Saturday, December 7, 2013

Chasing Down Rabbit Trails - Fun and Food, Cartrivision, and Mad Man Muntz

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
-  Bilbo Baggins

Bilbo may well have said the same thing about studying history.
One of the most enjoyable, if sometimes maddening, aspects of research, is that you often get sidetracked onto rabbit trails that have little, if anything, to do with the topic at hand. While these can be great time wasters, they occasionally prove quite rewarding. Not only do you discover connections you never knew existed, but you sometimes learn about things you might never have found on your own.

I have had this happen again and again when researching video game history. In this post, I will discuss three such instances, each of which took me a little farther afield than the last

1) Fun n Food – the original Pizza Time Theatre?

OK. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but stay tuned.
I found out about this one when I was reading an article in the March, 1982 issue of RePlay about the opening of the first Sgt. Singer’s Pizza Circus – one of the many Pizza Time Theatre imitators that sprang up in the wake of the chain’s success.


I had never heard of Sgt. Singer’s before, or its founder Craig Singer (who also founded the Dallas-based Nickels and Dimes chain), but that’s not what intrigued me the most about the article.
What I found most interesting was the following:

 Some have claimed that Nolan Bushnell originated the concept of combining food and arcade games, and he might have been. Ted Dabney says the he and Nolan talked about the idea for a pizza restaurant with singing barrels in their Ampex days and even scouted out some locations, and I believe it included the idea of arcade games, but I'm not sure and in any event, they never really put the idea into practice
Could this have been the first attempt to actually do so?

Of course, the article omits the important details – like when, exactly, this occurred.
Luckily, the December 14, 1968 issue of Billboard supplied some missing details.


I don’t know if Bilotta was the first to come up with the idea or not, but it is an interesting forgotten chapter of coin-op history.

2) Cartrivision

Recently, I was discussing Nutting’s Wimbledon with Marty Goldberg and Marty sent me the following excerpt from an article in Electronics, Volume 47, from 1974:

“The TTL processor, reports Miel Domis, Nutting's project engineer, controls the three guns of the color tube to simulate the motion of the rackets and ball on the colored field.  The players move sliding resistance controls, one for each racket.  Control positions are stored in registers while the controls change the trigger setting of timing circuits, Domis explains. The timing changes vary the rate at which the electron guns are gated by the data words representing the rackets and ball,on the colored field, making them appear to move as the guns sweep across the field.  If the ball hits the racket, a rebound vector is started by a flip-flop output.  If not, or if the ball goes out of bounds, a point is scored and displayed

While the technical details are somewhat interesting, what really caught my eye was the fact that it looks like we have the name of the game’s designer – Miel Domis.
I was hoping to try and track down Miel to ask some questions, but was unable to locate him (or her).
I did, however, come across this link about Cartrivision, in which a Miel Domis says the following

“As an electronics engineer I was hired in 1971 by Peter Berg to become a member of the product development team that took the Cartrivision product into production.  My primary responsibility was product engineering and cost reduction of the servo system and machine control logic under Don Loughry.  I was one of the last 120 employees who stayed with the company till the final demise.  The audio clip tells you about the spirit and loyalty that the last employees had towards the concept, the product and the company.  It was my first job in my career and I am grateful to have been a member of the team that developed the very first consumer video color player/recorder”

While this may be a different Miel Domis, the unusual name, the nature of the work, and timing of Catrivision’s demise make it highly likely, IMO, that this is the same person who worked for Nutting.
The rabbit trail here, however, is Cartrivision.
What is Cartrivision? It was one of the very first consumer VCR’s made in the U.S. (three years before Sony’s Betamax) and the first in the world to offer prerecorded movies for rental.

If you Google Cartrivision, you will find plenty of info. A couple of examples can be found here and here.

Here is a photo of the unit and one of the rental cassettes (you actually couldn’t rewind them yourself. If wanted to watch them again, you had to take them back to the dealer and pay them another rental fee to have them do it).


Cartrivision went bankrupt in mid-1973, so Domis could well have moved from there to Nutting.
What really makes this interesting is that it wasn’t the first time I’d come across the name Cartrivision in my research. While reading Steve Wozniak’s account of his work at Atari in iWoz, I learned that he actually had a Cartrivision:

Another project I did was for a company that came out with the first consumer VCRs…It was called Cartrivision, and the VCR had this amazing motor in it with its own circuit board that spun as it ran the motor…Well, at HP I heard a rumor that this little company had gone bankrupt and they had about eight thousand color VCRs for sale, cheap… we’d take a bunch of engineers down there and buy them for, like, $60. This became a huge part of my life almost right away. I studied the kinds of circuits the VCR used, how it worked, went through all the manuals. I tried to figure out how they processed color, how color got recorded onto tape, how the power supply worked. This was all information that came in really handy when we did the color Apple computers.”

--Wozniak, Steve (2007-10-17). iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon (p. 138-139). Norton. Kindle Edition.

 Even more interesting is that it played a (very) minor role in video game history.
One well-known story about Woz is that he built his own version of Pong using 28 chips, and even took in to Atari to show off.
Steve first encountered Pong at a bowling alley and was immediately captivated. He also immediately knew he could build his own version.

Here’s why:
“I knew the minute I started thinking about it that I could design it because I knew how digital logic could create signals at the right times. And I knew how television worked on this principle. I knew all this from high school working at Sylvania, from the hotel movie system, from Cartrivision, from all kinds of experience I’d already had.”

--Wozniak, Steve (2007-10-17). iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon (p. 140). Norton. Kindle Edition.

So one little article takes me from Nutting’s Wimbledon to an early VCR to Steve Wozniak and Pong. I love it when that happens.

3) Mad Man Muntz

This one really took me off the beaten path. I was going through Sega’s annual reports one day, when I came across the following in their 1976 report:


For those who don’t remember (and that’s probably most of you), back in the late 1970s, Sega decided to get into the widescreen TV market (which they were sure was about to explode) with something called Sega-Vision. The venture was a flop (guess the world wasn’t ready for a projection TV yet) and they shut it down in 1978
But who was Muntz Manufacturing? I decided to check. Good thing I did, because it led me to yet another fascinating rabbit trail. Muntz Manufacturing was founded by Earl “Madman” Muntz, who actually created one of the first projection-screen TVs.


But that’s only the beginning. I’ll let you look up the details on your own but Muntz was probably the prototype for the manic used car salesman that later became ubiquitous (“Get here now to take advantage of my low, low prices before they declare me legally insane!!!””). He started selling used cars back in the 1930s and later began promoting them through a series of radio and TV ads featuring his “Madman Muntz” character as well as a number of wacky stunts (he once promised to smash a car to pieces with a sledgehammer on camera if he didn’t sell a car by the end of the day). His used car lots were once the 7th most popular tourist attraction in southern California. Muntz also sold the first TVs in the U.S. to retail for under $100 (he did so by stripping them down to their bare essentials – a process that became known as “Muntzing”)

As I said, I’ll let you read about the rest on your own.

Bonus Section
Since I mentioned Pizza Time Theatre and Wimbledon, I thought I’d follow up on a few things I mentioned in my earlier posts.

 a) Pizza Time Theatre

As with many stories involving the early years of Atari and Nolan Bushnell, there are various accounts of the origins of Pizza Time Theatre and Chuck E. Cheese (did Bushnell get the idea in 1973 when he was in a Pizza & Pipes restaurant, was it originally called Coyote Pizza or Rick Rat’s etc. etc.)
I won’t get into those here, but I did want to include a few photos I found that may bear on the issue.

The first, which I’ve posted before, is from the June, 1976 issue of RePlay:


At this point, the concept was known as The Big Cheese (which I believe came after they dropped the Rick Rat name).
I thought that was the earliest photo I had of the character, but then I came across this one from an interview with Bushnell that appeared in the June-July 1975 issue of Play Meter:


Atari Inc. had a number of early photos of Rick/The Big Cheese but they weren’t dated, so I don’t know if any were from prior to June, 1975 (I suspect they were).

 b) Wimbledon
Finally, I wanted to report on some more information I’ve found on the timing of Wimbledon and Atari’s Color Gotcha.

I earlier wrote that these were the two leading contenders for the first true color video game but that I was pretty sure Color Gotcha came first.
I still think that’s the case, but it looks like it may have been closer than I thought.

While most sources list Wimbledon as a 1974 release, its release was actually announced in the December, 1973 issue of Vending Times and the December 8, 1973 issue of Cash Box.

It was also mentioned in the November 24, 1973 issue of Cash Box reviewing the recent MOA show (I believe it even had a photo, which I've since lost).
So it looks like Wimbledon was released around November of 1973 (though we can’t be sure exactly when).
Color Gotcha (like Gotcha) was supposedly released in October, 1973. Previously, I had not seen a flyer for the game and wasn’t sure if it really was released, but Marty supplied me with a used game price list from 1974 confirming that it was.

One thing I did run across, however, was the following from the November 10, 1973 issue of Cash Box.

It indicates that the regular version of Gotcha, may actually not have been sent to distributors until the second week of November. The same issue has the following, however indicating that had given some away as door prizes:

Of course, that's Gotcha, not Color Gotcha, but you'd think that if one came before the other, it would be the former.



















  1. Arguably, both Cartrivision and Sega-Vision could be seen as having been "early to the party" as I put it, very unique ideas whose time hadn't came yet (and now that they're here, it's hard not to look back and wished we had became acquainted with them earlier). Similarly, the LaserDisc format known as "DiscoVision" could be viewed in the same manner, though at least that had a second life with niche videophiles to come.

    Aside from the one demo clip and a scene from a broadcast of "What's My Line" demonstrating the device, here's another that I suppose was given with the unit at Sears (or played there, I dunno)...

    Speaking of Madman Muntz (I'm glad you've discovered him), here's some terrific ads for his TV biz 60 years ago, you'll get that jingle stuck in your head all day long...

  2. Yes, Domis was supposed to have been Bristow's replacement at Nutting.