Exhibit / February 27, 2020
The Atari Theatre Kiosk experiment was short-lived and ill-advised, but the very attempt, documented in this glorious brochure, captures the era’s unrestrained pursuit of what Atari called “innovative leisure.” Produced between the 1975 home release of Pong and 1977’s Atari Video Computer System, the Theatre was billed as an option for “elegant high traffic” locations serving “high quality clientele,” as opposed to the shabby riff-raff then infesting smoke-filled pool halls, penny arcades, and pinball parlors—video arcades didn’t pop up in the States until 1978, when Space Invaders came to town. The very idea of arcade cabinets is presented here as low-class (despite Atari inventing them), mere “vending machines” that had to be “rolled in and pushed against the wall.”
The concept illustrations depicting the Kiosk in the wild—er, excuse me, in “rich sophisticated locations… where children can entertain themselves in a wholesome environment”—are lovely and hint at the house style that Cliff Spohn would develop in the late ’70s. The centerpiece of the page is actually a photo of the Kiosk in the Velizy shopping mall in Paris (the Theatre concept originated with Atari Europe); there was also one that cheered commuters at the BART station on Powell Street in San Francisco. It’s obvious now how utterly impractical the scheme was: no matter how “elegant” the installation, no hotel or department store is going to want to be stuck with it forever, and shipping, moving, and maintaining the massive units could not have been cost effective. What’s more, your quarter bought you only 90 seconds of play—which, to be fair, is probably longer than I lasted on most Zaxxon cabinets.
The “interchangeability” of the individual games in the hexagonal “control panel” brings to mind the DIY geodesic domes then popular among the counterculture, out of which personal computing and video games emerged in the first place, while the design sensibility of the brochure swells with the vibrant late-’70s aesthetic that Atari in part created. In short, bless them for trying.