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Remembering Funspot founder Bob Lawton, the ‘Walt Disney of the North Country’

Bob Lawton founded Funspot in 1952 with a $750 loan from his grandma.
Courtesy of Funspot
Bob Lawton founded Funspot in 1952 with a $750 loan from his grandma.

The man who launched what would become the world’s largest arcade had plenty of laughs in his long life.

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The family legend goes like this: In 1952, Bob Lawton borrowed $750 from his grandma to construct a minigolf course in the Weirs.

Nearly 70 years later, Funspot has become a landmark destination for arcade games, pinball, bowling and skee-ball, earning the Laconia landmark the Guinness World Record title as the world’s largest arcade.

Lawton was a regular presence at Funspot until his death last week at the age of 90.

b&w photo of Lawton waterskiing with his daughter
Courtesy of Funspot
Lawton teaching his daughter to waterski in the 1950s.

“This was his life. This was like another child to him,” Gary Vincent, a 40-year Funspot employee, said during Wednesday's memorial service. “And he loved every day that he was here.”

Vincent said Lawton never ran out of ideas for how to improve Funspot, from growing the number of arcade games to more than 600, to modernizing the layout. Lawton was there throughout, often in red suspenders, playing alongside the kids, handing them free tokens.

“Any business would probably shudder if they analyzed how much he just gave away, but that was Bob,” Vincent said.

Friends and family gathered inside the Funspot Tavern, as the sound of bowling pins and arcade games drifted in from the gaming floor.

Bob with a Budweiser
Courtesy of Funspot
Lawton was a regular fixture at the pub, always with a Budweiser keeping him company.

“He was like Walt Disney of the North County,” Tom ‘Bananas’ Boriso, an old friend of Lawton’s said. “One of a kind, that’s all I can say, one of a kind.”

Only truly lucky people have their wake at an arcade. But that’s where Lawton’s friends are most comfortable. Billy Mitchell said his life was changed forever at the arcade.

“Because of Bob Lawton, because of Funspot...I was given the opportunity to be here and to play Pac-Man, and do history’s first perfect score, ever,” Mitchell said.

In 1999, Mitchell, a Florida resident, entered a tournament at Funspot. There, he did to Pac-Man what nobody had ever done before — that perfect score. Bob Lawton cheered in the background.

His score launched a high-profile career for Mitchell, who was named the top video game player of the century by a video gaming site Twin Galaxies.

“They say fun and laughter add years to your life,” Mitchell said, standing a few feet from the famed Pac-Man machine. “There are a lot of people in the world who are going to live to a ripe old age because of Bob, because of the fun and laughter he provided.”

photo of arcade games
Todd Bookman/NHPR
Funspot is home to more than 600 arcade games, along with bowling, skee-ball and minigolf.

Lawton had a serious side, though, including serving in the military and later as a New Hampshire State Representative.

According to his family, in 1969, Lawton helped push through a bill that added New Hampshire’s famously unambiguous state motto to the license plate

“That’s a tremendous thing for our state,” Sandra Lawton, his daughter, said. “People all over the world know what the ‘Live Free or Die’ state is by the license plates.”

But what always made Lawton proudest was meeting the generations of kids who came running through Funspot’s doors.

photo of red had that reads 'Make Donkey Kong Great Again'
Todd Bookman/NHPR

“I have so many great memories, being here, growing up, literally just running around the building,” Stephanie Tice, a family friend, said. “It’s always just like coming home. It is always a place to be happy and just have fun.”

A game of pinball may only last a few minutes, but Funspot remains eternal.

Despite Bob Lawton’s death, the family is keeping the arcade open.

Updated: November 19, 2021 at 12:40 PM EST
Editor's note: We highly recommend listening to this story.
Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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