Skee-Ball Scions

A Berwyn family keeps the 100-year Shore tradition rolling along.

Skee-Ball, Inc.’s Joe Sladek has never been much of a player. But he’s a heck of an owner. (Photo by Colin Lenton)There must be thousands of Skee-Ball memories out there, and Joe Sladek has a few of his own. It’s summer in the ’60s in Ocean City, N.J., and his eventual wife, Eilleen, is challenging him to multiple games of the classic arcade alley game that’s synonymous with the Shore.

And she’s winning—every time.

“I hated it, of course,” Sladek says now. “She’s still much better than me. I still can’t beat her—or anyone. But who knew, 30 years later, that I would own it?”

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For Berwyn’s Sladeks, Skee-Ball has always been a family affair. The CEO’s son, Michael, is Skee-Ball, Inc.’s vice president of operations, and daughter Eilleen Graham is the company’s marketing director. Her toddler son, Liam, has quite the daily playground, and her second child was due in May. “This is like home,” Graham says. “One day, Liam will start in the plant. It’s how we all started.”

Skee-Ball—the ageless boardwalk arcade game where you roll balls up an incline and into holes for points and tickets—started 100 years ago this year. For the centennial celebration, the Sladeks’ Bucks County plant will make a retro-1920s Skee-Ball machine. Only 200 will be produced, with five set aside as Christmas gifts for the Sladek children and grandchildren. The price for each figures to be about $10,000; they’ll be sold through a yet-to-be-named high-end retailer. The centennial celebration kicks off at November’s International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo in Las Vegas.

Celebrating is out of ordinary for the Sladeks, who’ve always maintained a low profile. “We’ve been very laid-back,” the 62-year-old Sladek admits with a hearty laugh. “We’ve kept our heads down and pounded nails.”

Sladek once worked six 10-hour days a week. But over the past few years, he’s shifted more responsibility to his children and 50-some company employees. These days, he commutes an hour from Berwyn to the Chalfont headquarters, arriving at 11:30 a.m. and leaving at 4 p.m. “When we’re here, we work,” he says. “But I like my vacations, too.” (The Sladeks have homes in Ocean City and Aruba.)

At the plant, Michael explains the production process, which begins with base plywood cut by a $200,000 panel saw that routes surfaces to match specific games. Once the pieces are sanded, primed and painted, the electronics are assembled and installed in the sub-components shop.

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A Skee-Ball ad from the 1930s, when Wurlitzer owned the gamePlant production averages about six machines a day, or 30 a week. There were years when it was 16 a day. One machine takes about eight man-hours to build. It travels through five pairs of hands—but the real measure of success is how many hands touch the machine after it’s shipped and installed somewhere around the world. Skee-Ball, Inc. has 100,000 machines—three-quarters of which are Skee-Ball—in operation around the globe, from Siberia to Beijing. Currently, Skee-Ball is the most popular in the Middle East, with South America a close second. “I’ve always said they’re everywhere—like horses–t,” Joe says.

These days, Skee-Ball shares space with newer games like Spin-N-Win, Buzz Off and last year’s Strike It Rich, a timely oil-rig-themed invention. The company’s website lists more than 30 different amusement games, including prize cranes, mini-basketball and a half-dozen Skee-Ball variations.

“I remember playing Skee-Ball as a kid—but everyone says that,” Michael says. “I was in Wildwood for the first time; I was 5 or 6 and trying to win tickets. My first prize was a weight set. I remember carrying it down the Boardwalk.”

Like his father, Michael isn’t much of a player. Nor does he have much of a chance to practice, despite having all those machines at his fingertips.

“The problem is that, once you start playing, it becomes a used game,” he admits.

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The game is so overtly simple and pure. Skee-Ball players roll a smooth wooden ball up a ramp toward a bank of rising concentric holes guarded by plastic rims. Depending on the score, your reward is tickets spit out by the machine; the more you have, the better the prizes at the redemption station.

As for strategy, neither brute force nor a too-soft approach works. Something in between—a consistent, smooth, even-handed motion and a slight twist of the wrist at the point of release—seems best. Done well, your ball surmounts the slight incline and arches high enough to clear the shields and rattle in a hole before draining inside it, notching anywhere between 10 and 50 points. The harder-to-reach holes offer the most points. Low-scoring games don’t earn tickets. And like in bowling, there are gutter balls.

Eilleen Sladek used to have success banking balls off the left side rail, though modern machines have molding affixed to the sides that now makes the technique unreliable. “When I travel around the world, they all want to know how to score a consistently high game,” her husband says. “I always tell them to pray—because, obviously, I don’t know.”

For what it’s worth, the company’s CEO always rolls the ball right down the middle of the alley. His high score is 300. Eilleen’s is 450, the maximum nine-ball score. Most machines provide nine balls per game, the others five.

An early Skee-Ball houseSkee-Ball prizes range from stuffed animals to appliances and even cars, but Skee-Ball, Inc. doesn’t choose the types or levels—that’s entirely “programmable” for each client. “We talked to our customers early on, and most wanted flexibility to adjust what to charge to play (once a nickel, but now anywhere between 25 cents and $4) or what level of performance would equate what prizes,” Sladek says. “It’s all in their control.”

Skee-Ball was invented in Philadelphia in 1909 by Princeton University alum Jonathan Dickinson Estes, the son of a lumberyard owner. Lumber was—and still is—the key component for building the units. Even the balls are made from a sawdust-and-glue concoction that’s heated and poured into molds.

In Estes’ original version—copyrighted as “Box Ball”—the alley measured 36 feet. That proved too long for most arcades, so lanes were changed to 14 feet in 1928. Today, the standard is 10.

By 1932, the first national Skee-Ball tournament was held in Atlantic City. Seven years later, Skee-Ball was an attraction at the New York World’s Fair.

In time, Skee-Ball’s copyright passed through well-established Philadelphia companies. Rights were purchased in 1935 by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company. Ten years later, they shifted to Philadelphia Toboggan Company (now Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters out of Hatfield), maker of some of the world’s most famous wooden rollercoasters and carousels, and 1967 pioneer of automatic ticket dispensers.

Philadelphia Toboggan Company branded Skee-Ball in 1977 to better market the game. In those days, it only generated free-game tickets. For 20 more years, the company puttered along until Sladek saved the game—and maybe even himself in the process.

Born in West Chester, near where daughter Eilleen now lives, Sladek graduated from Malvern Prep before earning a degree in finance from Villanova University in 1969. He began working as a CPA with Price Waterhouse, then was hired away as a controller for a diversified conglomerate and later as vice president of finance for a trade industry publisher.

The last job required a commute from Paoli to Manhattan. After doing it for two years, he’d had it. He wasn’t about to move—or to expose his kids to New York. “It was like night and day (between home and work),” he says. “Philadelphia is a little like a rat race, but New York is 10 times worse.”

About then, Sladek decided he didn’t want to work for anyone else. Through a friend and business associate representing the High family, which owned Skee-Ball (and the contemporary Philadelphia Toboggan Company), he learned that it was up for sale. He bought Skee-Ball in 1985.

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“I was apprehensive,” Sladek confesses now. “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but we made progress. Then it became more exciting, and now it’s become great beyond my wildest expectations.”

The first year, redemption games accounted for a $5 million market, Sladek says. By 1995, that figure jumped to $240 million, spiking to $896 million in 2007. A privately held company, Skee-Ball doesn’t reveal its profits, but they’ve augmented significantly since Sladek took it upon himself to mass market the concept of redemption.

“I just never, ever want to fail at anything,” says Sladek. “And after one or two years, I came to see Skee-Ball as a vehicle where I could succeed. It had such untouched potential.”

Until 1992, Skee-Ball was a one-product company. Then, between 1992-94, Sladek expanded into midway games with the purchase of Michigan-based Vari-Tech, Inc., and then top-of-line sports-related redemption games when he acquired National Sports Games in Phoenix, where Skee-Ball also operated a second plant for 14 years.

A technical diagram of a Skee-Ball machineBy 1998, Sladek introduced four new versions of the original alleys and began building Skee-Ball’s popularity around the world. As Skee-Ball reached the “fulfillment of its potential” in the United States—which today remains mostly a replacement market (a machine lasts about a decade or so, then comes back to be repainted)—Sladek began attending international trade shows and building worldwide business relationships and friendships. Today, Europe and the Middle East make up 30 percent of all Skee-Ball’s sales. What’s the appeal?

“First of all, it’s American,” says Sladek, who spends weeks in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia. “They never had anything for their kids to do. Now, there are hugely successful full-family arcades. After Communism and the Cold War, the big difference is the creation of a middle class that wants to do something other than work and drink, so there’s a demand.”

Skee-Ball isn’t recession-proof. So Sladek’s decision to go global and diversify seems prudent these days. By 2002, Skee-Ball, Inc. became business partners with Belgium’s Elaut N.V., manufacturer of instant-win amusement games specializing in crane machines. Together, they formed Skee-Ball/Elaut Amusement Games LLC.

A decade earlier, Sladek was in Russia a week after the first McDonald’s opened there. McDonald’s recognized the emergence of the middle class, and made the first big inroads into the overseas markets. “Kids in Russia will buy anything American,” he says.

In the mid- to late-1990s and early in the new millennium, Skee-Ball was working with amusement parks, midway turnkey games operations, arcades, family entertainment centers, and sporting attractions in places like Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, Japan, Belgium, Germany, England and China.

In a way, Skee-Ball is helping to Americanize the world—and Sladek knows it. “I look at it as a businessman, but we’re also passing on a good, wholesome culture we all grew up with,” he says.

In the U.S., Skee-Ball has worked with Disneyland, Universal Studios, Anheuser-Busch Adventure Parks and Six Flags. All Dave and Buster’s locations have Sladek’s games. In 2007, Hasbro signed a multi-year licensing deal that allows them to create games based on the classic Skee-Ball experience. Its first Skee-Ball-branded products were expected early into this centennial celebration year.

But never, amidst all the expansion, did Sladek ever lose sight of his mainstay: the 400-pound Skee-Ball lane. “We’ve never felt we left the big guy behind,” Sladek says. “Skee-Ball (and its variations) always was—and always will be—our main product.”

Still, Sladek’s design team is charged with developing one new product every six months. “Some are ready; some are not,” he says. “Some aren’t too good, but we’re in constant research and development.”

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Michael speaks of a junkyard of prototypes, but he also remains on the cutting edge by attending trade shows. “I like seeing other people’s games and playing them,” he says. “I will be in England in six weeks, then Italy four weeks later. But it’s Dad’s company, and he does what he wants with it.”

There’s another Sladek son, Joseph, who’s an executive with Sherwin-Williams. But, in a way, Skee-Ball is all the Sladeks have ever known. “As kids, we’d make Skee-Ball alleys in the sand, and then use paddle balls,” Eilleen says. “Most videogames are rated for age. We don’t have to do that.”

Sladek’s office is decorated with a handful of restored antique gaming machines: a Wurlitzer jukebox and a 78-rpm pay-to-play; an early-20th-century Dewey oak slot machine, one of only eight known to exist in the world; and a Golden Nugget slot machine from the ’30s. At home, he has some old Coke machines, but not one Skee-Ball. “It’s too big,” he says.

But at the plant, he has plenty.

“It’s the tradition and the longevity that means the most,” Sladek says. “I’m still able to think back when my parents played on the Boardwalk. Now, I walk on the Boardwalk with my grandchildren. We did what my parents did, and what I did with my kids: We buy peanuts and soda, and play Skee-Ball.”

And his wife still wins.

But Sladek maintains Skee-Ball helped her win the biggest prize of all: “She got me,” he says.

“We’ll have to ask her how she feels about that,” quips daughter Eilleen.

“Yeah, maybe I was the booby prize.”

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