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Thursday, August 04, 2005
Wunderland and the Avalon Theater
In the '80s and early '90s video arcades could be found all over Portland. On Beaverton Hillsdale Highway there was the Videocade, a mini-mall mecca lorded over by an elderly guy that looked like he was trapped in a gulag. Games People Play, where for a $5 admittance fee you could play unlimited games, was located in a strip mall over by Clackamas Town Center. But the 16-bit granddaddy of them all was Electric Castle Wunderland, a multi-location arcade chain where a game of "Final Fight" or a round of skee ball cost a mere nickel.
While newer games cost up to twenty cents a pop at the Washington Square location, it housed all the hottest games of the era. At one time a four-player "Simpsons" machine could be found wedged between "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game" and its sequel, "Turtles in Time," making this arcade just about the coolest place in the world for nerdy West-siders that grew up during Bush Senior's administration.
But even better was the Avalon Theater, the location over on SE Belmont. Not only did it contain an arcade but a movie theater too. A trip to the Avalon was an occasional treat and the few times I went there as a kid it was during birthday parties. I have a vague memory of seeing a "Summer School" and "Howard the Duck" double-feature there in the summer of 1986.
When I moved back to Portland from Wyoming in 2002, Shanna and I made a trip out to the Avalon, my first trip in over a decade. The place was roughly the same as I had remembered it. Big game room in an huge old theater, little one near the lobby. Several small theaters sat across from the prize counter. We paid $2 to watch "Attack of the Clones" and I went home with a candy necklace and a plastic glider, my winnings from ten games of skee ball.
What's different about the Avalon these days is the amount of bizarre Japanese imports in the main arcade. Along with a few "Dance Dance Revolution" machines and the guitar game featured in "Lost in Translation," there's another that involves bubble cannons and random aquatic animals. Assaulting pixilated manta rays while an old guy screams at you in Japanese is pretty cathartic.
The nearby "Panic Park" is one of the weirdest arcade games I've ever seen. In the two player mode you smash your controller against your opponent's, thus interfering with their on-screen counterpart as you compete in a series of wacky events. In one, the characters struggle to carry nuclear bombs across a soccer field.
There's also a great boxing game that requires players to punch a series of moving rubber targets. On a trip to the theater a few months back I was dismayed to find that its boxing gloves had been replaced by a pair of gardening gloves.
Sadly, the Avalon is probably not long for this world. It's seriously fraying at the edges and, given the continued gentrification of Belmont, the theater is taking up valuable real estate. Plus, over the years the number of Wunderlands in the Willamette Valley have dwindled from a dozen to a meager four, most likely due to the increased sophistication of home gaming consoles. There's no way a weird bubble game can compete with the likes of "Halo 2" or "GTA: San Andreas."
Much like drive-ins and malt shops, video arcades like this are a relic. I wouldn't place money on it but I'm willing to bet there's no other place on earth like the Avalon Theater. This one of those Portland landmarks the "Keep Portland Weird" folks go nuts over. In other words, savor the Avalon while it lasts. By the end of the decade there'll be a banal, multi-use condo unit in its place with a Pottery Barn on the ground floor. That I am willing to bet on.