Features & Columns

Pong Birds

A night at Rooster T. Feathers marks 40 years of Pong—and salutes the retro exotica of Murphy Avenue
Pong's 40th anniversary. FROM MODEST BEGINNINGS: The gaming phenomenon known as Pong was beta-tested 40 years ago inside Andy Capp's Tavern, now the home of Rooster T. Feathers.

Last week, the intersection of El Camino Real and S. Murphy Avenue presented a space-time-continuum-shattering spectacle of epic proportions. For one, Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Club invited original Pong designer Al Alcorn to grace the establishment with his presence, in celebration of Pong's 40th anniversary.

In 1972, Alcorn beta-tested the very first Pong machine in that same building, 157 W. El Camino Real, which was then Andy Capp's Tavern. With its initial success, Pong essentially launched what we now know as the video game industry.

Pong was Atari's first commercial experiment and just about everyone who's ever played a video or computer game knows it. The history endures, especially if you grew up in Silicon Valley, as there were some brief moments when Atari ruled the universe.

As the story goes, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney were Atari employees one and two, respectively. Alcorn was number three. Bushnell assigned Alcorn to create a video game based on table tennis, and Pong was the result.

To test-market the idea, they installed a makeshift version in Andy Capp's Tavern in September of 1972. Right there on a borderline-rural stretch of El Camino Real, the first consumers put the first quarters into that first Pong machine. The rest is history, and the original box now sits in the Computer History Museum. Just imagine how different the last 40 years of video games would have been if Pong had never happened.

The faade of Rooster T. Feathers is virtually unchanged since the Andy Capp's days, save for a few paint jobs and a more recent sign. It remains an integral component of Silicon Valley history as well as a groovy independent business right at an intersection where a smattering of such establishments exists.

That said, the physical scenery deserves mention here as well. Most of the Sunnyvale landscape is utterly forgettable, but the complex original bouillabaisse of independent businesses right along Murphy Avenue, as one careens away from El Camino, is a retro-exotic oasis amid the more homogeneous modern strip-malls dominating the other side of El Camino. The intersection forms a suburban, old-vs.-new polarity that cannot go unmentioned.

All along that stretch of El Camino, one finds a bland, tasteless broth of faux-granite exteriors, bread-themed mall restaurants, bad stucco, ugly box-retail outlets, canned dinner-jazz fusion emanating from every external speaker and countless vitamin shops and cell-phone stores.

As always, the planners at each of the malls implemented every possible technique to discourage any possible pedestrian from ever wanting to enjoy any of it. And as always, the malls are named after whatever they destroyed, like "Cherry Orchard."

This is precisely why the Allario Center on Murphy Avenue and its neighboring center are so uplifting and refreshing to the senses as one arrives there from the generic nightmare of El Camino. Just along that stretch of Murphy, one finds Coconut Hill Indian Groceries, a Thai Massage place, the Lace Museum, an acupuncture clinic, an Aikido studio, a decades-old locksmith shop, a yarn store, a sports-card collector and a wig shop. Yeah!

It really looks like someone went out of his or her way to preserve some degree of interesting retail integrity amid the gargantuan swaths of monolithic ugliness on the main road. Just 200 feet off El Camino you feel like you're in a different galaxy entirely. That stretch of Murphy seems off the beaten path but still native, somehow.

Rooster T. Feathers, even though it's on El Camino, functions as an anchor for the rest of the interesting shops and businesses that veer off along Murphy. At least that's how I see it.

Inside the comedy club, the party opened with Alcorn taking the stage to commemorate the history, claiming he never set out to start an industry—he just had a problem to solve on a $75 TV. "Thanks for all the quarters," he quipped. "I appreciate it."

Host Erikka Innes of Sex With Nerds emceed the rest of the evening. "Without Pong," she said, "no one would have invented beer pong, and my parents would not have hooked up and made me."