May 29th, 2012
12:05 PM ET

Dreams built inside boy's cardboard arcade

By Sonya Hamasaki, CNN

(CNN) LOS ANGELES – Nine-year-old Caine Monroy climbs a stepladder and stands on his tiptoes, grabbing a teddy bear off a wall filled with toys. In one hand, he clutches a roll of yellow raffle tickets. In the other, a wad of one-dollar bills. He’s surrounded by a cavernous gaming arcade he built himself - using old cardboard boxes, scissors and packing tape. He spins around, and faces a large crowd of customers – actual paying customers – who have lined up down the block for a chance to play his games.

In any other world, this might be a child’s game of “pretend" - a magical arcade where the “paying customers” are actually friends who came over to play.

But in Caine’s world, this isn’t a figment of the imagination. This is real.

This is Caine’s Arcade.

“This is so cool!” Caine told us when we visited his store in East Los Angeles. The world started to learn about his arcade when a short film about his venture hit the Internet and went viral about a month ago.

Today, business is booming.

Caine flips through a spiral notepad where customers leave messages. So far, he’s received visitors from Seattle, New Jersey, Canada and even as far away as Australia. “Totally awesome, dude!” one message reads.

He still can’t believe it.

It all started last summer, when Caine started building the arcade at his father’s store. Using cardboard shipping boxes which were cast aside for recycling, he built his own version of his favorite games - classics, like Skee Ball, Soccer and the Claw machine.

From scratch, he fashioned a “claw” using an S-hook tied to yarn, and carefully rolled up pieces of masking tape to make soccer balls.

Caine’s Arcade was built inside his dad’s shop, Smart Parts Aftermarket, in an industrial corner of the city. Foot traffic is sparse and young adventurers are typically few and far between. But day after day, week after week, Caine sat outside his arcade, hoping for just one person to take notice and give his Claw machine a shot.

That one person came just in time. On the very last day of summer, filmmaker Nirvan Mullick entered the store to get a door handle for his ’96 Corolla. Caine’s creation stopped him in his tracks. For $2.00, he purchased a “Fun Pass,” which allowed him 500 game plays.

“It was just too good a deal to turn down,” Mullick said.

“I got to see the level of detail he built-out in this arcade world. When he crawled into the box, and pushed out the tickets, it brought me back to when I was 9 years old, and when I used to make things for pure creativity and exercising my imagination,” Mullick said. “It inspired me to want to make a film about Caine’s Arcade.”

The arcade had all the components needed for great a film: a precocious kid, a homemade gaming system and warm, parental support. But there was one key element missing: customers.

“We hatched a plan to surprise him and invite the Internet,” Mullick said. “The idea was to put together a flash mob to surprise Caine with as many customers as we could. I created a Facebook event, and it went viral. Suddenly, there were tens of thousands of people around the world rooting for Caine.”

On Sunday, October 2, 2011, hundreds of people traveled to East L.A. to make a boy’s dream come true. They made brightly colored signs and lined the sidewalk to greet Caine when he came back from having pizza with his father.

“Caine’s reaction was the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen,” Mullick said.

That smile was just the beginning.

Back then, no one knew how deeply Caine would affect and inspire people around the world. Mullick posted his film online  in April, and in just one month, he received over six million views. “The goal was to raise $25,000 for Caine's Scholarship Fund,” Mullick said. The first day it raised $60,000, the next day it was up to $100,000. Five days later we got a matching grant up to $250,000 from the Goldhirsh Foundation to start the Caine's Arcade Foundation to foster creativity and entrepreneurship in other kids.”

The sky’s the limit, for both Caine and the millions of children around the world who are now inspired to think beyond their imaginations. Many have shared their ideas, photos and videos with him.

“There’s a photocopy machine that this four-year-old kid made and when you lay down the piece of paper you want copied, he sits inside and draws whatever it is, and it spits out the piece of paper,” Mullick said. “There are all kinds of incredible, creative things that kids are making out there. And that’s personally my favorite thing that’s been happening.”

Simply running the arcade for its new customers is just one of the many new facets of life for the Monroy family. "We've been traveling everywhere, there’s been lots of interviews, lots of last-minute plans, lots of shopping. We have to buy a lot of prizes now. Before, we weren't using any of the prizes, but now they're selling out," Caine's father, George Monroy said.

In April, they packed up Caine’s Arcade and drove it to San Francisco, where it went on display at the Exploratorium. The following week, the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business invited Caine to speak to a graduate entrepreneurship class. And this month, the family flew to Sacramento, CA, where Caine received a Latino Spirit Award.

“We've been meeting so many nice people, he’s being recognized. Caine's become almost famous in a way. It's happened so fast. But Caine doesn't see fame like an adult sees fame,” Mullick said. “It just means he has more customers for his arcade, which is all he's ever wanted.”

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    June 1, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  2. Elaine Morinelli

    Caine's Arcade continues to inspire every day. It's the best story every in my book! Even at the age of 62 I feel empathy with Caine because I built a whole doll's village out of cardboard (down to the furniture and food on the tables) one summer when i was living with family friends because my dad was hospitalized. I guess it was my way of coping. When I saw Caine's Arcade I remembered so clearly laying down and positioning my figure to make sure the scale was right. I put a lot of myself into that doll village. Rock on, Caine!

    May 29, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  3. john spangler

    Visited Caine's Arcade this weekend with my family. Incredible experience, and something you don't see today as much as you should... Kids using their imaginations!! I love that other kids are getting inspired by Caine, to create their own projects too. If you have the chance to go, do it!!

    May 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm |