Alicia Blanton lifts her 2-year-old, Renne Ann, up to play one of 9-year-old… (Christina House, For The…)
On a rainy afternoon, 9-year-old Caine Monroy was doing a brisk business at the cardboard arcade he built in his dad's auto parts store in Boyle Heights.
Devon Gomez, a 20-year-old student at Pasadena City College, was battling the claw machine — a cardboard box fitted with an S-ring attached to a piece of yarn — trying to win a toy for his girlfriend.
"I'm going in on this," said Gomez, taking off his hat after buying a $2 "fun pass," good for 500 turns.
"Bring it on," said Caine, wearing a red hooded sweat shirt with the words "Caine's Arcade" printed in black on the front.
The customers and fame came quickly for the boy after the short film "Caine's Arcade" exploded on the Internet.
Suddenly — on the strength of an 11-minute video that captured the youngster fiddling with his homemade games and patiently waiting for business to pick up — news teams poured in, as did the paying customers, eager to try their luck and spend their money at the tiny street-front arcade.
Jim Keating, a teacher from Norwalk, showed up with daughter Olivia just to see the arcade. Once there, they opted to play the basketball game — tossing a round ball of crumpled tape into a tiny plastic basketball hoop Caine picked up at Shakey's Pizza.
Sammy Primero, an artist who lives in the neighborhood, grinned and took pictures of the scene with his iPhone.
Caine was in his element, running two games at the same time, a calculator in one hand to keep track of how many turns Gomez had used up, another eye on Keating so he knew how many tickets to hand him when the game was over.
At the same time, he was counting out the 20 seconds he allows each customer to play a game, making a buzzer sound when time ran out.
But it wasn't always like this. Not too long ago, the 9-year-old had considered abandoning the arcade because of the lack of customers.
He built the game room last summer, constructing games out of cardboard boxes and packing tape he borrowed from his dad's stockroom.
His first project was the basketball game. Then came a soccer game with two little plastic green army figures acting as the goalies.
Next: a Skee-Ball-like game, the cardboard claw machine, and a game that is currently out of commission because Caine can't find the right bouncy ball required to play it.
Originally, he planned to use his old toy cars as prizes, but as the arcade grew, he went to a Dollar Tree and bought bubbles, foam rocket shooters and other trinkets that are now pinned to a well-organized prize board.
Over the summer, Caine made his dad promise — pinkie swear, actually — to wake him up each morning at 5:30 so he could ride with him to the store and try to persuade people to play his games.
But nobody came.
Then on the last day of summer, L.A.-based filmmaker Nirvan Mullick walked into the auto-parts shop to buy a new door handle for his 1996 Corolla and decided that the 500 turns that came with the $2 fun pass was too good to pass up.
When Caine climbed inside one of the cardboard games to manually push a line of tickets through a slot cut in the box, Mullick knew he had stumbled upon something special.
"I got to watch this kid be in his imaginary world, but at the same time give me an amazing arcade experience," Mullick said. "It was like I got sucked right back into my childhood."
When he found out he was Caine's first customer, he decided to organize a flash mob at Caine's Arcade and then produced the video about the arcade and the scores who showed up for the event.
The video got 4.6 million views on Vimeo and YouTube, and a scholarship fund that Mullick set up for Caine has now grown to more than $170,000, mostly donations from people who saw the film online. And now the Goldhirsh Foundation has pledged to match donations up to $250,000 to build the Caine's Arcade Foundation to foster creativity and entrepreneurship in youngsters.
So many television crews descended on the store that they had to wait in line to talk with Caine. "To me, this is way better than winning that super jackpot lotto," Mullick said.
Caine, who had to close the arcade Sunday because it was his First Communion, seems unaffected by all the attention.
He's just psyched about the steady stream of customers coming into his arcade, buying his $2 fun passes and talking smack with him.
"How many tickets do you need for the Angry Birds dolls?" Gomez asked — gesturing to a box of four stuffed Angry Birds sitting on the counter.
"Don't even think about it," Caine said. "Twenty thousand tickets. You'd need 5,000 tickets for just one."
"You have to watch your wallet with this kid," Gomez said.
Caine just grinned and then asked if he wanted another turn.