Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Art Of The Spiel

Mere days before I set foot in Six Flags as an employee, when I visit as a guest with my family, my aspirations locked in on the horse-racing game in the Britannia section. "Churchill Downs" features a dozen mechanical horses controlled by alleys of golf balls rolled into holes by contestants, similar to Skee-Ball, flanked by two vocal gamemasters calling the race at the same time in boisterous stereo.

"I want to do that," I told Dad.

It's called "spieling" in Six Flags terminology, and it's an art. I get to try it for myself on one of my first days on the job, when my trainer-buddy agrees to let me step up to the mic. He quizzes me on the rules.

"You need to have three balls in the tray," I ferret from my mind. "You need to remain seated at all times, and nobody starts rolling until I ring the bell."

He smiles as he ticks off the points on his hand. Grasshopper, you are ready.

I pull the battered gooseneck down to my level and let it fly.

"We just need three people to start this next game of Churchill Downs!"

VU needles on the backroom amplifier hit the red zone. People turn their heads.

"You can win yourself a little jockey monkey!"

Forepeople wonder, who's that guy?

"Just roll those balls up the tray and get your horse to the finish line! Only a dollar to play!"

And so begins a journey that becomes my trademark. By the time my Six Flags games career wraps up four years later, I will call more than one hundred races between "Churchill Downs" and its Old Chicago counterpart, "Ninja Invasion." Ring the bell, and we're off and running.

"Annnnd we're off! Out of the gate into the lead is Number Three, Number Three! Here comes Number Five out of the gate! Seven and Six now showing. Three makes a big move! It's Number Three, Number Three by a length!"

The key is to mention everybody's horse at some point in the race to make things sound competitive, even if some people just can't get their stallion surging.

"And it's Three and Four neck and neck as we come to the halfway point! Three and four! On the outside coming up, Number Five!"

If it's a weekend or a weeknight, and we've got people around, a crowd is drawing in. As I pump up the intensity, the guests are cheering the horses on, and it's truly turning into a day at the races. We just need the hats and mint juleps. The horses have names we can give to the guests, but it's easier and faster to call numbers.

"Coming down to the wire, Three and Five, we're gonna have a photo finish!"

People are going bananas behind the players, who are now nearly throwing their golf balls up the trays, despite my admonitions, trying to hit that big three-point hole that will put them over the line.


"And it's Number Five! Number Five! Congratulations! The rest of you, we're getting another game together in just a minute, so stand by!"

I quickly hand out a prize to our champion of the moment. Hands with dollar bills jut out in front of me, and I hastily grab the money, activate the lanes, go through the rules again and hit the starting bell.

It's a grueling gig. More than once, I'll come into work hoarse because my voice is depleted from a spieling marathon. The forepeople -- at least the good ones -- take pity on your humble spieler and put him in a stand where he doesn't have to talk as much. Some days, I'll just don't have the energy for a four-hour talkathon. But one day, I'll have a mysterious excess of energy and need to burn it off.

It happens on August 11, 1992, when I work "Pork Chopper," a motorcycle-themed race game in Old Chicago which gives away Harley-Davidson swag. The crowds aren't enormous, but they pile up after I start rocking the mic. The stand sucks in money like a rampaging Hoover.

And on this night, it's not just the guests getting prizes. From my journal:
I'd just finished spieling a game when a guest suddenly got my attention.

"You're familiar with the Mystery Guest program, aren't you?"

"Yeah!" I replied.

And, boom, he handed me a pink mystery guest card. Just like that.

"Good job!"

Now Games people don't usually win Mystery Guest cards, so this was an honor indeed. And believe me, I was high as a kite.

I wasn't so high later on when I redeemed it in Personnel. All the good stuff, like the Best Buy and Music Vision certificates, were gone. I got two Wehrenberg movie passes. The trouble with those is that, for a lot of big name movies like Batman Returns, you can't get in with them all the time. But I guess I shouldn't complain. It's getting selected that counts, and I'm one of the chosen few.
I won "Spieler of the Year" for at least two years. The first award landed me a gigantic cigar, which I couldn't smoke, and I didn't even try until I was living in Texas many years later. It disintegrated, and I coughed all the way through nary a few puffs before putting it out and trashing it. I'm glad I got a plaque the next year.

I also got the opportunity to train the next generation of spielers. Our Games Guru invited me to write a guidebook. I called it "The Art Of The Spiel (or, How To Talk A Good Game)," for which I earned a few extra summer bucks. I'm not sure if some of that material is still in use, but I know it made it into the training materials for at least one year.

Last New Year's Eve, when I was at Disneyland with my family, we passed a horse-racing game, and I just couldn't resist having another crack at it, more than two decades leader, from behind the row of players and off the microphone, direct from the diaphragm.

"Annnnnnnd they're off! Coming out of the gate and into the lead..."

Still got it.

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