By Antonio Pequeño IV
Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
Juan Rubalcava is a private jet pilot and the owner of Recess Time Arcade in San Fernando — products of youthful dreams that the local business owner could never seem to shake.
The common thread of Rubalcava’s professional and entrepreneurial pursuit lies in his tendency to take chances and welcome risks. Such traits have been a part of him since he was a child who, perhaps prematurely, dreamt of flying planes as soon as humanly possible.
Rubalcava had his first flight at the age of 12, when he commandeered a shoddily made wooden airplane off the roof of his mother’s house straight into the backyard.
The wood frame, flaps, wings and lawn mower blades Rubalcava and his friends used as propellers for the craft were no match for gravity. Following the crash, Rubalcava was at a local hospital in San Fernando sporting a neck brace and a football helmet he used for protection in his plane’s maiden flight.
The ensuing conversation with a doctor was one he remembers vividly.
“Doctor walks up to me and says, ‘pretty rough football game, huh?’ And I go, ‘No, sir, I’ve been in a plane crash,’” he recalled saying. Rubalcava’s mother, Angela, knew after that fateful day that her son’s dreams of becoming a pilot would inevitably become a reality.
Rubalcava started his flight training just three years later at the age of 15, a venture solely funded by money he saved from selling flowers, oranges and peanuts near the Burbank airport. The determined teenager secured his pilot’s license less than two years later, getting the license before he could drive legally.
Rubalcava was ambitious. And he had plenty of other goals that would require him to exert the same risk-taking attitude he had when chasing his pilot’s license.
One of those dreams was owning his very own arcade, a pursuit he would commit to despite living in a day and age where digital entertainment and video games are highly accessible and immersive.
Rubalcava’s late father, Isidro, who passed away in a motorcycle accident when Juan was 12, played a significant role in his son’s dream to establish his own arcade. The father and son would visit arcades, playing Pac-Man and foosball.
“When I was growing up here, there were no arcades. There were little machines here and there, but not a full arcade,” Rubalcava said. “I’ve always wanted people, the community, to have something like that when [the kids are] growing up, for the families to have memories.”
Recess Time Arcade, the name of Rubalcava’s business, is located at 120 N. Maclay Ave. The arcade is nestled at the end of a corridor that starts between a gourmet caramel apple shop and a trendy American restaurant, useful outlets for parents and guardians that drop their kids off there to play.
The arcade is not particularly large, but that has not stopped Rubalcava from injecting his establishment with personality and charm.
Pinball machines, driving games and fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter line the walls with flickering lights and colors, flanked by the sounds of metal clanking and fanatical video game announcers. Reigning above the analog joysticks and buttons is the arcade’s glowing business sign, which features in its design a mascot created by Rubalcava’s youngest daughter.
The arcade features an ambience that is particularly rare for children raised with games and entertainment at their fingertips.
Ian Wallace is one such child. Wallace frequents the arcade with his grandmother and, through his time there, has developed into the arcade’s number one supporter. The young arcade regular and his grandmother visit around three times a week, and fill Rubalcava with confidence that the investment he made into the business was worth it.
On multiple occasions Rubalcava has had to teach young arcade visitors what pinball machines are and how to play them. He says several of the visitors are now hooked on the retro machines.
“We opened up in June of last year and it’s just been amazing — the clientele, the people, the regulars, it’s just awesome,” Rubalcava said. “Everybody knows my name and I know everybody’s name, so it’s a fun place. A lot of people really enjoy it and I love the regulars.”
Visitors of the arcade pay $10 for a day of unlimited admission, a decision Rubalcava credits to wanting to keep the experience accessible for the local community. The $10 price tag is supplemented by complimentary water and occasional candy that Rubalcava offers visitors when he is not keeping the arcade clean and wiped down.
Rubalcava’s gamble on establishing and maintaining the arcade is not one he takes lightly. In addition to the care he provides for the business, he has financed it as logically as possible with money from his job as a pilot.
Arcades nowadays typically go bankrupt from the limited amount of money they gain from rented machines, according to Rubalcava. Renting means that a small portion of the money a machine makes goes to the owner, whereas purchasing machines — like Rubalcava has done with his entire arcade — gives owners the ability to fully profit.
Rubalcava’s financial resources and compassion for the community, have forged a business ideology that puts returns on the backburner.
“Now I see all the little kids come in there with (their) dads and you know, they’re enjoying it and that is more fulfilling to me than the actual money,” Rubalcava said. “If this thing pays for itself (and I break even), I’m happy with that.”
Like owning his own arcade, flying professionally was the sum of Rubalcava’s most ambitious risks — many of which were fueled by his mother’s support.
Rubalcava’s mother is someone he thinks of dearly when recalling the work it took to become a pilot and establish his own business. Angela worked two jobs to singlehandedly support Rubalcava and his two brothers; one job was as an English teacher at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar.
The day his mother’s sacrifices and his efforts came full circle happened years ago, when Rubalcava flew commercial airliners.
Angela caught a flight to Phoenix so she could ride a return flight back home with her son as the pilot. Her timing could not have been better, as Juan recalled having a particularly long day that was made better by his mother’s surprise appearance.
His mother purchased cheap tickets that had her seated near the rear lavatory. Rubalcava made an announcement that his mother was on board as soon as he realized she was on the plane, which eventually led to her being escorted by flight attendants to a spare seat in first class.
“It put tears in my eyes that my mom, the person who always pushed me to keep going and never give up, was flying back with me,” Rubalcava said. “I had that honor to fly her in first class back to Los Angeles and make it the smoothest landing possible. It was really touching.”
Rubalcava’s days as a commercial pilot are over, having switched to being a private pilot for musicians and singers like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, and actors like Adam Sandler.
He logs long hours and several days of flying a month. But Rubalcava emphasized that the work he does is akin to vacationing — a feeling, he said, is made sweeter by the years of work and sacrifice he put into his dream.
“(Flying is) this feeling of freedom and getting paid to see the world. It’s what keeps you going back again, and again and again” Rubalcava said. “It’s unexplainable, the beauty of flying. It’s just magical.”