Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza – A Brief Look Back


I learned a new word. Exonumia, the study of coin-like objects such as token coins and medals, and other items used in place of legal currency or for commemoration. Also see: tokens, legal tender at Chuck E. Cheeses.

Did you know that Chuck E. Cheese’s was named so because your mouth forms a smile when you say it? One of Chuck E. Cheese’s original slogans was “In Pizza We Trust.” I may have to borrow it for The Surfing Pizza.

Chuck E. Cheese was founded by Nolan Bushnell, also the father of Atari. The idea was to have an arcade with all the hot Atari coin-op games, and to also serve some crappy pizza. There was also a cast of animatronics known as the Pizza Time Theater.

As a kid, I always thought the mouse’s name was spelled Chucky Cheese, reminding me of another Chucky that gave me nightmares. True story: once I saw an abandoned claw machine in the corner of a K-Mart, empty inside except for one item: a Chucky doll. Take a moment to picture that. Yeah.

Like all kids, I had my birthday or attended one at Chuck’s a few times. I remember Chuck E. Cheese as being fun.  I also remember feeling a sort of pity for the Moms left behind at the table.  I knew they endured Chuck E. Cheese for my sake.   I thought growing up was a shame.  You got boring and stayed at the table when there was fun shit like skee ball just around the corner. 

Mom would sit at the table like a trooper, eating that greasy pizza and proclaiming it delicious, while expertly fending off child beggars of quarters.  I don’t remember the pizza.  When dogs eat food, they scarf it in two or three desperate swallows.  That”s how I ate the pizza, making sure I could get out on the floor and play those games ASAP.  

I used to like the ball pit too.  I imagined that if I were ever brave enough, there might have been a secret world at the bottom of it all, and I would find it.  You might say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  At some point, a kid told me about hypodermic needles in the ball pit and getting pricked.  Hypodermic needle fears were all the rage back then.  They could be found lying on beaches, on playgrounds, in Cool Whip, everywhere.  But anyway, it scared me enough to avoid the balls after that.

There was another venue back then, Showbiz Pizza.  Like Chuck E. Cheese, they had games, pizza, and an animatronic puppet band, the Rocka-fire Explosion. Bushnell sued Showbiz for copyright infringement, claiming that the pizza and arcade idea was his intellectual property. The Pizzatime Theater and Rocka-fire Explosion were bitter rivals for a decade, until ironically, Showbiz absorbed Chuck-E-Cheese when Bushnell declared bankruptcy. Then Showbiz and Chuck became the same place, with Showbiz switching over to use Chuck-E-Cheese branding.

The Rock-afire Explosion is the subject of an upcoming documentary. As one critic of VH1’s Best Week Ever put it,

“Move over Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Waltz’, The Mayles Brothers’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and D.A. Pennebaker’s ‘Don’t Look Back’, because what will undoubtedly be the greatest Rock Doc of all time is finally upon us.”

The documentary looks creepy.  Its focus is the now-grown and obsessive fans, including one guy who installed the show in his basement. He bought the puppets on eBay.   I think it might be fun to watch the  movie and laugh at these people. Cathartically, you’ll think to yourself, “gee, I’m glad I have a life.”   But then at the end, realizing you just spent the last 90 minute watching a doc based on some vague happy memory you had once, 25 years ago, you’ll inevitably ask yourself if you really do have a life. 

That question will stop you cold for a minute, but then you’ll tuck it deep in the back of your mind, walk despondently to the kitchen, and eat a banana moon pie, leaving the crumbs on the table for the morning.

At least, that’s how watching the trailer made me feel: 

I sometimes wonder how my children will imagine my childhood, just as I imagine my parents’ as something that occured in black & white with a pull-string tugboat in their hands.  Then I see photographs of the 80s which seem truly disturbing.  Puppets with corneas in the eyeballs.  Return to Oz.  Chucky Dolls in claw machines.  Alone.  And my kids will see these and run screaming. Awesome.





Good luck sleeping!

18 thoughts on “Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza – A Brief Look Back

  1. Thanks so much for reminding me of Showbiz! I thought I had dreamed it.

    Also, in Houston we had a place called Pipe Organ Pizza. It was weird and also featured creepy animatronic characters from what I remember. And a big pipe organ, of course.

  2. I’d like to interject and point out that Waffles Houses and Cracker Barrels are far from “same but different”!!

  3. I REALLY want to see Rockafire Explosion. It played a film festival I usually go to but couldn’t get to this year. Friends and relatives went and said that it is actually a fantastic documentary and no creepy at all.

    I am probably a little older than you as I mostly remember Chuck E. Cheese because they had a large arcade and were the only arcade nearby that had Dragon’s Lair. I guess was 16 when that thing opened.

  4. OMG!! Finally someone who remembers Pipe Organ Pizza… I tried asking my brother and my mom if they remembered going there as a kid and they had no idea what i was talking about. It was my all time favourite as a kid…

  5. That dude in the Chuck E. Cheese suit is making me feel very uncomfortable.

    We had a place here called Peter Piper Pizza that had an arcade and ballpit, but no weird animatronics, thankfully. It was my favorite place and I had more than one birthday there. They closed like…I dunno, 12 years ago?

    Wait– Pipe Organ Pizza? That sounds vaguely familiar…

  6. To those who do remember Pipe Organ Pizza, my dad was the cartoonist/caricature artist there at the Pipe Organ Pizza on the South East side of Houston near Edgebrook. He used to dress up like a clown and do drawings for kids. If you happen to find a picture of yourself from years ago and it has the pen mark CHAZ, on it, that’s done by my dad! Thanks for the nostalgia! He also did caricatures at Astroworld for years.

    1. WOW Rachel, I worked with your dad in 1977 at Astroworld, he was one of my best friends then. We used to go fishing in Galveston. Tell him that Lance was looking him up.

  7. Lance, this response is way late… this is in response to your post back in December 11th 2009. You had said you worked with my dad, Chaz Shinn at Astroworld back in 1977, and would often go fishing in Galveston with him. I wanted to let you know I appreciate that you remember him. I am trying to find people who still might have some of his caricature drawings from back then, so I can post them on my facebook account. Sadly, Chaz died about 5 years ago. He was still doing cartooning up until his passing. You can feel free to look me up on Facebook if you like. I am under Rachael Shinn. By the way, in case you don’t live in Houston any longer… they shut down Astroworld, too. Was disappointed I never got to take my kids.

    1. Hi Rachael – I was an old friend of your Dad’s in the early 70’s and was so sad to hear of his passing. He was a very Sweet Man and a great Artist. I will look thru my attic as I’m sure I have some old drawings of his. He did some drawings of my Daughter back then. Would love to hear from you.
      Sabrina Harbo on Facebook
      Take Care !

  8. Yes, I know this is a super old post of yours, but we just watched that Rock-afire Explosion documentary on Saturday. In terms of documentaries, it felt incredibly well-researched and whole. In terms of documentaries with extra cringe, I’d put it up there with King of Kong and Catfish. I could watch separate documentaries on all the characters in Rock-afire Explosion, especially the guy who has the Rock-afire Explosion show at his house. The only question Rock-afire Explosion didn’t answer is how someone decided on that troubling hyphen placement in “Rock-afire”. Ok, enough from me on this THREE year old post of yours… peace out, Pizza.

  9. I think the movie shows what these people have accomplish in their lives. Making a restaurant is a big deal & good money. I think showing one’s accomplishments leaves a mark for others to succeed in life, to go after one’s hopes of achieving something awesome, & their saying to the viewer, ‘Look, I did this, or that. I came from nothing, or I had something, & I made it bigger, better. So can you! A person can do anything good for their future in life.’ There’s things I’d like to accomplish in life before my life is too old.

  10. I’m sure by now you’ve seen the game 5 Nights at Freddy’s. If not, do yourself a favor and look and look up a “Let’s Play” video of it on YouTube. I was never creeped out by animatronics until I saw that game.

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