Panic at the arcade: Pinball was once illegal in Montreal

Mar 18 2022, 7:45 pm

Arcades, casinos, what’s the difference? You can probably come up with a few off the top of your head.

But, once upon a time, those lines were a little more fuzzy.

As insane as it may sound to younger generations, the classic arcade game, pinball was once outlawed in Montreal as a result of its association with gambling. That’s right, pinball — the clunky machine with the silver ball that your dad claims to be a “wizard” at — was illegal in the city of Montreal for over 20 years.

But why?

I spoke with local tour guide and Montreal history expert Thom Seivewright to find out.

Following in the footsteps of major American cities like New York and Chicago, Montreal’s mayor, Jean Drapeau, outlawed the use of pinball machines in 1955. Pinball machines, not unlike slot machines, were famously used for gambling and Drapeau, in an effort to clean up the city, prohibited them in all public places.

“[Drapeau] was really concerned with juvenile delinquents. That was a big thing for him and his administration.” says Seivewright. “One reason he made them was because he thought pinball machines would attract kids to places where they would gather in groups, making them more likely to commit petty crimes.”

The other reason behind the mayor’s decision was one of morals, explains Seivewright. “Drapeau argued that kids were losing money to pinball machines, the pocket money that their parents worked hard for. And if there were pinball arcades, maybe the kids would be tempted not to go to school.”

“His spin was that it was for ‘the good of the children’. The reality of it was that he just wanted to cut down on petty crime.”

Looking back, it sounds pretty silly to ban one specific game — especially when people retained the ability to gamble on virtually anything else. Nonetheless, the pinball ban remained in place for quite some time.

The rules were altered in 1977 when Drapeau, who was still in office at the time, decided that the machines were appropriate enough for arcades. As a result, they would be allowed to be used anywhere that alcohol was not served.

Seivewright believes that the timing of the change in legislation purposely coincided with the enormous rise in video game culture that occurred in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In fact, the arcade game industry in the US alone was generating $5 billion of revenue annually in 1981, and the number of arcades doubled between 1980 and 1982.

Luckily Montreal was smart enough to get in on some of the action.

The city’s pinball laws were in the news once more in 2017 when North Star, a local bar that housed multiple functional vintage pinball machines, lobbied for the city to finally drop the bylaw that prohibited pinball in bars.

Despite operating an establishment that was technically illegal for years, the bar owner, through the help of Project Montéal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal councillor, Christine Gosselin, helped convince former Mayor Denis Coderre to finally change it.

And so, after years of resistance and adversity, lovers of flippers and flashing lights could finally enjoy the beloved game with a glass of the hard stuff.


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