Pinball palace

Article by: Tom Horgen | September 13, 2012 - 11:30 AM

One of the oldest pinball arcades in the country sits in a Hopkins strip mall, nestled between a Chinese takeout restaurant and an insurance agency. The sign above the small storefront says SS Billiards, but most people just call it "Lloyd's."

Lloyd Olson has run this meager pinball palace for 40 years, almost entirely by himself. The place is frozen in time. The dusty brown carpet hasn't been replaced since 1987. The pool tables haven't been reupholstered in just as long.

Still, the whizzing, clanging, beeping sounds of pinball draw regulars to Olson's humble corner of the world. But his is a fleeting dominion. Pinball has found a healthy existence in the home collector sector, but arcades such as SS Billiards are nearing extinction. "I feel like a dinosaur on a hill, wondering where all my friends went," Olson said.

Olson grew up in the business. His father repaired pinball machines and jukeboxes. His mother bought SS Billiards in 1972 from a man named Sam Snelling (thus the name). Olson, 58, eventually took over, shepherding the arcade through pinball's heyday.

He's now down to 13 machines, having sold a handful to pay the bills. Much of his family is gone, too. His closest companion these days is a friendly beagle-terrier cross named Prada. "She came with that name," he said.

On some days, Olson can go for hours without seeing another soul.

When pinball was at its zenith, the "Addams Family" game, based on the 1991 movie, became the highest-selling flipper of all time with 20,000 machines in circulation. Today there is only one company manufacturing new games. Olson's most current machine, "Spider-man," is five years old.

"A friend once told me, 'Even if a guy doesn't have money, he has pride,'" Olson said.

In that sense, Olson is a rich man. He contributes regularly to online forums, dispensing free repair advice to other enthusiasts. Pinball News, a website based in England, has called SS Billiards a "worldwide destination for serious pinball players."

But Olson's no-nonsense personality doesn't click with everyone, and he'll be the first to tell you. A lot of the great players won't play here, he said. Minnesota is home to a few experts, including Paul Madison, who's ranked 87th in the world by the International Flipper Pinball Association.

"They all go up to Blainbrook," Olson said, referring to the suburban bowling alley. Blainbrook is home to three times as many games and is hosting Pinnesota, a three-day tournament that starts Friday. Olson is holding a tournament a few days later to celebrate SS Billiard's 40th anniversary.

As we talked on a recent afternoon, in walked 31-year-old Michael Edelstein. He turned to the counter and yelled, "Lloyd!"

Olson didn't recognize the man, probably because the last time Edelstein sat foot in here was 15 years ago. "I can't believe this place is still around," the mortgage banker said. He stopped in on a whim.

After greeting Prada, Edelstein made a beeline to "Medieval Madness," a favorite from his junior-high days.

On this particular day, Olson opened the arcade later than usual -- he'd been at a meeting with Hennepin County. His house has fallen into foreclosure.

Yet, it's difficult for him to feel glum when Prada is always at his side, nudging him for a friendly belly rub. "I'm still a believer," Olson said. "If I could get a few things rolling, I'm convinced I could eke a living out of this place."

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