By Christopher Haraden

Spending the day at Nantasket Beach was a familiar way to spend a summer afternoon for generations – families at the beach during peak swimming times, and then the kids would hit the rides at Paragon Park and the adults might find themselves getting a bite to eat or playing one of the many games along the beachfront.

One of those games – Fascination – was, for many years, the only place besides the state lottery where you could win cash. Now that sports betting is legal and Keno screens are in most bars and restaurants, the novelty of a bingo-like game with cash prizes is gone; and, unfortunately, so is Nantasket’s Fascination parlor. A multi-story residential building is slated to take its place in the coming year.

Sports betting became legal when a case found its way to the Supreme Court that asked the whether fantasy sports bets were actual gambling or merely a contest that relied on the knowledge and skills of players. The court’s decision in that matter traces its roots to a similar controversy over gambling at Nantasket Beach during Paragon Park’s heyday.

In August 1961, Paragon owner Larry Stone and five other amusement men were charged with violating the state’s anti-gambling laws for running games that paid cash prizes. Stone operated Bing-O-Reno, while David Baker of nearby Funland ran a game called Skill Light. John Simmons, whose amusement holdings included the Hilarity Hall funhouse at Paragon until it burned in 1955, owned the Fascination electronic bingo game along the amusement strip. The owners of the three games and their respective managers, Samuel Burstein, Sidney Baker, and Leonard Hersch, all were arraigned on the illegal gaming charges in Hingham District Court.

Law enforcement alleged that the machines amounted to little more than “old-fashioned lotteries dressed up with electronic gimmicks,” even though the games had been running mostly undisturbed at Nantasket and other resorts for years.

The only difference in the summer of 1961 was the man in charge. Frank S. Giles, a former Methuen state Representative and unsuccessful candidate for governor, took over as Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Safety in July. Within weeks, he launched an anti-gambling crusade, sending state police detectives to try winning at the games on Aug. 22. Not surprisingly, the novices reported losing money. Incensed, Giles ordered the games shut down immediately.

Operators at Riverside Park in Agawam, Mountain Park in Holyoke, Lincoln Park in Dartmouth, Whalom Park in Lunenburg, and along the beach in Salisbury complied with the state’s directive. Gamesmen at Nantasket and Revere beaches stayed open.

In their appearance before Judge Harry Kalus in Hingham District Court on Aug. 25, the game managers pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys cited an earlier court decision that declared Fascination and similar amusements to be games of skill, although it has proven difficult to pinpoint the exact details of this aspect of the case. Kalus interrupted the arraignment of the three men to allow prosecutors to file formal charges against the game owners. He then released the managers on $500 bail each.

By this time, Giles had stepped up his campaign, revoking every permit in the state for Sunday entertainment, from coin-operated machines in the parks to exotic dancers in the nightclubs.

“This weekend, clearly, will be one of austerity,” the Boston Herald somberly declared.

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FASCINATION and similar games that paid cash prizes occasionally prompted questions from law enforcement, but most police chiefs familiar with the operations paid them little attention, pointing out that they were licensed by the state and had been in existence for decades.

In the traditional Fascination setup, players sit at individual tables, each with 25 holes and corresponding lights on a backboard. The spaces on the backboard are lit when a single ball is successfully rolled down the slight incline into the corresponding hole. The ball returns and the player rolls it again. All tables play against each other in a race to achieve five lights in a row.

In the words of the game barker, who controls the start and end of each round from a perch in the center of the room, there is a winner every time. The house takes a cut of each game, but the element of skill exists, the owners contend, in determining which player has the ability to guide the balls into the correct holes more quickly than his or her opponents. Conversely, in bingo, the skills of the player have no bearing on the numbers appearing on the bingo card or in which order the balls are drawn from the drum.

Once a staple of amusement resorts, Fascination parlors have dwindled to only a handful remaining across the country. With the machines aging and replacement parts difficult to obtain, the number will continue dropping.

“Some stay-up-lates who don’t dig Johnny Carson but like to gamble can be found until all hours playing Fascination…  A breed unto themselves, these housewives, truck drivers, teenagers, and assorted nomads would probably be at the racetrack, if they could afford the losses. Instead they prefer to risk a dime at a time, trying for prizes at a game that has been around for several decades,” was how one 1960s newspaper account described the inside of a Fascination parlor. “Some of the steady players have been coming around for years; just can’t stay at home, it seems, and there is a sort of clubhouse atmosphere with people greeting other regulars in a chummy way. While it looks easy, actually it is a game of skill with experienced players able more often to guide the rubber balls into the right holes.”

Bing-O-Reno is very similar to Fascination, but involves seven balls instead of one, while Skill Light consists of a wheel with a circle of numbered lights. When the player pushes the button, the numbers quickly light up in order; the object is to push a second button to stop the game with a selected number lit.

Another popular game, Skilo, was played at Nantasket for years until it was specifically outlawed by state statute in 1953. Players toss a ball over the counter onto a field that has been divided into numbered sections; the winner is the player with money on the number where the ball lands. If nobody chose that number, the house wins. Later versions substituted merchandise as prizes, such as stuffed animals, to comply with the law against cash winnings.

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THE 1961 RAIDS were not the first time that Nantasket had run afoul of anti-gaming laws.

Around the Fourth of July in 1956, State Police troopers fanned out across the peninsula. A total of 17 people – 14 men and three women –were arrested on charges ranging from setting up and promoting a lottery (the formal charge for paying cash prizes to pinball game winners) to registering bets, or running a bookmaking operation.

The undercover officers were “attired in sports clothes and often were accompanied by girl friends,” according to one description, and were trying to blend in with the tourists with their “multi-colored shirts and loud slacks to avoid detection.” Troopers played pinball and tried their luck at “one-armed bandit” slot machines at the various establishments, where they were paid cash for winning pinball games and earning free plays from the machine. At one stop, they won $2.50 on July 1 and $1.50 on July 3.

At two locations, the Gunrock House on Atlantic Avenue and Larry’s Diner, an old-style lunch-car eatery across from present-day Jake’s Seafood, the proprietors were arrested on bookmaking charges after the cops found betting slips for horse races and the dog tracks. John Infusino of the Gunrock House and Bertram Pollock of Larry’s Diner were convicted on the bookmaking charges and paid $50 in fines.

The others arrested paid fines for violating anti-gambling laws, and while police seized 12 pinball machines and two slot machines, it did little to slow down gambling activity in town.

“A few years back the State Police raided a barroom in the Green Hill section for operating pinball machines,” Dr. William Bergan wrote of the Gunrock arrests in Old Nantasket, his memoir of early 20th century life in Hull. “They seized two machines. To the old-timers that was like raiding the Parent Teacher Association. The point here is that a few minutes after the raid and before the booking exercises were over, two other machines were installed and the place was doing business just the same.”

Society’s standards were slightly different during this period in history. For example, one newspaper’s update on the Facsination court case was placed next to an article updating the Massachusetts Obscene Literature Control Commission’s efforts to keep Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” on the state’s list of banned books.

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AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, Judge Kalus took up the cases against the Nantasket merchants on September 1. In the same courtroom five years earlier, Kalus handed out fines to the 17 men and women arrested in the pinball raids. Now the commissioner of public safety’s statewide morals campaign created “a judicial showdown on the status of cash-paying games – to which thousands of pensioners, widows, and others are passionately and expensively addicted,” as one Boston newspaper described the challenge.

In the daylong trial, Kalus showed little patience for the defendants and their witnesses. He limited the defense counsel’s attempts to enter evidence about past licensing of the games and other courts’ decisions on the question of skill vs. chance. He also demanded that one witness, described as a Hingham tailor nattily dressed “in a sharp blue suit,” stop tapping his feet while on the witness stand.

The tailor testified that he had played thousands of games during the past 15 years and developed a system for guiding the ball into the holes he needed to win the game. Another player, a Hull housewife who appeared in court “attractive and shapely in a blouse and skirt,” said she found Fascination “thrilling” and had played for about 12 years. During the trial, Hersch called these customers “Fascination sharks” and compared them to players who developed enhanced skills at billiards or golf.

Also testifying for the defense of the amusement operators was Hull Police Chief Daniel A. Short, the man charged with enforcing the gambling laws locally.

Short said he played Skill Light at Funland and was able to stop the light on his chosen number after three tries, presumably after building up his skill at the game.

The judge was unimpressed.

Seconds after testimony ended, the impatient Kalus declared that each game violated the state’s prohibition on lotteries. He convicted the game owners and fined them $500; the managers were assessed $100. Chief Short, fresh from his testimony in favor of the games, returned to the beach to close them down.

All six men immediately appealed. The Fascination case worked its way through the courts first, earning a hearing in Plymouth Superior Court. Two weeks after hearing testimony, Judge Thomas A. Johnson reversed the convictions of Hersch and Simmons on October 10. In his decision, Johnson declared that “once the ball is thrown by the player, the laws of science apply” and “there is no intervention of any other outside force exerted on the ball, such as electrical impulses, springs, and so forth.”

The reversal did not sit well with the public safety commissioner, whose anti-vice campaign ensured him frequent headlines in the newspapers.

“I’m mad as hell,” Giles fumed to the press. “The issue is whether Fascination is a game of chance or a game of skill. After seeing it in operation, I felt very strongly it was a game of chance. I said so then – and I say so now.”

Early in the New Year, another Superior Court judge threw out the convictions of David and Sidney Baker of Skill Light on January 30, 1962, prompting the Plymouth County District Attorney to ask the court to dismiss the remaining charges against Stone and Burstein of Paragon Park’s Bing-O-Reno game.

As quickly as the controversy arose in late summer, by midwinter it evaporated. The concept of Skill Light – pushing a button to stop a rotating light at a selected number – still exists in many forms in amusement parks and arcades, now paying out coupons that are redeemed for merchandise. Bing-O-Reno machines were in play at Nantasket’s Playland Penny Arcade into the 1990s, issuing coupons similar to those from Skee-Ball for trade-in at the prize counter.

Only Fascination remained in operation, its game-of-skill format and cash payouts unchanged, until it, too, eventually became a victim of the passing of time and the public’s attention turning to other forms of legalized gambling.