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Prudish About Pinball

In the wake of the Pinball Cafe's closure, a look at how we got to Toronto's current pinball rules.

Funland, Yonge and Gould Streets, circa 1980. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 19, Item 26.

The progression went like this. A young innocent, almost always a male, fell in love with the flashing lights, bumpers, and rolling silver spheres of a pinball machine. He skipped a class or two, figuring his time was better spent mastering flippers than French. He developed an unsavoury group of new friends. As his academic marks declined, he learned vital skills, like extorting lunch money from other students to fund his pinball habit. Soon enough, he was a full-blown juvenile delinquent, leading a life of crime, drugs, and violence.

This scenario, straight out of an ancient scare-mongering classroom film, was among the main motivations behind the creation of a City by-law regulating the number of pinball machines a single business is able to operate—a by-law whose bite was felt just last week, when Parkdale’s Pinball Cafe closed down.

Establishing these pinball regulations was an endless process best summed up by a frustrated bureaucrat in a 1993 City of Toronto report:

The issue of permitting pinball, mechanical and electronic game machines in the City of Toronto has been the subject of debate, by-laws, an Ontario Municipal Board hearing and Council sub-committee attention over the past 13 years. To date, no mutually satisfactory agreement on an appropriate policy has ever been reached between industry representatives, the City of Toronto, and the Toronto Board of Education.

Guardians of public morality had long battled the evils of pinball. During the 1930s, the main concern was gambling, as some machines issued slugs used for monetary rewards instead of free games or candy. Starting in April 1937, Toronto police frequently raided businesses with pinball machines, charging owners with keeping common gaming houses if any funny business was going on.

The legal status of pinball varied between municipalities, ranging from a total ban (Forest Hill, 1944), to legally imposed restrictions on operating hours (New Toronto, 1949). By the late 1950s, a logic-twisting Supreme Court of Canada decision on games of chance wound up classifying pinball machines as illegal gambling devices. This didn’t stop operators from finding loopholes, nor did it stop people buying machines for home use.

The battle over pinball heated up in January 1975, when the Metro Toronto Police morality squad shut down 150 machines at Peter Budd’s four arcades on the Yonge Street Strip, including his flagship Funland parlour. Budd was told he wouldn’t be charged with keeping a gaming house as long as the machines stayed unplugged. A Star editorial published two weeks later declared the pinball laws “silly” and the effort to police them a “waste of time.” Federal Minister of Justice Otto Lang soon introduced amendments to the Criminal Code legalizing pinball machines, which came into effect in January 1976.

Cartoon, the Globe and Mail, February 10, 1977.

Toronto politicians occupied themselves with setting operational limits on pinball machines, both to protect innocent youth and to keep profits away from organized crime. When a Metro Toronto licensing committee proposed in September 1976 that anyone under the age of 16 require the presence of a legal guardian to play pinball, the Globe and Mail suggested that “Anyone knowing the whereabouts of a 13-year-old youth willing to be caught dead in the company of his parents, in front of a pinball machine or anywhere else outside the home, should communicate directly with the Guinness Book of Records.”

Metro Toronto Chairman Paul Godfrey was among the councillors against age restrictions, possibly because of the fact that his four-year-old son liked to play pinball during family vacations to Florida. “I don’t usually allow it here because it’s frowned on by the chief of police,” Godfrey’s wife, Regina, told the Globe and Mail in early 1977, “but I let him do it down there.” Also against stricter controls was North York Mayor Mel Lastman, who felt pinball was “a ridiculous way to spend money, but it’s better than drugs or booze.”

After a failed attempt to wrest stronger regulatory powers from the province, the City tinkered with its general zoning by-law to restrict where games could be located. An amendment added in December 1979 prevented pinball “establishments” (defined as any business that offered between three and 20 pinball or video games) from locating within 300 metres of any school. Establishments could not be within 150 metres of one another. Other commercial businesses were not allowed to install machines unless they were located in specific industrial-zoned areas, which turned out to be the Port Lands and the Stockyards. Already-existing businesses like Funland were allowed to continue operating, which probably displeased those crusading to clean up Yonge Street.

The City had trouble enforcing the by-law, so officials decided to loosen it up. New regulations, passed by city council in 1984, reduced the school-proximity rule from 300 to 45 metres. Up to 10 pinball or video games were allowed at certain types of entertainment establishments, ranging from bowling alleys to movie theatres. Other businesses would be allowed to install up to two machines.

Source: the Toronto Star, April 11, 1978. The headline on this story was "Pinball's clang, flash, lure Metro teens to sleazy life."

The city’s public and separate school boards were not amused. Officials dug out stacks of studies citing the harmful effects of pinball. They took their concerns about delinquency, drug abuse, loitering, lost lunch money, and vandalism to the Ontario Municipal Board. The OMB struck down the new by-laws in October 1985, claiming that they “lacked any valid planning principles.” With plenty of recently purchased pinball machines across the city suddenly made illegal, the City decided not to pursue any owners until yet another set of regulations could be adopted.

After close consultation with educational officials, the City’s Land Use Committee issued a report in 1987 that recommended keeping many of the machine ownership limits established in 1984 (except for entertainment venues, who would be limited to five machines instead of 10) but with the old school-distance limits. The report also recommended that anyone under the age of 18 not be permitted in pinball establishments between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. on school days. These restrictions led to an outcry from the amusement industry, resulting in years of discussion. The outcome was the current set of rules—the ones the Pinball Cafe failed to follow.

Additional material from the January 30, 1975, September 27, 1976, and February 9, 1977 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the April 12, 1937, February 11, 1975. March 2, 1977, and October 10, 1985 editions of the Toronto Star.


  • Paul

    I love the small print under that 1978 Toronto Star photo: “As well, say police officers, kids can meet the “wrong element” in arcades including homosexuals and criminals.” It really is remarkable to see reminders of how LGBT people were perceived not all that long ago.

    • ken

      Actually, “homosexual” is code for “pedophile” here. The Yonge St. arcades were notorious hangouts for men who liked young boys. Obviously the use of the word “homosexuals” speaks volumes about the times, but pedophile was not a commonly used term back then, at least not publicly. Too vulgar. Anyone reading this at the time would have known what was meant when homosexuals and criminals were listed together.

  • Jeremy Wilson

    And now that pinball basically doesn’t exist anymore, there’s no force to change the insane bylaws. Although you can easily apply for a variance and it’s quite likely you’ll get it, given the previous fact that pinball doesn’t exist anymore.

    • bzzo

      It does exist. The Pinball Cafe regularly brought in machines manufactured new this year. it’s just no longer the hobby of delinquent teens.

      • Jeremy Wilson

        Well, now there’s one manufacturer who puts out about 4,000 games a year, but in the 80′s there were five who put out about 100,000 games. So it technically “exists” but it’s basically a boutique business catering to home buyers now.

  • Hamish Grant

    could you add a last paragraph that outlines what exactly the current pinball/gaming restrictions are, currently?

    • VincentClement

      That is not a simple exercise. The City of Toronto has multiple zoning by-laws.

      The draft Zoning By-law has the following definitions:

      (20) Amusement Arcade
      means premises where more than 2 amusement devices are provided for patron use on the premises.

      (25) Amusement Device
      means a machine or electronic device used for games of skill or chance other than:
      (A) billiards,
      (B) bowling, and
      (C) any gaming or lottery device regulated under Province of Ontario legislation.

      There appear to be no specific use regulations for an Amusement Arcade in the draft Zoning By-law.

  • Ryan

    As ridiculous as this anti-pinball legislation is, we find the same prudish moralism of the articles above present today in the “progressive” backlash against a Toronto casino — ‘wrong element,’ ‘fostering addiction,’ etc. Instead of examining different approaches (which should include entertaining ideas of an economically profitable public ownership rather than Ford’s focus on simply private sector bids) or contrasting it with other province’s gaming practices (e.g., Manitoba’s NDP government), many prefer the reactionary prohibitionist line, decrying the very idea of gambling as ‘seedy.’

    • Anonymous

      I’s kind of simple, Ryan; pinball hurts nobody, gambling does. Pinball and video games add to a tax base; gambling takes it away. Pinball is a harmless game of skill on which no money is wagered; gambling terminals take away money and lead to an addiction that destroys a life.

      The problem with most games of chance is that most people don’t know how to play within their limit, and go overboard-having a gaming place in Toronto will just make this problem worse. That’s the difference between a gaming hall/place and an amusement parlor.

      As for pinball/video game places like The Pinball Cafe, until society overcomes its fears of pinball and video games (the whole ‘think of the children’ bullshit) laws like this will still be on the books.

  • Anonymous

    I think it has been shown that the issue in Parkdale was not a bylaw but the inability of the owner to do due diligence.

    • Eric S. Smith

      Whether the owner checked ahead of time or not, the bylaw is still an obstacle to a perfectly sensible use of the space. Unless we’re all about preserving Parkdale’s vacant storefronts.

      • Anonymous

        Regardless any owner should do due diligence when opening a place. Duh. As a life long west ender I can say that Parkdale is doing fine as it is.