Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: One-of-a-kind arcade game exhibit stirs local interest

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: One-of-a-kind arcade game exhibit stirs local interest

New question: What’s next?

PHOTO: Bradley Czech stands with one of his 90 games in “The Golden Age of Video Arcade Games from the Collection of Bradley Czech,” an exhibition in its closing weeks at the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, WISC., (WFRV) – Technology meets art meets nostalgia meets fun and games in a unique, homegrown exhibition that is fascinating visitors to the Neville Public Museum.

It was bonus time the other day for some people who took in the Green Bay Packers training camp and stopped at the museum as another thing to do in town. The creator of the exhibit was on hand to shoot a segment for Critic at Large on WFRV-TV, and they got to share their enthusiasm and find out a whole lot more about myriad things that are on display.

A father and daughter from Rockford, Ill., and a husband and wife from Madison were among those soaking up “The Golden Age of Video Arcade Games from the Collection of Bradley Czech.”

They were amazed to discover from the video-game-encyclopedic Czech that the exhibit contains only about half of his collection. The father and the couple told Czech that the exhibit brought back memories. Each game they mentioned Czech had an anecdote or background information about, and the visitors ate it all up.

The exhibit opened May 25. It will be up until Sept. 15 -- extended two weeks from its original schedule. 2. Info, including a video: www.nevillepublicmuseum.org. Czech has more on Facebook at Silver Coin Arcade and Twitter @SilvrCoinArcade.

A Green Bay area native, Czech bought his first large, real-deal, stand-up video arcade game at age 13. Along with collecting video games, he restores them. All this is beside his career in TV and radio, of late as on-air personality Bradley C with WIXX Radio of Green Bay.

“The Golden Age…” is the first exhibition he has put together. It took some doing to convince a museum that his collection was museum-legitimate. After all, the names Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and Professor Pac-Man are not on the lips of many museum curators.

“I think it’s a legitimate exhibit because – most people don’t realize – most of these games are 30 to 35 years old,” Czech said in an interview. “They have incredible nostalgia. We’re talking about something that really was a major change in our world with the introduction of some of these games – Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man, for sure – that there was no denying that these games changed the world. And to present that to the public in a way of saying, ‘Okay, most people have heard of Pac-Man, but let’s really get down to it and talk about how significant it was.’

“You take a game like Space Invaders. That game alone in less than three years earned $1 billion in revenue, one quarter at a time. Just that game. So, it’s certainly culturally significant.

“And then with all the graphic artwork, you can appreciate the beauty and the design as well. So I definitely feel there are a lot of tools to consider it legitimate.

“There’s also the clear machine that I built, one that’s completely see-through, so that people can see, as an educational tool, how these games are built and put together and what’s inside them. So you have the education, the art aspect, the cultural impact – I think that all sums up the legitimacy of this whole thing.”

Many objects in museums are far more than 30 years old. In technology terms, though, Czech’s games are relics. Their technology has been passed in a flash.

“(In the exhibit), you see the early Pong machine, you see the early Space Invaders,” Czech said. “Then you get into something more advanced, like Pac-Man, some of the color games. And then you get into the laser disc aspect of 1983, when laser disc technology was introduced. So you’re seeing not just the technology, but you’re seeing the evolution of technology.

“In just a short period of time, it was like the sky was the limit for these manufacturers – like, ‘Hey, why not? Let’s give it a try. Let’s see if that works.’ Some of the ideas were massive hits, and some of them were failures. You get to see both.”

Select games in the exhibit are set up for the public to play. Most are for display purposes – to look at only.

“The Pong machine that I have in the show is from 1972,” Czech said. “That’s a long time ago. You’re talking some really, really old technology…

“The problem with having all the games on is you’re dealing with circuits that are 35 years old. They just would not stand the test of time. That’s like taking a TV that’s 35 years old and leaving it on for four months. Try doing that times 90 pieces that I have in the exhibit. They would not stand the test of time, unfortunately.”

The exhibit includes displays on multiple facets of the movement, including a slide show of step-by-step restoration.

For the Neville to buy into the project was “definitely outside the box,” Czech said.

“For a lot of it, it was me just saying, ‘Look, we have to do this,’ and hearing, ‘Why?’ I’m kind of used to that with my work: ‘Well, we’ve never done that before.’ Well, you know, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, let’s do it, let’s try it. And Rolf (Johnson, the director) of the museum has been very supportive of, ‘Let’s do it. Why not?’ And I think it’s paid off.”

Promotion through a grant has helped. Even so, Czech said he’s surprised at the result.

“Being that this is my exhibit, I was obviously optimistic that it would do well, but I think the numbers have far exceeded what I even thought would have happened,” Czech said. “I was on vacation for five days, and in that five days, almost 1,200 people went through. That’s Green Bay, Wisconsin. You’ve got to keep that in perspective…

“The best example is when you see some folks in their 60s and 70s who spend a lot of time in the galleries reading information. You would think that those people would be like, ‘Oh, video games, that’s just for the kids.’ It’s not. It’s all ages. It’s male and female. It’s not just a male-driven thing, which you would typically think. So I think there’s been definite surprises all the way around.”

Now, for the future…

Going into the project, Czech said, “I didn’t necessarily have ideas for other museums, but I didn’t disclude it, either. I really wanted to see how the public would react to some of these games again – and seeing them and appreciating the artwork and the nostalgia of them. And then I was going to see what possibilities were. But the more that people came out of the woodwork saying, ‘Hey, bring this here,’ or ‘You know, you should take this to this museum,’ the more I started considering other museums. All along the way, I’ve had my wife, Jessica, by my side telling me, ‘You know, maybe we could try this and try that.’ So we checked into different things, and it just seems like the natural way to go.”

Reaction from afar has mostly come from “people who have signed on now with social media, Facebook and Twitter and stuff like that, who are expressing an interest in, ‘Why don’t you bring this here? We would love to see this. We’d love to come see it, but it is just so far away. Can you bring it closer?’

“It got me thinking about the fact that these games were not just popular here in Green Bay, they were popular everywhere. That’s just been more encouraging that way. But it definitely has been a significant impact at the Neville, and it’s just something that, Why should I pack it up and hide it away when other people could enjoy it at other places?

Czech added, “But to envision the exhibit before when it never had been done before, it was not an easy sell. Now the hard work has been done because I can photograph it and I can video it. My wife’s been working on as press kit to send out to different museums that says, ‘Hey, here’s what this looks like, here’s what we could do for your place, and here’s some hard facts of the numbers, people’s comments that they’ve left in comment books.’ That’s the hard evidence that you can present.”

A visit to an exhibit on an unrelated topic at a museum in Rockford, Ill., inspired Bradley and Jessica Czech. The exhibit was wholly absorbing for them, and they wanted a similar experience with the video arcade game collection.

“We sat down at Red Robin (restaurant) one night and brainstormed ideas on a napkin and wrote them all down and said, ‘Okay, what can we do to facilitate all these things?’ Jessica helped with everything that she possibly could. Some of the work that you see up in the exhibit is completely her alone, that I had no part in at all. Like the power point presentation. She came up with the ratings scale for all the games. She put together a survey and presented it to arcade collectors across the country so we had accurate results of the market demand, the rarity of the games, etc. That was all her. She was in there just as much as I was. She’s been awesome…

“As far as what’s next, it’s hard to say. These games were not just popular here in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but everywhere in the country. So why couldn’t this exhibit be just as exciting to the people in Minneapolis or St. Louis or Cleveland. So the sky’s kind of the limit at this point.”

A perspective

“There are a few different arcade-type exhibits that are more about gaming in general – home gaming to pinball machines to just amusement devices in general,” Czech said. “This is the only exhibit of this kind that is really focused on the golden age of video arcade games, which is really the late 1970s when they started to increase in huge momentum to about the mid-1980s when they ran into the crash when home gaming kind of took over the actual arcade circuit and you saw more and more of those arcades going away. So this is the only exhibit that you’ll see that’s similar to that.

“One thing to note is that a lot of those types of exhibits that are on gaming have collectors from all over that bring their stuff in. The reason why this is so unique is because my wife and I own every single game here. So it’s kind of a turnkey exhibit that you can put on a truck and take to the next city, and you don’t have to get permission from this person and this person and this person and this person but you can all work together and make it happen with a smaller number of people.”

After Labor Day, the games will be put in storage. Czech plans to continue restoring games in hopes of adding them to any possible future exhibition.

“It might involve more games that people are wanting to see but just didn’t even realize it,” Czech said. “I think the best thing is when people come up and they’re pointing at a game and they say, ‘I remember this game.’ But going to the exhibit, they had totally forgotten about it. It jogs their memory.”

Czech said that in an interview a few days before the on-location TV shoot. In a chat on site, the father who came to the exhibit with his daughter looked past Czech, gestured at what he saw and said, “I totally forgot about that game.” Just like Czech said, a memory was jogged.

Please email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com.

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