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

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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:

http://vimeo.com/1286587?pg=embed&sec=1286587 

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.

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Good luck sleeping!