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Gordon Smart, Amusement Pioneer, Dies At 79

Posted On: 4/22/2011

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Gordon Smart DES MOINES, IA -- Gordon M. Smart, founder and chief executive of Smart Industries here, died on April 21. He was 79.

Gordon Smart spent most of his life in Iowa. He was born on Jan. 18, 1932, in Creston, IA, to John Thomas Smart and Mary Leona Hewson Smart Harrison. He was the survivor of a set of twins born prematurely. He entered the U.S. Army in 1948, and the period of his military service was the only time he spent away from his home state.

In 1951, the amusement pioneer married Lavonne Ball, with whom he had two children, Jeffrey Thomas Smart and Nancy Smart Singh. They divorced in 1992 and Smart married Mary Sharratt in January 1998.

Smart Industries began in 1963 as a traveling amusement business with a 200-piece arcade that were deployed at carnivals, fairgrounds and special events. Smart also ran a 500-piece route. The roving arcade naturally expanded into permanent operations at amusement parks throughout the Midwest, including Adventureland of Des Moines, Iowa's largest park.

Recognizing the potential of prize-dispensing and redemption games beyond arcades in amusement parks and resort markets, Gordon Smart began developing and manufacturing his own machine in 1985. His company's first skill crane model, the Clean Sweep/Bear Claw, was an instant success and became a driving force in the emerging commercial crane segment. Smart Industries was reportedly the first manufacturer to put a joystick on a crane.

Smart Industries still designs and produces claw devices, making it the longest-running crane game manufacturer in the U.S. In fact, the company now offers almost two dozen models that accommodate just about any type of plush toy or hard merchandise. Today, the skill crane is one of the most widely placed equipment types, and highest earning, in the U.S.

In addition to cranes, Smart Industries has created a variety of novelty games and vending machines that have helped shape the modern amusement industry. Shoot to Win and Big Bertha, two early titles, remain popular arcade novelties. The company's Hollywood Photos photobooth line has been in service for more than a decade.

The Des Moines company employs more than a 100 people and ships amusement machines to amusement operators around the world. Smart's son, Jeff, is president.

Gordon Smart is survived by his wife of 13 years, Mary Smart; son Jeff Smart and his wife May of Altoona; daughter Nancy Singh of West Des Moines; and six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial visitation will be held on Friday, April 29, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Dunn's Funeral Home, 2121 Grand Ave., Des Moines, IA. According to his wish, Smart will be cremated and his ashes interred at the Iowa Veterans Cemetery in a private family ceremony.