First published in the Sept. 17 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Music plays. Arcade screens flash. Tickets fly out of blinking red dispensers. Kids shoot hoops, competing for the highest score. And positioned faithfully behind the counter is Jim Rowton, helping arcade goers exchange their hard-earned tickets for prizes.
He’s there just about every day with his wife, Susan. They started All Amusement Fun Center, located at the Burbank Town Center, almost 30 years ago.
Now, after 50 years of working in the arcade-gaming business, Rowton will retire.
Rowton owes a lot to the people of Burbank. When Texas real estate developer Cypress Equities purchased the mall in 2017, All Amusement Fun Center was nearly ousted altogether, but Burbank residents wouldn’t have it. Arcade regulars spoke out and collected signatures to save the Fun Center.
“The community rallied when they heard we were on our way out the door. They have been so uplifting, so heartwarming, and made these last several years so incredibly enjoyable,” he said.
Amid the controversy and with the help of Lance Taylor, Director of CAPREF Burbank LLC, the Rowtons were able to work out a plan to relocate their business to the mall’s third floor.
“We are grateful for the warmth and generosity that the community has shown to our family,” Rowton said.
Rowton started working when he was just 12 years old. A chaotic home life meant he was better off selling flowers on the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. He’d come home after 9 p.m., even on school nights.
“Looking back on my life, I realized that my work was my escape. This is what I did, I went to work,” he said.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, games were not legal in the state of California — they were considered gambling devices, he said.
But, in 1974, the California Supreme Court ruled that pinball was more a game of skill than a game of chance. “And that opened up an entire market in one of the largest economies in the world for amusement games. Well, it just so happened that as a 14 year old, I was already making my way in the business,” Rowton said.
Rowton started to work under two men that he met selling flowers. After games were legalized, they saw an opportunity to sell and operate pinball machines. He quickly became very proficient at repairing all manner of games as the business expanded.
“But, after an eight-year apprenticeship of working with those guys, I’m now 22. It became pretty clear to me that there was not going to be a future,” he said. “I’d already put a ton of time in for free that I was never going to get paid for. It was not going to work out. I needed to go on my own.”
That’s when Rowton started as a street operator. He would find local businesses with a bit of extra space to lease for a pinball machine or arcade game.
“Even after eight years, hands-on, every single day, I was still nervous about whether I could do this myself. But that’s where I started and here we are,” he said.
He had a few machines in restaurants and bars at first, and then he took on full-scale arcades.
Years later, Rowton reversed a bad business deal and came to own his first arcade. He provided game equipment in an agreement that went south between a business owner and a flight simulator company. In short, he was stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment when the business closed its doors amid several lawsuits. But, in light of that failure, he saw an opportunity.
He worked out a deal with the landlord to take on the business, which eventually became All Amusement Fun Center.
“Corporations roll into any community and their first thought is ‘how can we generate the most revenue, keep our overhead the lowest, and wring the most profit out of this business?’ Our approach has always been ‘how can we provide a fantastic experience for people and treat them the way we’d like to be treated?’” Rowton said.
Susan and Jim Rowton developed an arcade centered around fun games, great prizes and customer satisfaction.
“We’ve been partners every step of the way in this,” Rowton said about his wife. “She’s a licensed architect, and that’s been a tremendous resource in the way we’ve approached the centers that we’ve built, in the way we operate, and even down to the psychology of color, layout, openness, visibility and sightlines.”
Now 30 years later, All Amusement Fun Center is still doing business in the Burbank Town Center. Over that period of time, the Rowtons have seen kids grow into adults, who then bring their children to the arcade.
“It’s generational,” Rowton said. “People who came to our business as kids — now they have their own families — and they bring their kids.”
Though he is excited about his retirement, Jim Rowton does not want to leave his business, staff and community high and dry. Just as All Amusement Fun Center has been a staple for generations of families, he is looking for a successor to usher the business on to future generations.
“I want to hand this off to somebody who not only embraces our culture, but wants to continue with it and wants to learn from me. If they’ve got aspirations to take it further, to do more, to be bigger — then hey, tap into our combined 90 years of experience and take it to the next level,” Rowton said.