Chuck E. Cheese’s: saving the band


If you haven’t heard, Chuck E. Cheese’s is phasing out the robotic band in favor of a puppet show and other novelties that cost less money. However, there was a huge fan campaign to save the show and it worked, sort of. The band will remain in what is effectively a test location and will be paired with a side of Pasqually’s otherwise delivery exclusive premium pizza.

The Northridge store

This store is already notable for just how much CEC history managed to survive the various remodels and its reputation precedes it among fans. Based on Chris Bauer’s (no relation) "Sets, Streets, and Eats" YouTube channel, the showroom has been redone in three major eras as a gradient through time, putting the show, a dance floor, and a video wall in a gradient across time. And this is really smart, because while they unfortunately seem to have removed the only remaining back wall in any showroom of the brand (which historically kept the arcade noise out) to accommodate more seating for the lost space, they either will be featuring legacy shows or custom material and it will be easy to see what actually attracts the most attention.

A quick history review

One has to remember that the bots were not always what we know today. Yes, tolerances have gotten tighter on things like eye gaps, but that mattered less when they were higher up and farther back like on older stages, in some stores placed above even parents’ heads in rooms with cathedral ceilings with a literal kid crawl underneath or else effectively walled away by a generous strip of scenery and fencing. Kids needed help to get close enough for the seams to show. Their large size is a hold-over from the distance away that they were kept. You’d never have guessed how big they actually were from any of the tables. The characters were slathered up with heavy details using theatrical makeup techniques for them to be visible at distance. Two rows of sequins were required to appear as only the thinnest glittery pink edge to Helen’s heavy blue eyeshadow; Jasper’s face was covered in thick dark lines to make his wrinkles (since smoothed away) visible. Helen’s head was made massive to compensate her short "hair" of feathers as was intended to modernize her as a woman of the ’80s, with the effect drawing where her face ended and hair began. Even her wings, wattle, and comb were sewn with sequins for that extra bit of glitz and glamor. Everyone had at least one personal spotlight and theatrical gels offered accent and mood lighting. The name on the store was Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre and theater was very much the basis of the design of everything because it had already long worked out all of the issues a stage show needs to solve. All that was left was making the players move. The robotics haven’t changed since 1979 and were likewise a solved issue despite the rudimentary technology. What the old shows really benefited from was much faster, livelier animation, a lot of build-up to hype the audience, and a wall between them and the arcade to keep the noise out. The limited number of movements was less of an issue because so much of it was in motion, with details benefiting from free animation like the old Helen design having a tongue in her larger beak that was allowed to fall gracefully as her mouth flapped or Pasqually’s concertina always wiggling about like a Slinky between his hands as they moved open and closed. Everyone was constantly shifting around in quiet moments and often all but whipping side to side, with complex twists facilitated by the fact that body movement is driven by head movement and internal stops, letting a well-timed head swing get the shoulders moving only to reverse and catch it the other way, the likes of which modern shows simply don’t have the speed for. They knew what they were dealing with and made the most of it, because when everything is standardized, everything is reliable.

The showroom itself was kept cozily lit with alternating pink and yellow lights and was accessible via an entryway on either side of the back wall, making it feel like a place you could relax away from the chaos of the arcade; a place of respite adults often stayed in to let their little troubles run wild elsewhere and itself subtly engineered to discourage running wild. The lights would dim before the show, plunging it into focus as the unforgiving theatrical spots lit the characters in the darkness, supplemented by red, yellow, and blue backlights; red, amber, and green floods; and flattering pink spotlights for most of the cast, blue for Munch, red for auxiliary characters at either side, and special blue and red spots for Chuck that could combine pink or otherwise offer darker variation to keep him from getting completely lost when everyone else was singing due to his own awfulness at anything but talking his way through songs. The content of the shows was aimed much more at adults in the early years, starting quite bawdy, and slowly eased its way toward family entertainment, never quite abandoning the parents with a recurring roster of patriotic hymns and a stream of malapropisms and insults from Chuck as he more or less played the king of his own fools list. The cast were very much adults performing bits for the kids as adults and bits for the parents as the four least competent men in the room and some poor soul praying for an opening to call her agent and/or lawyer. Some other corner of the store might feature a full figure of a cabaret pianist singing jazz and slinging innuendos of which there were three of varying styles, or a small band or towering figure impersonating artists parents were likely to be fans of as lounge acts. These separate shows might play for a coin or otherwise at an offset from the main show. Flags graced the walls of the showroom and got themselves waving at the climax of the big numbers. Things were further supplemented by various animated proper instruments and improvised cookware, The Warblettes (a trio of magpies) as backup singers, and an "applause board" of disembodied animal limbs to clap after a number, inviting the audience to do the same. The whole setup was like a supper club that somehow got everything right except for its low-brow permanent cast pulled straight from the kitchen, a barn, and the dumpster out back. Somehow they still managed to net touring guests from France, Ireland, West Texas, Biloxi, and Broadway without the involvement of a large mallet or dark alley.

And that was ultimately what made it accessible despite its technical prowess, because the endeavor also understood psychology. Pizza was chosen because it was perceived as impossible to screw up (it is VERY possible to screw up) and generally speaking it’s viewed somewhere between high-tier junk and low-tier cuisine. Having a fantastic salad bar elevated the offering to something vaguely resembling health food if you turn your head and squint. That and the showroom atmosphere were intended to grease the way for parents to cave and get the car keys. The show was the draw to facilitate the arcade as the profit center. Even the arcade lights would dim a bit so everyone in the store knew the event was on. The countdown broadcast throughout the store meant that kids had plenty of warning to make it back to the showroom and the show itself played softly throughout the store to entice anyone out of continues back to the free entertainment and purses and wallets of the world, but it was never so loud that it demanded it or rendered the show redundant. There was never a flood through the two entrances because there didn’t have to be. You made an informed decision on whether you were going to see that segment or finish out your game credits. That meant there was at most a small rush for the stragglers. Nobody got trampled.

All of this added up to make the show an experience. The arcade was never the main draw despite originally having been the assumed attraction for the kids, with the show keeping parents entertained. The company had quickly realized the kids loved the show as much as if not more than the adults and it had slowly evolved to better accommodate both.

You can’t really talk about what happened to ruin this all without talking about the money problems. It’s a fascinating topic covered in depth here, which I’ll summarize with my own analysis. After a successful launch, expansion snowballed and an arms race began against the competition, Showbiz Pizza, both exploding with hundreds of locations in only two years, often within view of each other, and with Pizza Time Theatre using a rotating array of guests to differentiate stores in the same town and creating material enough each year for two or three of them for the most part assuming one allowed it to get stale. People blame the Video Game Crash of 1983 for Pizza Time Theatre going bankrupt a year later, but the truth is that it could have stayed afloat if it hadn’t been heavily borrowed against to pursue other interests, and that borrowing didn’t stop when the cash flow slowed. Pizza Time Theatre’s success had been spent out from under it and while the core business was still viable, losses from at best tangentially related endeavors were wedged in its balance sheet. In the end, it was poor business decisions rather than an indifferent market that led to it being bought out by competitor Showbiz Pizza, who was at least still in the black, if barely. Taking on the dead weight nearly sank them both. The story might have ended there in short order had it not been for a businessman visiting various decrepit stores unable to maintain their shows with dismal service from staff who were lucky to be getting paid (something the lenders and landlords would have liked to be in on) and seeing how much the kids still loved it. It takes a special kind of person to look at something crumbling like that and say "I can fix this," but fix it he did. Armed with new leadership who knew it was all worth saving, they slashed the bottom ⅓ or so of stores from an oversaturated market and focused on delivering a quality experience.

After three years in the black, they decided that competing against themselves with two different bands, one of which they didn’t have exclusive claim to and came with ongoing costs, needed to end. The answer was Concept Unification, a remodel now widely speculated to serve the dual purpose of ejecting sources of internal friction and trying to cut costs. They would reskin and rearrange the bots into the cast they owned and, in the process, steal everything else they could that had made the Rock-afire Explosion successful, aging down Helen Henny to snag the young girls who had gravitated to cheerleader Mitzi Mozzarella even as the rest would remain adults at first. They’d experimented before with new costumes and cosmetics to keep things fresh on the cheap; the costumes and cosmetics went out along with a VHS (warning: exposed robotics) and written instructions, with a temporary one-stage show that hid the work behind the curtains during the day.

The only question was how to handle programming bots from a company best described as "Disneyland for hire."

The more advanced bots converted from the Rock-afire Explosion had more movements that had to be programmed much more carefully at their original speed to keep the characters from jostling around and without the experience of the company that made them, the solution was to slow them down by roughly half with lower air pressure. Programming two whole shows was well over twice as expensive as programming the original and so an algorithm was created to translate the more advanced movements into something the less advanced bots could manage, which at least mitigated the increased costs. This naturally meant the original bots had to deal with, if not lower air pressures, then at least less lively movements, too. The end result was two shows that couldn’t perform to the best of their ability, but at least new cosmetics were cheaper than the major construction required to replace one show with another and could be done after hours over the course of a week without losing business. The shows ultimately were good enough to keep patrons happy given all their remaining benefits.

But about the rest

The rest has been slowly whittled away by a combination of corporate and individual managers’ decisions. At various points, in no particular order, corporate sought to completely phase out everyone but Chuck (which went over poorly enough they added everyone else back as video characters), sought to phase out the bots entirely (we are here), removed the curtains from various stages, removed the back walls that shielded the showroom from arcade noise and helped control traffic within the showroom, ditched the warm lighting, stopped the countdowns, dimmed the lights less and less over time until they didn’t dim at all, and phased out or otherwise de-prioritized various minor characters over time. Individual stores also simply turned down the volume and failed to keep the show maintained, often failing to keep minor characters operating first and in many cases failing to keep the main cast moving, even the mouths, which are the one part corporate says 100% must work. There is really nothing more disappointing to a fan than walking in and seeing the band in pitiful condition and to a kid, that’s a nightmare. Or at least no fun. Even on a good day, there’s little that separates the show from background noise because it went from being an event in a warmly-lit room where you could enjoy dinner and a show to an occurrence in a stark fluorescent-lit extension of the adjacent screaming chaos. (And then we wonder why brawls break out when people have a few beers in them.) It was a death of 1000 cuts that ultimately led to top brass several bankruptcies removed from the first declaring that nobody cared about the bots anymore, but honestly, the stores stopped caring first. Of course kids are going to swarm the Chuck suit if it’s the only version of Chuck that moves.

There was of course money in that. You could pay a tech what they’re worth to keep everything running or you could pay a teen minimum wage to get in a suit and move around a bit. The choice to a pencil-pusher is clear: make like a cat, push the glass off the table, and declare it too much of a mess to fix, but do it slowly enough you think nobody will notice it happening.

Well, like a cat, fans noticed, but didn’t have much recourse. It wasn’t until the shows were being phased out entirely that enough banded together to make a proper backlash, which, like the rest of the characters, got enough attention for corporate to notice.

So here we are

With all the other shows being destroyed or maybe smuggled out as much as possible, there will be only one show and its operation. There’s decades of old material for it. The real trick is that if they start doing new material, they will once again have the benefit of one standard show to program for that can take full advantage of the bots’ capabilities, and the burden of that programming will be significantly less than what was required for many years before. Ultimately, the Ottoman bots (which are so named because of being mostly wood, foam, and cloth, plus gloriously standard pool cue balls for the eyes, no, I’m not joking) are not all that hard to maintain or program for, and they’re cheap to produce with off-the-shelf parts that take forever to wear out. That was all very much intentional when they were designed to succeed the more realistic early custom bots for mass production 40+ years ago. There’s really no excuse for this style of bot to ever be in rough shape.

With that much legacy material, it’s easy enough to throw in a showtape that dims the lights and has a countdown to see how people react to it. Without a wall in the way, anyone can see what attracts the most attention from the patrons, and whether age plays a role. This in turn might answer questions on how they might diversify the offering. Bear in mind, they already have recent motions in the direction of premium delivery and a freaking water park. Past endeavors have included an ice cream parlor featuring a barbershop quartet (The Four Little Shavers), a bar with its own mascot (Wolfman Zapp), comics, and cartoons. Never mind cabaret characters as side acts, retired characters like Crusty and the Warblettes, and a regular rotation of guests, of which Helen Henny was the original and ironically the last before money for that ran out. If Bella Bunny is any indication, some desire to keep the cast fresh is still there, which is plenty easy with puppets, but eminently possible with a lone animatronic. Given the multicultural nature of most guests to begin with (Helen was perhaps fortuitously flexible by being themed as "Broadway" rather than ethnic like most of her peers), it would not be difficult to reintroduce any number of esteemed characters back with a fresh take in some form, even if it’s just on a screen.

The bonus is if any of this goes over well, it can be applied to whatever stores might not have had their shows ripped out yet and/or other test locations to see if it’s reproducible. The answer to their financial woes could very well be it was self-inflicted (which for this IP is a day that ends in "Y"). The answer might not be getting rid of all of the bots, just the expensive ones, and getting back to feature parity that lets them use them properly. It could be that the kids really dig the dance floor and the adults really dig the bots and maybe Zapp’s Bar & Grill was the right thing at the wrong time, taking the company more or less straight back to its roots to provide the experience of a chill room with adult entertainment, maybe a bawdy pianist in another room to play for a buck. Maybe kids really do appreciate the bots and only pay attention to Bella B. on the screen and that becomes a literal screen test to let them workshop new characters to serve as guests. Helen could have a whole travelogue as she flies around the world (being a chicken and all) looking for new talent and if anyone tests well maybe they’re the new bot in her position for a bit. Literally all of the guest bots used the same mechanical base for ease of programming anyway. You wouldn’t even need to create a new bot, just strip the cosmetics off the one you have and slap the new ones on overnight; it is literally all held together with Velcro®). Cosmetics are the cheap solution the company has always used to solve its problems; why stop now? Maybe the bots simply don’t get butts in seats despite the backlash and it remains a curiosity. Heck, maybe the adults really like the puppet show for some reason and all the stores get sent hand puppets, I dunno; the point is that you have three strategies in one spot and it’s really easy to see what works in that environment. If it works once and works again in other select locations, maybe it gets rolled out. Same with the premium pizza; if it’s all in the same ovens anyway, why should it only be for delivery? Maybe they just step up their pizza game and charge more or maybe they charge a premium price for it in-store and that just becomes an option. Maybe they start grilling up burgers or serving cornetto and frittata for breakfast. The beauty of a test location is you can try anything!

I guess that’s the point I was trying to make with all this. The company is being smart by setting up a test location whose show is already in pretty good shape with bots that are fast, cheap, and easy to both fabricate and program for. There is literally no option between the three on display all in convenient, easily distinguished regions of one room that isn’t a simple enough proposition. Taking the opportunity to use an already notable location to throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks and make a big deal of it in the process is both good for the fans and just good business sense. Corporate is paying attention now and being smart about it and that’s a good thing.