POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 11, 2012
NEW YORK >> For more than five decades, the Chinatown Fair arcade attracted a steady stream of visitors, some drawn to its dim, dank and narrow battlefield of wall-to-wall Japanese street-fighter games, and others lured by a more peculiar attraction: a succession of chickens that took on all comers at tick-tack-toe, a few quarters at a time.
The chickens always went first. They seldom, if ever, lost.
About a decade ago, the arcade’s last such chicken, known as Lillie, left, and the tick-tack-toe machine was retired. But the arcade, a vestige of a more mysterious New York, would endure until last year, when a bitter rent dispute suddenly shuttered its doors.
First the chicken; then the arcade. What had become of the city?
This year, word got around that the arcade was to reopen under new management. The old sign outside on Mott Street was repaired, its missing letters replaced: “Video Games. Video Games. World Famous Dancing & Tic-Tac-Toe Chickens.” And last month, the Chinatown Fair reopened, but amid the new family-friendly arcade games, something was not right: The chicken was missing.
“I tell them it’s on vacation, in the Bahamas,” said Florence Lau, a clerk behind a counter where plastic green soldiers, Groucho Marx glasses, Tootsie rolls and other prizes tease from behind the glass.
Lau, 22, who grew up in the neighborhood and on the street-fighting games of old, responds sincerely to each visitor inquiring of the chicken’s absence, sharing in the bitter loss of all that the brilliant chicken symbolizes. “For some people, it’s been here all of their lives,” she said.
The very first chicken, Clarabelle, dated to the late 1950s, when the fair was across the street at 7-9 Mott St., according to the book “Manhattan’s Chinatown” by Daniel Ostrow. Clarabelle did not play tick-tack-toe there, apparently picking up the game some time after the fair moved to its current home at 8 Mott St.
The arcade also featured its share of dancing chickens, but they merely provided entertainment; the tick-tack-toe-playing chickens offered a challenge and the faint hope of a reward: a bag of fortune cookies to the player who managed to defeat the chicken.
“We go a week sometimes and nobody beats a chicken,” said Bunky Boger, an animal trainer from Lowell, Ark., who is the best-known source of tick-tack-toe-playing chickens.
The attraction to this game?
“Don’t you think you’re smarter than a chicken?” Boger, 82, said by telephone from his farm in Arkansas. “Most people think they’ll just head him off, and the chicken will come around and beat them, and they just can’t believe it.”
Chinatown’s loss is the casinos’ gain: many have used the tick-tack-toe chickens as a promotional perk for its frequent players, who can cash in their points for a chance to take on the chicken. Various chickens playing the role of Roxy made their tick-tack-toe debut this month at the Monticello Casino and Raceway in upstate New York; qualifying Players’ Club members could receive a Roxy bobblehead doll.
“People do love it,” said Lisa Mizrachi, the advertising supervisor at the Mardi Gras Casino in Hallandale Beach, Fla., where people lined up in 2009 and 2010 for a chance to compete against Mardi G. the chicken and win $50. Mardi G. would enter the casino on a goldtone sedan chair, flanked by showgirls. “As far as promotion,” Mizrachi said, “it was the only one with a live animal. It just really drew a crowd.”
The chickens are not taught actual strategy; when money is deposited, the chicken is directed by pulses of light to give the appearance of selecting a square for its move. (The moves are determined by the machine.)
Boger got his start from Bob Bailey, an animal trainer and zoologist. Bailey and his wife, Marian, a psychologist, ran a company called Animal Behavior Enterprises, and something they called the IQ Zoo. They had a dancing chicken, a postcard-vending chicken, a piano-playing duck that performed “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and a drum-playing rabbit. After his wife died, Bailey gave some chickens and housing units to Boger. He also donated a mock-up to the Smithsonian, he said.
The tick-tack-toe chickens, Bailey said from his lakeside home in Hot Springs, Ark., are “not mental giants.”
“But they are certainly a lot brighter than most people will give them credit for,” he added.
Boger, a former bullfighter and rodeo clown, said he and his wife, Connie, could make about $4,000 a week leasing tick-tack-toe-playing chickens to casinos.
Each tick-tack-toe unit provided by Boger comes with 15 chickens. The chickens are rotated when one gets full, bored or tired, a nod to animal labor laws. A chicken wrangler serves as their caretaker. The game is now computerized, and building a new unit, Boger said, can cost up to $20,000.
Boger’s latest enterprise is a chicken that deals blackjack.
“I haven’t gotten that far with it,” he said.
The Chinatown Fair is also trying something different in its reincarnation.
The old arcade has been washed in bright candy colors, flashing lights and carnival-style music, the backdrop of an animated movie. A pink Baby Air hockey table sits by the door, near Lillie’s former performance space. The Wizard of Oz coin pusher game draws the biggest crowd.
“What we did here was turn it into a family fun center,” said the manager, Lonnie Sobel, walking the aisle one afternoon with his hands on his hips.
He lives in Jersey City, where he raises his two grandchildren, 9-year-old twin boys, and has been in the amusements business most of his life. Sobel, 60, likes to describe the new Chinatown Fair as a blend of Chuck E. Cheese’s and Dave & Buster’s.
For those who long for the past, he said: “What’s the saying? You can’t make the people happy all the time. No, it’s not exactly the same as it was before. If it was, it wouldn’t be in business now.”
While the younger after-school crowd has certainly been appreciative, older gamers are clearly disappointed.
“I don’t like it,” Nigel Bealts, 20, said of the revamped Chinatown Fair. “This,” he said pointing to one of the kiddie games, “and this,” he said pointing to another, “you can find at Dave & Buster’s, or a movie theater. Why create something the same? There’s no point.”
Many of the old gamers have moved on to other places. Still, Bealts could not turn away, especially with a few classic street-fighting games just installed: Puzzle Fighter II, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Street Fighter III, also known as 3rd Strike. Bealts had not played the Marvel game since the Chinatown Fair closed last year. He waited his turn as a half-dozen young men crowded around the machine, the hero kicking and punching through his enemies.
“These are the best fighting games from our generation,” Bealts said, then grinned. “It’s hard to find this game. It’s very rare.”
Still, there is no chicken. Sobel said he tried to get a tick-tack-toe chicken for the grand opening, but the details could not be worked out. He said he recalled a time before his hair turned gray, when he would skip class to play pinball here.
He would even match wits with the chicken, with, he said, a predictable outcome. “We were in a dead heat,” he said.