VT publisher Alicia Lavay-Kertes refers to the passing of industry icon Bill Cravens as “the end of an era.” It certainly feels that way. Cravens, an outsized personality who died in his sleep during last month’s Amusement Showcase International, personified the U.S. amusements industry in countless ways.
This industry was born with the jukebox, peaked with video games and has transitioned to redemption and online entertainment. Bill Cravens began his career as a Wurlitzer salesman and ended as an independent consultant with his own Bulldog Amusements. In between, he worked in both operations and distribution and helped guide many leading video game and redemption manufacturers during their heydays – either as an executive or consultant. He played crucial roles in the American Amusement Machine Association, its trade show and its charitable arm. He was instrumental in launching the industry’s Internet era as a key spokesman and strategist for the first and most successful online video game.
In short, whenever anything important happened in the amusements industry in the past four decades, Bill Cravens was usually in the middle of it.
Cravens personified the industry in another sense. America went through a period of exuberant excess during what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Decade” of the 1970s and the Reagan hyper-capitalist boom of the 1980s. Around that same time, this industry experienced its own crazy years of happy, wild excess, fueled by the billions of dollars that suddenly flooded its channels from the first video game revolution. Cravens was right in the middle of that, too – a cheerful sybarite who gloried in a brash, unconventional lifestyle. He conveyed the sense that anything is possible and he as a living, breathing, in-your-face reminder that this industry is fun.
No industry can flourish through a boom, nor survive a series of difficult transitions into new markets and new technologies, simply because it has great products.
During the past four decades of ups and downs, the coin-operated music and games business has benefited immeasurably from the guidance of some extremely shrewd and canny business minds, most of whom learned their wisdom in the school of hard knocks, regardless of their education. Cravens was in the forefront of this street-smart leadership, bringing the best entrepreneurial talent to an industry that went through an explosion, a meltdown, a revival and a retrenchment.
There are several facets to the amusements industry – from salt-of-the-earth operators and distributors to hi-tech geeks and corporate “suits.” Likewise, there were several “Bill Cravenses”: hardworking industry supporter; hard-living party animal; silver-tongued salesman; proud father; savvy marketing professional; and, in his personal life, a man who could be raucous and outrageous one moment, or thoughtful, sympathetic and sensitive the next.
Ask the many people he helped through personal crisis by recruiting a network of supporters, or ask the president of a company that profited from his advice…or ask someone who was the target of his occasionally Don Rickles-type humor…which one was the “real” Bill Cravens? You might as well ask which facet is the “real” amusements industry. They all are and they all were.
The Cravens legacy goes beyond the institutions he helped found, the companies he helped lead and the memories he leaves behind. It is best embodied in two young men, his sons Todd and Ryan Cravens, who have already taken their places in this industry as examples of a new generation of professional leadership. They are well educated yet keenly aware of the indispensable value of street smarts; future oriented yet steeped in the traditions that their father did so much to create. We look to them to keep the best of Bill Cravens alive in the spirit and intelligence of the U.S. amusements industry.