A SHORT HISTORY OF AMUSEMENT
By Tim Hunkin
There are quite a few collections of old arcade
machines on display. In the UK, there are also several talented artists
who produce new one-off coin-operated machines as collecting boxes for
museums and hospitals – but I’m not aware of any UK alternative
‘arcades’ operating at the moment other than The Under The Pier Show.
Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, which had its arcade in Covent garden from
1984 to 1999, was a wonderful meeting place for artists interested in the
coin-op idea – and it certainly inspired me to start The Under The Pier
Sue Jackson, the founder of Cabaret, was running a gift shop in Falmouth when she started encouraging craftsmen like Paul Spooner and Peter Markey to make working models. So obviously a success with tourists she boldly moved her collection to Covent Garden in 1984. One or two of the models were coin operated but the basic idea was to pay £1 to enter the ‘museum’ of models, each one activated by turning a handle. To preserve the models, electric motors had to be added to turn the handles more gently – so the public just pressed buttons to start the motors. When Sue moved to London several more artists, including Kieth Newstead and myself became involved.
I made several slot machines to stand outside Cabaret and draw the public inside. At the time Covent Garden was so flourishing and busy that I could almost live off my 50% of the twenty pences put in my three machines outside! Cabaret’s success encouraged writers like Rosemary Hill to describe the collection as a new art movement which she named ‘modern automata’. The name stuck and ‘modern automata’ was almost fashionable for a few years around 1990.
It didn’t last.
Fashions in art always change rapidly, but the demise of modern automata
was probably accelerated by art galleries’ lack of technical expertise
– visitors to exhibitions of modern automata were often faced with
nothing actually working. Even when everything was working, the humour and
accessibility made it easy to dismiss modern automata as ‘whimsical’
– not to be taken seriously as art.
Cabaret itself finally closed its Covent Garden arcade in 1999, - still successful, but unable to cope with the spiralling rents. There maybe no arcade, and modern automata may not be as fashionable as it once was, but individual artists continue to make brilliant stuff in this vein and their work is highly collectable - worldwide. Sue has just regained control of her collection – so visit their site www.cabaret.co.uk for the latest news.
These are the alternative arcades I know of:
Thursford, Norfolk UK (a steam museum with old fairground rides and some old slot machines)
Wookey Hole, Somerset, UK (a
collection of old arcade machines – mostly a bit neglected, but the
Paris, automata museum – (never been
here either, but I think there maybe some 'modern automata') Musée des
Automates - Hôtel Arturo Lopez12, rue du Centre - 92200 Neuilly-sur-Seine
Musee Mechanique, San Fransisco (good collection of
old arcade machines including a galloping art deco horse. Has recently
moved location to pier 45, shed A, close to fisherman's wharf)
Marvellous Marvin’s arcade, Detroit USA. (Manic
collection of anything that moves, old and new – great fun)
Cabaret mechanical Theatre, Covent Garden London UK. Cabaret sadly closed in 1999 but continues to put on temporary exhibitions. See their website for current details. www.cabaret.co.uk
I'm grateful to Kevin Sims who wrote:
café at the end of
of a cafe somewhere in The
Please e-mail me with addictions or corrections!