mostly because he was upset at me having taken it in the first place.
I never should have taken the game to begin with. I acknowledge that and so I feel no negativity toward the others who were trying to get hold of it. I did for a while but I’ve let it go. And looking back on it, I wasn’t justified to feel that way anyway. The game belonged to someone else and he got what he wanted out of it and sold it to who he wanted.
Although I do wonder where it would be right now if I had never stopped in that little @#!*% hole….
I want to thank John very much for agreeing to me retelling the story here on the blog for posterity.
I don’t think anyone involved in this tale should be judged. From where I’m sitting, the most important thing to come out of this amazing yarn, is that a very rare piece of arcade history has been saved. There is a moral debate about going into what appears to be an abandoned building and pulling out an item that is historically important. If you do, are you trespassing? If you leave it, will it get trashed by someone not aware of its importance or value? I don’t have the answers – but I know what I’d do! (And I certainly wouldn’t post my new acquisition on a public forum!). But both John and Greg remained civil in public, and hopefully one day, we will all have an opportunity to see and play this extraordinary game.
The Sundance is in safe hands, and John got a free holiday break with his wife and kids, not to mention a cracking tale to tell. His humour and candour throughout is a lesson to us all. From a legal perspective, John has heard nothing further. So all’s well that ends well.
Sometimes, you have to do the wrong thing, because it’s the right thing to do.
If you got this far, thank you for reading.
See you next week as usual.
Footnote: There was much more to the story that sadly time and my own sanity didn’t allow me to detail here. If you are feeling particularly masochistic, and want to lose four hours of your life that you won’t ever be able to reclaim, you can plow through the original thread here. (Seriously, don’t do it, you’ll hate me)
As it unfolded, the story spawned many links to mocked up t-shirts, memes, images and even a video game based on John’s acquisition. One of the more amusing things to come out of it, was this great video, posted by a community member on YouTube. There’s a few “in jokes” there, but it’s worth a watch: