Chuck E. Cheese’s as most of us knew it is no more. Recent news articles have reported that the animatronics in most locations will be removed, a dance floor installed in the main room, and tokens will cease to exist. And while it appears that costumed versions of the character will be around, the singing, blinking, and pivoting robotic characters that have always been a staple of Chuck E. Cheese’s will slowly fade into entertainment yesteryear.
This news made me a bit nostalgic, and it prompted me to write about my favorite memories from Chuck E. Cheese’s/Showbiz Pizza as a kid.
My family and I were frequent guests of Chuck E. Cheese’s/Showbiz Pizza back in the 80s. The car dealership that my dad worked for at the time would have Sunday night pizza parties there when sales when they met their sales goals for the month. And most months were would end up spending Sunday evenings there.
I remember entering the building, the air thick with cigarette smoke – this was the 80s before smoking was banned in public buildings – and the smell of fresh pizza. It was loud, chaotic, and frenzied, and I loved every minute of it.
One of the thrills as a kid was taking a couple bucks from my mom or dad and feeding them into the token machine. One dollar produced five tokens. It was like hitting the kid lottery, and I had come to play!
The arcade area floor was covered in dark green carpet with Chuck E. Cheese’s face plastered all over it. My favorite video game was Tapper, a game where you’re a bartender that has to run back and forth to serve people drinks. If you fail, you either spill the beer on the floor, or get run down the bar and out the door by an unruly patron. I’m sure that game wouldn’t fly for kids today. Here’s a gameplay clip:
But the thing I loved most were the animatronics that performed every fifteen to twenty minutes in the main dining area. At the time I was going through a phase where I was obsessed with puppets, Muppets, and all things puppetry.
And during these peak years as a lover of puppetry, I was fascinated and mesmerized by these animatronic figures that populated Chuck E. Cheese’s/Showbiz Pizza. I was never afraid of them, they never freaked me out; I thought they were really cool.
In the 80s, the characters were up in a wooden balcony. From left to right were Mr. Munch, Jasper T. Jowls, Chuck E. Cheese, Helen Henny, and Pasqually. This was the era with the Warblettes, and the flags around the perimeter of the main room that waved when the show got to its finale.
And, I cannot forget to mention The King, a giant lion who sang Elvis songs in the lounge area of the restaurant. I remember sitting on these black metal stools that bobbed up and down as he performed.
The clip below is from one of the summer shows of 1988. I remember this as if it were yesterday!
I watched them in awe. Loving the shows. Wondering exactly how they moved and operated. And one day, I finally found out.
It was a weekday afternoon during a summer in the late 80s, and I decided that I wanted to find out how the characters worked. I think I remember asking my mom if I could ask someone to show me, and she said okay. I found a woman – who was probably 18 at the time – and asked her.
Next thing I knew, 8-year-old me was being taken to a door next to the stage. Inside was a wall-size computer with a reel-to-reel set-up. A folding metal chair was in front of the console. The woman showed me how they loaded the shows and told me that the characters were operated by compressed air. Just seeing this technology – even if it was 80s tech – I was even more excited to learn how these characters came to life.
And back then I also knew I was one of only a handful of kids who probably knew how it all worked!
As my love of puppets faded over time and our visits to Chuck E. Cheese’s became less frequent, I still remembered that day and those fun times we had there. And while I know from YouTube videos and news articles that the place has evolved and changed both in its aesthetic and in how the characters are designed, I will never forget the smoky pizza place where I learned how the animatronic magic happens.
What are your childhood memories from Chuck E. Cheese’s/Showbiz Pizza? Leave a comment and let me know!