Without a job, Newport Beach man risked it all on a $75,000 bus full of video games

When Dale Frankhouse found himself unemployed, a single father with two young sons living in one room, he did the unthinkable: he bought a $75,000 bus and charged it to his credit card.

Nearly three decades earlier, shortly after graduating from USC, Frankhouse started his own business selling giant balloons to car dealerships. After 25 years, the business collapsed in the 2008 financial meltdown, when people stopped buying cars.

His marriage ended under the financial strain, and Frankhouse squeezed himself and his sons into a single bedroom in a friend’s house. His only income was the rent he collected from a commercial building he owns.

“If your business fails, you better find something to do fast,” Frankhouse said. “The cavalry’s not coming to save you. I’ve got to either live or die.”

He was at a child’s birthday party when his entrepreneurial mojo kicked in. The host had hired someone with a video game-filled trailer to entertain the kids. Frankhouse noticed there weren’t enough spaces for all the children.

The light bulb pinged on.

Frankhouse saw a solution to the problem as his next business venture – one that would change the course of his life.

He took a bet on video games, an industry expected to grow 2.4 percent annually between now and 2020, according to an IBISWorld industry report.

Unable to get a loan during the Great Recession, Frankhouse bought a school bus from the Capistrano School District in 2010. He later bought a second bus and saw his credit card bills soar to $120,000 to cover the buses and the gaming equipment.

“When you sink a lot of money into something, you’ve just got to make it work,” he said of his big investment.

It wasn’t an instant hit. The first six months were tough, and Frankhouse worked a lot of free parties and charity events to get his name in front of clients.

But he believed in his product. After a slow start, Super Game Bus turned a profit in its first year. Only $15,000 in debt remains from those initial credit card purchases.

Frankhouse refitted the buses to create a gaming room on wheels. A row of flat-screen TVs line one side of the bus while the original vinyl seats were mounted on the opposite side, facing the TVs. The walls were painted black and black-out drapes prevent glare and help bring the video games to life. A green strip of LED lights just inches from the roof adds to the festive atmosphere. One bus has a dance floor for “Just Dance” video games. Each bus can fit between 20 and 28 kids.

Propane generators help cool the buses and power the game stations.

Bob Caustin, a Newport Beach-based real estate broker, has been to 10 to 15 parties that featured a Super Game Bus. He said Frankhouse’s bus offers an alternative to parents who typically hire babysitters during a party.

And at $325 to $400 for two hours of play time, the game bus is more affordable for large groups of kids, he said.

“I really liked what he did,” Caustin said. “It had newer equipment and all the bells and whistles.”

Caustin also appreciated Frankhouse’s parental sensibilities. He didn’t feel his young son was exposed to the more gory video games often favored by older kids.

“He just kept all the kids occupied and comfortable,” Caustin said. “As a dad he knows what we want to have the kids see.”

Each of Frankhouse’s buses is stocked with 90 of the newest video game releases. As soon as a game comes out, Frankhouse buys it. Just recently he spent $600 on new games; he’s awaiting the release of the latest “Halo 5: Guardians” for teen parties.

Before owning his buses – a 1985 Blue Bird flatnose and a 1986 International – Frankhouse wasn’t much of a gamer. He needed his boys to sit him down and walk him through all the moves, jotting down notes on a yellow legal pad so he could coach kids while on a job.

“When I first started this, I didn’t know anything about video games,” he said.

Now he’s a fan and stays up into the early hours playing games.

In no small way, the Super Game Bus business transformed Frankhouse’s life.

A flexible schedule allows him to be home with his kids when they get ready for school and when they come home. He eats all his meals with his boys and has the flexibility to attend his sons’ games on the weekends.

His kids don’t ask for allowance money anymore. They ask when they can work a gig on the bus. The boys, ages 13 and 14, often tag along to help teach the kids how to play games and make a little extra money.

Perhaps the biggest difference is his family no longer shares that bedroom in a friend’s house. They moved into a three-bedroom condo near the boys’ school in Newport Beach.

“I’m very fortunate to have it this way,” Frankhouse said.

When other people ask him about starting a business, there is one piece of advise he doles out: “If you don’t believe in what you do, don’t waste your time.”

Contact the writer: lwilliams@ocregister.com, 714-796-2286

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