New Orleans Nostalgia: A Penny for Your Memory

There was more to the Pennyland Arcade than games of chance and luck.
Photo by Dewey Bowman|!!| and provided courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library
A shoeshine boy polishes up a customer outside the Pennyland Arcade on a busy night on Royal St.|!!| c. 1963.

It might be hard to imagine that a penny arcade could hold a lot of value in the literary world, but in New Orleans we’ve learned not to be surprised by much. The Pennyland Arcade, which opened in 1931 and was located at 131 Royal St., is mentioned in one of New Orleans’ most venerated books, and a recording that was made there holds a place of high honor in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library.

The Pennyland Arcade was composed of a mixture of more than 100 luck and skill games, including a Drivemobile Machine and many sport-themed penny games such as bowling, basketball and hockey. In A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 novel, it’s the mechanical baseball game that achieves infamy as Ignatius J. Reilly’s favored game at the arcade. During a visit he’s disappointed to find it missing and presumably broken, after a previous bout with it resulted in a kick to the machine and subsequent quarrel with management over a nickel.

Pennyland also provided amusement in the form of technological marvels such as an instant photo booth, fortune-telling machines, the first Coca-Cola drink dispenser in town and Voice-O-Graph recording booths. They advertised the booths as a way to make wholesome Christmas recordings to send home by mail, but when Tennessee Williams and his companion Pancho Rodriguez took over a booth in 1947, propriety wasn’t a concern. The eight cardboard acetate discs they recorded contain bawdy jokes, gay love poems, vampy skits, songs, poetry and the recitation of a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire with Rodriguez reading Stanley to Williams’ Blanche.
Pennyland stayed open 24 hours a day and was in operation for more than 70 years, nestled in among theaters, honky-tonk bars, burlesque joints and coffee shops. It closed in the early 2000s.

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