There was a strong scent of gambling in the air at the Toys for Adults Show at the O'Hare Expo Center. Part of it emanated from the Illinois State Lottery, which was there to display new automatic ticket machines. The machines attracted a lot of attention, but I didn't get the impression that most of the people at the show needed to hit the Lotto to achieve financial comfort. The adult toys featured here weren't the plastic and rubber kind you find in sleazy bookstores, but fancy gizmos like metal detectors and high-powered telescopes. They were for the sort of guy who could afford to pay, say, $3,800 for a holographic portrait of himself.
Or $1,500, maybe, for a one-armed bandit. Not one but two booths hawked antique slot machines and jukeboxes, and another drew a steady stream of customers picking up leather dice cups, supplies of casino chips, and fancy roulette wheels. I asked the burly, balding gent at this booth whether these things were legal, and he looked at me like I'd asked him where Jimmy Hoffa was buried. "They're legal as long as there isn't any money on the table," he growled.
I quickly moved on to the next aisle, where Dawn Ellis was busy demonstrating antique slot machines for her company, Nationwide Amusement/Slot Machine Brokers, based in Park Ridge. One man in neatly pressed Levis and a button-down shirt stood entranced before a gleaming, chrome-plated slot, feeding nickels into it and pulling the handle at so steady a clip that he almost seemed part of the mechanism.
Ellis, who supplied the nickels, explained that it's legal to own slot machines if they're more than 25 years old and they're not kept in a public place. But even in a collector's basement or den, she said, they can still pay for themselves. "You put in $25 in nickels, if you get a $5 jackpot you think it's the greatest thing in the world, even though you're out 20 bucks," she said. "So you put in the other $5 and lose that. Eventually you'll lose everything, but it's so exciting." Just the thing to defray the costs of a Saturday night cocktail party.
The slot machines were among the more popular toys on display at the fair, which drew thousands of people over Halloween weekend. During my visit I saw at least three crated slots being wheeled out into the parking lot, although sales for everything else appeared to be pretty slow. But then the idea here was to show off your product more than anything else; if one person in ten follows up with a visit to the showroom, then the expense will have been worth it.
That at least was the thinking of Ken Sweas, who was nervously eyeing his immaculate white Rolls-Royce stretch limo. Sweas represented Alpha Leasing, and according to the price sheets he was handing out, the Rolls was available for only $125 an hour (with a three-hour minimum). The literature claimed that Alpha is the "Official Limousine Service for Mike Ditka."
Sweas said he'd get maybe two or three limo customers a day at this show. "You meet all kinds of people at shows like this," he said, as a guy in greasy coveralls reached inside the Rolls. "They like to look, and some of them will remember our name."
Nearby, Romy Vincoy was crooning "I Can't Stop Loving You" into what looked like a high-tech Mr. Microphone. Actually it was a Super Power & Vocal Changer, list price $449, and what it does is allow you to become Perry Como in the privacy of your own home. The microphone is connected to a cabinet with dual cassettes and an array of knobs that alter the tone, pitch, and timbre of your voice. While one cassette plays the instrumental track of your favorite golden oldie, the other records it and your electronically enhanced voice. It's the same kind of device that makes Madonna's warbling bearable on record.
Vincoy offered to let me try it, and I belted out "For Once in My Life." But instead of my own scratchy voice coming from the speakers, I heard the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra (albeit with a slight New England accent). I was impressed despite myself.
"Hey, you've discovered yourself," Vincoy said, launching into his pitch. "Why don't you buy one and practice for your new career?" I took his card and one of his brochures and walked on. There were a lot of silly, overpriced things at the show, for example Mr. Gameshow, a foot-tall plastic game-show host that smiles, asks questions, and makes dumb quips just like Wink Martindale.
Mr. Gameshow, which is sold by a California outfit called the Price of His Toys, is connected to a computer and has a 700-word vocabulary After you punch in your name and the game you want to play, Mr Gameshow asks questions and awards money for correct answers. "Hey, you win $5,000. Heck, I spend more than that on hair polish and toothpaste." Mr. Gameshow can be all yours for only $149.95.
The Price of His Toys also sells the ideal solution for busy yuppies whose biological clocks are ticking ever louder: the Video Baby, which is exactly what you think it is, a videotape of a smiling, happy, healthy baby. "Enjoy the advantages of instant baby and forget about morning sickness, labor pains, and 4 AM feedings," the catalog boasts. "Your dream of the perfect baby has just come true."
As I left the Expo Center I saw a man carrying a "Plasma FX," a glass ball with colored bolts of light dancing around inside. He'd paid $199.95 for it. I asked him why. "It's kind of neat looking, and it was the only thing I could afford. I don't want no credit card bills next month." His friends laughed.