Robotic Entertainment: The End of an Era

In case you weren’t aware, Chuck E. Cheese’s is phasing out the remainder of their robotic performers. By the end of this year (2023), all stages will be ripped out, all bots completely destroyed beyond recognition per corporate policy. It’s taken a long time to reach this point and the story of how we got here is complex, but the real reason is these shows are expensive to maintain and CEC is not in a great financial position and hasn’t been for a while.

Rather than re-hash that history, which Wikipedia is probably sufficient for without being too depressing, I want to talk as an oldbie about where these shows came from, what they used to be like, and dispel some misconceptions about them in the era of Five Nights at Freddy’s having poisoned basically everything about them with YouTube putting its focus on decrepit bots and fake overnight videos. Seriously, YouTube still HAS quality content, but has largely buried it to the casual observer, and so little of these shows were actually filmed back in the day that there’s a whole fandom dedicated to piecing together materials, salvaging whatever might be left, and taking on the task of preservation when destruction is corporate policy.

Step into the time machine with me to understand where this all started and where it went from there.

Pizza Time Theater

The original Chuck E. Cheese crew was a far cry from what kids today are familiar with. Curious diners were treated to adult-oriented entertainment from Chuck, Jasper, Pasqually, Crusty, and The Warblettes. No, none of that is made up. They didn’t even have their first guest star installed when the first showtape was produced, though Helen Henny would join the crew on the second.

These original bots were much more realistic in certain ways, made of latex and faux fur, with unique animations for every bot. Chuck’s derby hat could spin, for one. All of them were mounted in picture frames around the ceiling of the original store for 360° entertainment. There was a board of various disembodied animal limbs that would clap, a bunch of noisemakers like pots and pans and even real instruments that would play themselves. The Warblettes, a trio of magpies, hung on a central platform to sing backup and even had speaking parts, though because all of their mouths shared a single signal, they spoke a bit like a hivemind. Each bot had its own dedicated on-board computer and shows would actually demand that Jasper in particlar be turned off by a staff member, because they were unabashedly robots on top of their bawdy humor. The show was for the parents; the kids were expected to spend quarters in the arcade for entertainment, because this whole endeavor was by Atari. Yes, that Atari. No, not today’s Atari, I mean the Atari that one is wearing the skin of. The REAL Atari that actually made hardware and poor decisions that would come back to haunt the concept later (ooh, foreshadowing…).

Anyway, the shows didn’t even feature Mr. Munch until the second store, which also added Dolli Dimples as a cabaret/lounge act. Back when I was a wee tot, Dolli was still on the signage of at least one major store despite the bot not being installed, and she was pretty much the core female cast member for many years as a saucy hippo taking quarters or tokens to kick off shows where she’d sing and play the piano as a full figure. Pasqually doubled as a singer and pizza chef who was put behind a pair of swinging doors he’d pop out from to call out the orders, conveniently placed above the kitchen. Jasper was the "simple" country bumpkin who ended up pining over the female guests, especially any of a canine persuasion, of which there ended up being a couple. Crusty was Chuck’s straight man in the sketches. If you’ve never heard of Crusty, you can be easily forgiven; he was a cat character who never made it to the second store, where Munch was introduced with a set of doors like Pasqually. While his voice would survive for years into future showtapes, his similar accent meant the lines were reassigned to Chuck. The reasons for his replacement supposedly had to do with an underestimation of his appeal, but probably also had a lot to do with the actor being so universally disliked by everyone around him that nobody who worked with him can even remember his name, ironically because he was convinced he was Hollywood material. Somehow I don’t think that panned out. Crusty was, however, referenced in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shout-out as a sports team owner in an anniversary song, so maybe playing second fiddle in musical theater was just holding him back. Regardless, Chuck found himself surrounded by a crew he referred to as "nitwits" as a practice, though his own stumbling over lines though the potholes of malapropisms as he tried to keep control of the crew didn’t place him much higher on the fools list he had such a low tolerance for. That certainly didn’t hold back his sense of superiority or stream of insults, but making him the king of the clowns rather than the leader of the circus put him a bit closer to the necessary position of Kermit than one might otherwise expect. (Bear in mind Kermit’s quote, "Me? Sane? I hired all of them!")

You may have noticed I mentioned "guests" a few times up there. Yes, Helen Henny was the first to join the crew, but not the last. There’s information on various other guest characters, but they were largely a way of differentiating a store from the one across town and allowed for various shows with different musical genres and a little foreign flavor. All of the ones that ended up installed were women and vocalists, though a male guest, DJ Dux, the duck DJ, had a couple versions produced and was used for testing with the Dr. Dux diagnostic tape, but despite multiple attempts to make him happen, he never gelled into something for full production. Helen Henny was the first guest, ended up as a cabaret character after departing that position, and experienced an extended absence that saw her in need of a redesign upon her eventual return. Madame Oink got quite a bit of spotlight as a Frenchwoman whose music focused a lot on travel and romance. Foxy Colleen brought an Irish brogue and traditional music and Jasper was positively head-over-heels for her, but, uh, she ended up breaking it to him that she was already married despite flirting back and forth with him. Ouch. Only took her three showtapes. Luckily, Harmony Howlette was a coyote and fellow country singer as a rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl who was not similarly attached and proved immensely popular. Rounding out the produced female guests was Sally Sashay, a disco-singing, clapback-slinging skunk who probably would have been a regular feature if her first and only appearance hadn’t been in the latter half of 1979 and into 1980. In all fairness, I could make a snarky comment about mistakes, but the showtapes took time to produce and it’s likely that the tape itself was actually in production since the previous one had been released in May and there was a lot of calculus on sunk costs and whether a single tape could last a year and they made a difficult decision. Regardless, the realization of what could have been the icon of the decade ended up coming at the most unfortunate time it could have. Being the right thing at the wrong time is the absolute worst thing you can be in the entertainment industry.

My own experience

That all was a bit before my time and by the time I came around, the show had been consolidated to a single line of bots in the showroom with a cabaret installment. The lineup had been, for better or worse, standardized. The show had been toned down considerably for children after the Pizza Time Theater heads, having dogfooded their own product for their own demanding kids, came to realize that the very adult-oriented Dolli was constantly surrounded by children. Other cabaret characters would be produced, including the jazzy Artie Antlers and circus-themed B.B. Bubbles, both of whom were more family-friendly, and Dolli’s own flirtatious persona would be toned down in later showtapes. Other acts forewent the piano player setup entirely, with The Four Little Shavers (a barbershop quartet) gracing test locations of an ice cream parlor as an additional food offering, and The Beagles and The Beach Bowsers rounding out your dog-based parody bands, all of whom used the Warblette stock base with some enhacements to make them all individually movable and let them play some instruments. The King was different from all of them, being an Elvis impersonator standing 9 feet tall, and he’s the one I first met as a wee tyke, standing as he was in a fenced area with its own back wall more or less just outside the main dining and showroom.

To talk about what the bots were like then, not different from the larger bots today. These are deemed "Ottoman" bots because their frames are largely cheap and lightweight wood and their various latex parts were replaced with cloth, rendering their construction not unlike Ottoman furniture.

If you were toddler me and walked into my local store at the time, you would have been greeted with a very different experience than today. All of the performers were adults; Helen Henny unrecognizable from her modern incarnation as a Broadway star in a red sequin dress, feather boa matching her feathery hair, heavy eyeshadow, and constantly clucking, while Jasper was equally heavy on dog sounds. The Warblettes had been updated to match Helen with a redesign from black birds to white ones wearing pink, yellow, and sky blue, each of them sporting a rainbow clown wig, the trio standing together and rocking to dance a bit. Helen had already by that point, in a twist of fate, become a permanent cast member simply because she was the last guest to be installed when the bottom fell out of the market with the Video Game Crash of 1983 and guest characters became too costly to continue producing and recording new material for. First in the door back in the day and ended up pulling the ladder up behind her. By this point she’d been installed everywhere for years and there was no indication left that it wasn’t permanent, despite posters featuring other guests still littering the walls, including a concentration near the bathrooms for some reason. If things had played out differently, it might have been Madame Oink instead, who had had a generous run of showtapes and had been installed previously for roughly a year. If things had played out based on sheer popularity, Harmony Howlette would probably have been widely preferred. Regardless, the design work for Broadway Helen Henny had been put in and so had the bots when all was said and done. Pizza Time Theater had filed for bankruptcy in 1984 and merged with Showbiz Pizza into Showbiz Pizza Time, leaving the combined company still very much hurting and in no way prepared to do much experimentation as they tried to prop up a failed business with a bruised, but standing one. Helen Henny was perhaps fortuitous in that she happened to be the only one of the guests who didn’t have some sort of ethnic background to worry about coloring the available choices of music. Sally Sashay was Black and could have worked with an overhaul to simply make her a pop star instead of disco specifically if she’d been anywhere near a store in years; all the others were rather specific in their origins, being Irish, French, and a cowgirl. Helen Henny, ultimately, was "Broadway," which is no one genre, affording her flexibility that probably made the decision to leave her in place an easy one.

Dolli was nowhere in sight except the signage. Other stores probably had a variety of cabaret characters. In my store, The King would rock out, singing, tapping his foot, strumming, sliding up the neck of his guitar, and generally being pretty impressive. He was lifelike in ways the main show wasn’t. His legs and tail formed a tripod that provided a steady base for the relatively light wooden bot on top to safely tilt over in all directions. The animation wasn’t necessarily lifelike, but it was dynamic, and he stood at a staggering 9 feet tall, towering over every adult in the room and drawing awe from my tiny self. I have pictures of myself on Dad’s shoulders in front of him. As a cabaret character, he didn’t so much have a dedicated seating space as originally intended as was placed against a dividing wall away from the rest of the show and rather than a coin-op, his performances were just timed out of sync with the main show’s. His movements may not be much by modern standards, but you have to realize that at the time, there really wasn’t anything else like him (shh… we’ll get to why that’s a lie in a bit). I considered him every bit as worth rushing to see perform as the main show and would often rush directly from his performance to the main showroom. Sometimes I would simply wait for him to wake up again, the conceit of the cabaret characters being that they were taking a nap between performances since they were designed to simply go dead to wait for the next quarter or token rather than perform at regular intervals as he ended up doing. When changes happened and he was removed, I won’t say I was devastated, but at the time, my life dream was to own a Chuck E. Cheese and, without knowing how franchising worked, I was convinced that I could basically do it however I wanted and that I would simply bring him back along with The Warblettes, who were removed at the same time. Historically, there were still showtapes being made for him for another 5 years, but as Mom put it, he was already old and not in the greatest condition by the time I came around. The one in my store didn’t have a working lean for whatever reason, and pictures show him with an exposed neck joint. I’m sure if the lean was already broken that many of his other movements, such as the wiggling of his ears, raising his guitar neck, and whatever else I don’t even know about that made him one of the most impressive animatronics of the day probably weren’t working, either. I think, honestly, if he’d been in full working order, I would have liked him far better than the main show, but even as he was, he will always have a special place in my heart.

The main showroom was of course the dining area and had the five primary characters all lined up on a balcony with The Warblettes off to the left if you were facing the show, the instruments and clapping limbs on the other side, and a crawl space under the show that ended in a short slide. By this point, Munch and Pasqually’s doors had been done away with as a design decision, both of them being in play at all times despite being slightly separated from the others in the wings on either side. How this was done depended on the remodel, but my store had curtains before the tunnel beneath was eventually boarded up with a change to a house-like façade, which apparently came from the top due to issues with spaces therein being used for teens to make out nationwide without easy parental access. With that, The Warblettes were likewise hidden away or removed, replaced by boxes of singing flowers in the windowsills that used the same signals. The signals for the doors were probably still being programmed at that time even without any there for backwards compatibility. For that matter, the signal to dim the lights was assigned as a "movement" on the guest character’s board, and therefore Helen’s to this day in the reel tape setups. If you ever wanted to know who had the most power in the show, for many years it was Helen, not Chuck. Mechanical flags lined the walls to wave whenever there was a birthday or something patriotic going on, which was true of every showtape as they recycled segments, but by this point the various real flags from earlier stores had been replaced with logo ones. You knew it was a big number when they started waving. The lighting above was warm, alternating flesh pink and canary yellow, but when the show started, the room was plunged into darkness to give the show absolute focus. There were announcements before them to entice everyone back into the showroom. Everyone of course had their own personal spotlight, but Chuck was unique in having a chocolate or rose one so he wasn’t completely lost when everyone else was singing because Chuck didn’t sing. He certainly slung insults, but singing wasn’t his gig. I’ve gotten the general impression that rose was somehow more common, but my memory indicates the store had chocolate installed, giving him a warm, but dim place in the center of the others when the limitations of his actor couldn’t be overcome for a song. This became especially important when they first introduced "LIVE" shows where a separate light would illuminate the floor below the stage while the Chuck bot would remain in the inky darkness "asleep" with its eyes closed and not moving, much like the cabaret characters. They may not have had the most complicated lighting setup, but they certainly had an effective one. The order of the characters was different than what one would expect to see today, with Chuck in the center as the emcee, Jasper to his right or the left as an audience member, Munch beyond that, and Helen and Pasqually to Chuck’s other side.

The thing you have to understand about this show is that while it had limited animation, what it did with that animation ensured it was certainly animated. These bots moved fast, whipping from side to side if Chuck was addressing the audience, speaking at a rapid pace, and making the most of their limited movements to offer a variety of speeds to keep things interesting. You got the impression that everyone was well-choreographed, with random movements keeping the sense of life up between shows and all of them eventually, and not in sync, returning to the initial position mandated by the next segment, because there was nothing truly random about their movements; it all was on a physical tape reel that ran long and was probably rewound at an opportune time like during a birthday show or maybe if the random movements was its own reel simply reused for everything, which would have offered a generous 8 minutes to rewind the main reel and then turn over control to the main reel to use the power of air and physical stops to position the characters for the next segment regardless of what state they were in, because you don’t damage pneumatic cylinders like you do motors trying to make them go past their hard limits as long as you’re gentle about it, and if memory serves, they were very much gentle about it. Another reel was used specifically for the birthday shows intended for the installed guest character. The downtime of the random movements allowed the pump somewhere in the staff areas to refill the compressed air tank by demanding less of it in between the big segments.

Fundamentally, these bots were not lifelike, but they were definitely lively and had smoother motions than you’d expect. It’s not like today where everything has been slowed way down to meet the least common denominator of every different type of installation.

Something else the FNAF generation needs to understand is that while tolerances on the bots weren’t quite as tight as they are even with the ones left in stores, they were never so bad that it was obvious from a normal viewing distance. Yes, there were small gaps around the eyes, but it was never anything you could see through or would really even notice unless a parent hefted you up on their shoulders to get a really close look. Everything was larger than life, but much of this was because it was all very far away from the small kids running around. The way Jasper was painted to indicate wrinkles was rooted in theatrical makeup, with heavy lines for visibility. It wasn’t intended to be seen up close. And it wasn’t designed in a way that normal circumstances would allow it. All of this was literal feet above the adults’ heads; the kids had zero chance of seeing it unless lifted. The entire building was nothing but vaulted ceilings just to have room for all this stuff. When you’re offering musical theater, "theater" is the key word here. They used every theatrical trick they could to make it all work, with things like a slot in the black void of Munch’s mouth for his teeth to fall into to the way Helen Henny’s tongue was attached to the top rather than bottom of her mouth for some free animation as it fell or partially fell between mouth flaps to make her speech look more realistic. The amount of stuff you didn’t actually see worked exactly as intended. This stuff was like magic. And the entire showroom itself was designed so you were always too far away to see the seams of how it all worked.

Across town, another location had a completely different theme, with a green carpet acting as a lawn of sorts to a house where Chuck stood in full figure in front of the front door, Jasper sitting in a rocking chair with his banjo to one side, Helen on a porch swing to the other. Munch and Pasqually were visible through latticed windows (no actual glass) on the sides. The Warblettes were nowhere to be found, replaced instead with singing flowers in flower boxes on the windows. A short fence acted as a barrier between the show and the audience because back in the day, kids knew better than to climb up on stage even if there wasn’t a freaking border wall preventing it. The original concept used a small garden as a space buffer instead because kids also knew better than to tromp around a freaking garden. It was overall a pleasant setup that was nice enough with my only question being how they were supposed to get in and out without any visible gate, but also didn’t keep teens and their longer arms from poking at it. I have distinct memories of them reaching through the window to poke at Pasqually and outright starting to swing Helen before staff intervened. Helen in particular stuck with me because her mouth opened as if to silently protest. Oddly enough, this Helen was far less fancy in many stores, wearing a more rustic red dress than her sequined stage version, and lacked most of the movements of the others or even other Helen bots, lacking any arm movement or twist at the waist because of her hands holding the swing chains. Some apparently didn’t even have the head nod to avoid introducing too much swing motion. Helen’s head was always strangely large and hard to hold up compared to the others, which always felt like they’d had to make compromises in her design to help make her face look smaller for aesthetic reasons. I thought the show was cool, but it lacked a cabaret or really the space for one, and I remember it feeling smaller and just not as good, though not having The King probably contributed to that. As a child, I didn’t think about how difficult it must have been to hide the air lines in the swing set itself and route them through Helen’s arms and probably butt; the fact her feet didn’t touch the ground always made me wonder how she was "plugged in" (Mom probably didn’t know they were pneumatic, so I learned about robots in the form of electrical motors, gears, and pulleys, which ironically is far more mechanically complicated than the bots actually were).

The show, though, was held in reverence wherever you went. Some key features of the presentation included a back wall that isolated the showroom from the noise of the arcade, an 8-minute countdown to the next show between every show to build anticipation, and the lights dimming down low, and when I say "low" I mean "probably skirting legal safety standards." Or at least "low like you’re in a theater," because let’s not forget that it was "Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater." They knew what they were doing. It was presented like live entertainment at a fancy club that had lowered its standards to gathering its food and talent from the containers out back. That was the point; it brought high-brow aesthetics to a low-brow audience. The game room also dimmed, but less. The focus put on the show was heavy because they knew it was the primary thing keeping them out of being debated on the merits of the food, which for the record, I always liked, but my mom didn’t, saying it was just plain bad and greasy. If they’d been in direct competition with major pizza players, they might have out-competed Papa John’s on a good day if her opinion is any indication, so it was distinctly in their best interests to pull a modern Nintendo and say, "well, yes, technically we are exactly that, BUT, we can’t be judged by the same standards because we have a shiny!" The gimmick is what sold the store and the arcade was what drove profits, which is why the death of arcades overall hammered the concept so hard. What, you didn’t think they were relying on the food, did you? Arcades mostly lived and died on rented cabinets; if a game didn’t pay its own rental cost, they wouldn’t renew the contract. I have no idea whether the games were rented by that point, but it certainly wasn’t like when they were fully provided by Atari as the parent company. That ship had long sailed. Regardless, buying a cabinet wasn’t free, either, and maintenance on them when absolutely necessary still required parts and a qualified tech, even if that didn’t require a Harvard education. The food was probably self-sustaining, but the show had to pull the balancing act of cost center and intangibles, because it’s not like they sold tickets for the entertainment. The bots still required regular maintenance and even with it weren’t above breaking down more than once even in my limited memory. A tech would be up there with a ladder and a can of WD-40 if someone’s eyes weren’t working right and in some cases some surgery had to be done and the whole head got cracked open with the tech using his body to hide it as best he could. He didn’t always get it all the way closed again if he had to vacate for a show to start, but it at least held together until he was back on the ladder. Sometimes surgery was necessary during business hours because the mouths broke and they are the one moving part that corporate has always specified must be in operation as essential to ensuring some semblance of life in the bots. The mouth gets fixed first, no questions. If it broke during business hours, it did not wait until closing.

When you talk about the bots, nobody thought they were real. Everyone knew they were bots; it wasn’t exactly a secret, especially not with them parading that fact around in earlier skits. It wasn’t much more of a secret with "Chuck E. LIVE" shows where whatever teen they threw in the costume that day got in front of the Chuck bot and did whatever dance the show called for, because that was all closely choreographed and yes, the staff had to make sure all the kids were out of the way beforehand, with ample warning to make sure kids weren’t trampled, which unfortunately was a thing that happened more than once because when you’re in a suit with exactly 10° of visibility in the blinding light of a special high-powered spot for the purpose that’s more or less your only indication that you’re in position and you start performing those steps in time with the music, you do not know there’s a problem until you hear something snap. The screams are just confirmation. Yeah, kids did NOT get to go up there and dance along.

When the performer wasn’t doing steps he knew weren’t supposed to carry him into solid objects just praying he didn’t end up with a surprise, he was being led around with a lady on each arm. No, I’m not even joking; visibility was so poor that it was common for a couple of the girls (for some reason it was always girls) to be no less than 10 feet away from him and often within arm’s reach because that simplified company policy, which was that all staff had to be constantly watching for the "time out" sign so they could rush over and answer questions. Chuck couldn’t actually talk in suit, so to preserve the magic of the "real" Chuck wandering around wherever, there were very specific rules for how staff had to rush in and rescue him from a variety of situations, which, to my knowledge, more or less has not changed since then. Unless the Chuck had to be there for a "LIVE" show, he at most made his way around the open areas of the store (never the arcade) like he was wading through a sea of cats or straight-up shuffling if he was really nervous.

The parody posters depicted the cast as the stars of popular media like Crocodile Dundee when America’s infatuation with Australia was at a fever pitch, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever, and more I’m sure I’m forgetting, all geared to the adult audience. Likewise, the cabaret act or acts (some stores were blessed with 2, but probably not more than that), were geared toward adult entertainment until 1984 when they desperately tried to solve their insolvency with a quick King retrofit to King Kat and licensed Michael Jackson tracks as a band-aid when what they really needed was a tourniquet.

But about the other guys…

Chuck E. Cheese’s had a direct competitor in Showbiz Pizza, which simply had more to work with. More lighting, better robots, a larger cast, and a flexible 3-stage setup that had a perfectly functional main band on the larger center stage and skit-ready characters on the wing stages, all of whom could interact across them when needed, but otherwise didn’t need to be in the same show together.

That green carpet I mentioned just before? That was left from a Showbiz Pizza whose location was bought out, which sources guess happened around the time I was being brought to these places as a tot. As such, my initial memories of Showbiz Pizza are hazy and rather brief because I probably only went there once or twice. My parents both remembered it, but it wasn’t until much later doing research online that I was able to connect the two locations by that green carpet to understand where the heck I had seen this magical place, because my parents had, rather obliviously and unhelpfully, both reacted with an, "oh, yeah, that’s the place where they changed all the robots!" Neither of them had ever seen fit to volunteer the detail that it was at the location I always begged to go to instead of their preferred restaurant on that side of town. My more easily remembered experiences with it were where my cousins lived, and ironically I didn’t get to enjoy that more than once or twice before Concept Unification made that into a Chuck E. Cheese’s. But at least that time they actually kept the robots, just redeco’d. The local one had been redone completely without salvaging the bots in the same way for whatever reason, even though at the time both stores were being run in parallel. It’s entirely possible it was done as a test to see if it was worth repeating, but ultimately, a smoother transition won out, probably because it meant the show could operate in some capacity during the conversion rather than probably having to close the store for major construction. Also cosmetics are much cheaper to produce than a whole new show with its own completely different air and wiring setup. Money was not growing on trees at the time.

The Rock-afire Explosion was simply a much better technical offering, with custom movements for every bot rather than semi-standard ones that let the programmers optimize the performance for each character and even allowed characters to interact with things like the rare shoulder tap. Various bits of free animation were gleaned from springs in the wrists of the guitarists’ strumming hands and a drunken character who poked his head out of a barrel with a characteristic sway. The technical quality of the show was the best you were going to find outside of a Disney park. The show itself was an auteurial one with timely political commentary and many experiments that didn’t pan out, but for all its flaws, it had soul.

The main band consisted of Fatz on keyboard, Dook on drums, Beach Bear on guitar, Mitzy as the female vocalist and cheerleader, and a couple other more minor characters in Choo-Choo who’d bounce to the music, Antioch the Birthday Spider who’d drop from the ceiling, and the sun and moon as they rose over the trees of the forest in the background. The moon also could serve as an announcer and continued to do so even after the two rival brands merged, with the moon surviving surprisingly without modification. The sun and moon could only rise and fall and open their mouths, but they sang backup and participated in skits and were just a bit more than what one would consider a prop.

To the left of that stage were Rolfe and Earl, a wolf and his vaguely humanoid hand puppet who had an apparent life of his own. Earlier in the show’s tenure, Rolfe held a drumstick in his other hand to hit a cymbal with to punctuate his bad jokes, but both were later removed, only to be replaced with a wand when they were converted into a Chuck, with Earl’s mouth and eyebrow flaps simply removed. Rolfe was something of the villain of the show, constantly antagonistic to the others as a poor reflection of the perceived shortcomings of the upper management who controlled the money in the partnership with the makers of the show. Earl in contrast usually found ways to take him down a few pegs despite being ostensibly an unliving puppet, as much as many, many indications pointed to him being more than that, such as their collective ability to sing at the same time and various skits. On the opposite wing stage were Billy Bob and Looney Bird, respectively a good-hearted country bumpkin who distilled clean-burning ethanol for the patrons of his service station and his best friend who preferred drinking it. It’s nothing that would fly today, but there was what counted for a message about sustainability in there somewhere and Billy Bob provided a second guitar when it was needed, particularly for acoustic parts due to its rough-spun appearance, but it had the Birthday Bird pirched on it for a little free animation as a bobblehead.

When it comes to the quality of the bots, they were gifted with, while not a full range of motion, various leans, head tilts, nods, and waist twists as well as fairly advanced arm movement for the most part that meant Dook was able to physically play his drum set despite its limited offerings and the guitarists could both strum and hit various lengths of their guitars, raising the neck at times. Beach Bear as a seated character could kick his legs; Dook’s were dedicated to his bass kick and hi-hat pedals. Their initial appearances featured some incredibly heavy brows and makeup jobs, but later revisions softened these features and the latex face masks and tight tolerances allowed for some clever free animation to let eyes widening translate into physical brow raises. Especial care was used in the materials to offer a lot of faux fur and latex skin and even shiny gold and silver cloth for the outfits. Mitzy had pom-poms and a blonde wig. Characters in some revisions had tongues that stuck out when their mouths were open to wiggle as a sort of emphasis of a long note.

Not only were the characters the most advanced you’d find outside of a Disney park, but the lighting was superb, giving each character of course their own individual spot, but also a peewee spot for Beach Bear’s guitar for solos and a wider spot that Rolfe and Earl shared, plus an array of colored floods and an array of colored bulbs and a strobe in Fatz’s keyboard, along with lights and a strobe in their logo behind him, and various lights in the service station. Like at Chuck E. Cheese’s, the lights in the dining area dimmed to give focus to the show and the show didn’t skimp on spectacle. The whole show was controlled half and half by two computer boxes, but more importantly, those two boxes controlled not only the advanced lighting and animation, but also curtains, which meant the time between shows didn’t need to be filled with random movements and the air pump could operate between shows without any air needing to be used on a constant semblance of life. The curtains could also be used in conjunction with the lights behind them to show things moving behind them at least vaguely and were thin enough that one could see through a bit using one of the powerful spots, which meant the moon (or sun, nothing was stopping it) could pull announcer duty.

Not to be outdone in the heat of economic instability, they actually sought to ADD various characters, testing a Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo stage using Rolfe and Looney Bird as bases, having a statue of liberty with Rolfe as a base, and even reaching an agreement with Paul McCartney to use his likeness in an effort that never ended up realized, though the face mold was used for the Private Paul military testing robot. What did reach a wider audience was Uncle Klunk and by extension Santa Claus, an incredibly advanced animatronic that needed its own whole controller box and could pick up and set down a phone and banana from a fruit basket. This humanoid member of the cast came with his own drop-down sign hidden by an extended valence that required a new wooden strip on the ceiling, forever marking stores he visited, and had things like ear movement, a foot wiggle for his crossed leg, and otherwise lifelike movements that allowed him to do things that entertainment robots simply weren’t doing at the time, even at Disney. Klunk, naturally, replaced Rolfe and Earl as the least popular characters of the show for obvious reasons and a later Santa redeco brought a friendlier, less intentionally uncanny character to the stage. The idea was to move the bots around to drive interest to individual locations, but it failed to do so. While the bot was excellent, the show itself never really got a chance to gel and economics made it the first thing to be cut when immediate returns failed to materialize.

Once Pizza Time Theater hit bankruptcy and was bought out by Showbiz to become Showbiz Pizza Time, the decision was made to unify branding and the maker of the Rock-afire Explosion had long been a source of disagreements and generally had not made himself popular leading up to the merger, which he didn’t want on grounds that Showbiz was still above water and positioned for market domination. While nothing’s officially been stated, the terms they offered him weren’t so much terms as a middle finger essentially anyone would have refused and he predictably tapped out, with contractual allowances to take his show to competing enterprises, notably Pistol Pete’s, a chain that, while promising for a few shining moments, doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. The show was converted to Chuck E. Cheese characters, with Fatz becoming Munch, Dook becoming Pasqually, Rolfe becoming Chuck, Mitzy becoming Helen, Beach Bear becoming Jasper, and Billy Bob and Earl becoming scrap. The moon stayed the same, while the sun was converted to a skyscraper and Looney Bird became the Pizzacam, the trio continuing to sing backup and in the moon’s case still pulling announcer duty. Choo-Choo was either removed or converted to Munch Jr. Klunk was redeco’d in various ways and thrown in the game room for various purposes. But while not all aspects of the show survived, some very important ones did, including the benefits of the lighting and the ostensible flexibility of the setup, though to say it started as a gimmick and quickly went largely underutilized is generous given there are very few cases when you want your band without its drummer or your show without its mascot, barring "LIVE" shows, for which the idea was good enough that the 2-stage setup was eventually formulated to actually hide the Chuck bot and the 1-stage with a rotating platform to both hide the bot and give the performer a literal jumping-off point actually added in some really creative magic, though probably also a spike in liability insurance rates because, I reiterate, visibility in those suits is not good and those stages are raised like 2½ feet, plenty to twist an ankle if you land it wrong. Like I’m sorry, but I have had a long time to think about the logistics of these things.

What people see today

Unfortunately, the Rock-afire bots, as much as they survived as Chuck E. Cheese characters, lost their lifelike latex masks in favor of hard plastic ones with some nasty gaps. While Studio C brought new, more modern Chuck bots to kids, they’re very cartoonish and later revisions reduced their movements, drastically cutting into their ability to be lifelike.

The Ottoman bots have tight tolerances, and were largely converted to full figures, but Concept Unification changed their positions and little else, ultimately setting them up to fail when compared to the Rock-afire bots that set their tone and general instrument aesthetics. Many movements even on the more advanced bots simply stopped being programmed.

The bots move much slower than either show did before Concept Unification in part because the Rock-afire bots were saved from awkwardly shaking on their not entirely stable narrow bases through good programming to ensure they stayed balanced through their motions and that level of programming must be done very carefully and thus takes a LOT of time, where slowing them down by turning down the air pressure at the source offers a solution with the literal turn of a dial. And then those more complex signals are run through a digital chainsaw gauntlet to translate them into something the less articulated bots can understand, so they naturally have to move slower, too, just from the starting point of the original material. And don’t fool yourself into thinking the newer Chuck bots got special programming; they just served as the newer starting point and a similar conversion was run to get to the Rock-afire Chuck, so the Ottoman Chuck bots ended up getting something twice removed from the original intent.

When the execs talk about how people stopped paying attention to the show ages ago, you have to put it in the context of the death of 1000 cuts the shows experienced, with the loss of curtains to hide the characters in many cases making it obvious when the bots went dead after a performance, the lack of dimming the lights, the lack of warning, the baffling removals of all the back walls letting arcade noise into main dining, and managers outright cranking the show volume down, the shows lost all of their spectacle. And even in that context, the show didn’t actually stop drawing attention as claimed. Maybe not as much attention as it used to, but certainly not zero, and, frankly, with so many of them in disrepair, parts often being cannibalized from other stores who switched their shows out, and corporate giving stores the cold shoulder, well, without even any volume to hear it, what did anyone expect? I know the older shows are antiquated, but the Studio C bots, while impressive, were not positioned the same way to deliver the same kind of experience, often tucked in a corner and given little in the way of lighting rather than centered as the primary draw of a dedicated room for musical theater. This is very much the Disney style of cutting all four ropes holding a piano and then going, "Oh, no, the piano fell just like we wanted it to, guess that means nobody wants a piano in the upper floor anymore!" See also the Republicans and the US postal service. What didn’t get systematically gutted was the walkaround suits and kids continued to mob whatever poor teen was in costume the way they always have because that was always presented as the "real" Chuck and an exec surveying their purchase saw that and, having obviously not visited their own restaurant before then because some people were never young, somehow came to the conclusion it was something new and worth pursuing. Ultimately, they ripped out a few stages as a test and numbers didn’t drop from it somehow, or at least not catastrophically, or maybe people were just curious enough to see what they were doing that numbers might have even spiked a bit, so they declared it "tested well" and began making plans to remove all the shows because if the shows weren’t the thing keeping families coming, they were a cost center with no benefit. Obviously studies lasting a few months have no way of predicting long-term effects, but a) when have execs ever been concerned with long-term effects and b) Chuck E. Cheese is once again flailing after a leveraged buyout failed to pay back the loans, COVID lockdowns, another bankruptcy from the combination of the two, another buyout, and just a combination of various poor decisions and unfortunate events that’s been the soup it’s been swimming in for years, and it has never not been an especially chunky soup. Anything that looks like it’s going to add a bit more liquidity into what’s quickly congealing into a pot pie filling again is going to look like it’s worth a shot. Whether it will be sustainable long-term or contribute to a more subtle decline, we’ll see. The concept has never been without robots; if daytime-TV-grade puppet shows are enough to keep the kids happy, it will certainly make investors happy to eliminate a ton of expensive maintenance. Although can I just really just say the puppets are incredibly creepy specifically because of exactly that style of puppeteering without an iota of the expression those other puppets benefit from? I’m not even joking, the puppets on TV at least have eye blinks for the most part and the ones that don’t almost never spend extended periods staring dead-eyed directly at the viewer. You know what? I take that back; daytime TV puppetry is collectively insulted by the comparison. This is the same vibes I get when Nintendo gets cute making horrifying presentation segments with uncanny puppets of its management (if I’m not sleeping tonight, neither are you!). This is total amateur hour stuff, less lifelike than the generally accepted bare minimum. If anything was indication that the Chuck E. Cheese I knew was dead and gone, it’s waving his corpse around pretending everything is fine, which is pretty much exactly how this feels to watch.

Wow, that got dark! Maybe PG dark. I’ll have to think about it before I immediately slap this with another PG-13 warning so soon after the last one.


But the unfortunate thing is this is all coming during a period of renewed interest from older fans. Maybe by way of Five Nights at Freddy’s, but also because of Aaron Fechter making new material for The Rock-afire Explosion and older fans simply reaching middle age and looking back at their childhoods. Those same older fans are spearheading preservation efforts and various efforts are cropping up as ongoing projects over time. Much like Baby Boomers have collectively put a stranglehold on Christmas because of their own nostalgia, elder Millennials are finding nostalgia in ugly Christmas sweaters, but also the robotic entertainment of the past. I have no doubt that there will be a small surge to see the bots one last time and maybe another just to see what they’re being replaced with, but the honest truth is that I don’t think puppets on TV is going to be the answer the franchise needed. Sure, there will still be music, and you can do things with puppets you can’t with robots, but then the show has long had a video component to supplement what’s on stage, often with costumed performers, so it’s not like having a video performance is new. And it’s not like "LIVE" shows haven’t been a thing for ages. It’s not even like there haven’t been experiments with walk-around characters interacting with the robots; Showbiz did it with a mechanical Billy Bob suit that used radio control to do facial animation to handle lip sync and I personally saw the teen in the Chuck suit jump up on stage and hit on Helen Henny unscripted, putting a hand on her shoulder. You can do that with the aluminum bots without worrying about breaking them. Them breaking YOU is another matter; they are perfectly capable of lifting a 200-pound grown man. Which makes sense when you consider car tires have a pressure of half of what they use (a whopping 70 PSI). But the honest truth is that the robots are what separated Chuck E. Cheese from the competition and without them, you more or less have an arcade that happens to serve pizza. Maybe that’s enough with Discovery Zone a distant memory and all the other robotic entertainment places gone for one reason or another, but, I mean, kids have video games at home. You can buy plushies and pizza at many gas stations. If you have a CD player and enough money for a few hand puppets, you can cobble together a performance. If you’re really ambitious, you can record them all waving around on bent coat hangers and dance around a bit in a horse mask or something. If it’s not the robots, at what point do you get to say "we have Chuck E. Cheese at home?"

That’s kind of depressing to think about. Remove the branding and what IS Chuck E. Cheese if not the robots? Not a whole lot, really. Chuck E. Cheese was never about having 100% original music or necessarily the best food, it was conceived by Atari as a way to market their arcade games to kids while giving adults some respite to let them run around for a bit and not have to cook. Kids have video games in their bedrooms now, you can trip and find halfway decent pizza, and if your kids are going to be ignoring you anyway, nothing stops you from grabbing a beer and watching a game. The parts and pieces are not unique. It was all about the presentation! And that, sadly, is the secret ingredient corporate has long forgotten. Because, sing along with me, you know the words by now: pencil-pushers don’t know what makes anything good. Aaron Fechter, bless him, whatever flaws he might have, he is a creative and true believer who juggled managing his company, programming the shows, and voicing half or more of the main characters. There was no part of the effort that didn’t have his fingerprints on it. Nolan Bushnell is a fascinating man who’s absolutely great at starting things, even if he’s not great at maintaining them, but he certainly has no shortage of ideas. When a pencil-pusher’s raison d’être is to say "no" to everything and ask if it’s exactly like everything else, because everything else is doing just fine, you always, always lose whatever might make your own offering unique and thus what makes it stand out. This isn’t news; it’s physics. Pencil-pushers are always a black hole in any industry. The creative industry is just the one with any semblance of color crossing the event horizon first. The execs don’t care; they’re buyer number n/∞ at this point and have a golden parachute to look forward to as the next guy to fail upward and buy them out on loans absolves them of all responsibility. If any of them had to sit down and figure out what ever made any of this work to actually make it successful again, none of them could; they’re pencil-pushers. Even if you grabbed them by the lapels and told them, they’d complain that it would cost money.

Once these shows are all ripped out, it will probably be at least a decade before anyone gets the idea to maybe, just maybe, put them back again, and it’s going to have to be on the dime of someone with actual money buying it out that time, because chances are that until that happens and someone with a touch of magic left in their heart gets involved, the franchise is just going to find new and creative ways to keep failing with less and less supporting it. Delivery is of course a start in our pandemic-stricken world (just because politicians want it to be over doesn’t mean the hospitals aren’t still jam-packed or that 2% of the current workforce isn’t being put on permanent disability or in the ground every year from it), but it’s not going to renew interest in the stores because the premium pizzas they’re selling aren’t being sold in the stores, even at a premium. So even that right there tells you the food itself is not the business model of the stores.

(Yeah, this one is definitely getting slapped with another PG-13.)

At whatever point the robots do return, they’re going to have a choice to make, and that choice is going to be whether they go back to the cheaper Ottoman style bots for the sake of cost and maybe some dusty production lines or if they do something new, and I have a feeling that they’ll want to do something new, just because if you’re going to do a thing, you don’t want to do a thing that was determined to no longer be working out. They may not be the "wowee" kind of bot that Studio C started with, but even if they were more like what Studio C cut costs with, throwing 5 of them on a stage as a central presence again would certainly be enough to test with in a few locations to see if you’re on the right track. These bots will not be tied to a lowest common denominator and will be able to move faster and in more realistic fashions than anything anyone has broadly experienced in decades.

In the meantime, I see fans rushing out to salvage whatever they can from destruction to preserve a bit of history, and maybe even start efforts of their own. Maybe it’s not going to be Chuck E. Cheese that continues to carry the banner of robotic entertainment, but a revival of effort from Creative Engineering, or a broader effort from fans.

Or, you know, maybe, someday, a creator with a few things to say on the topic. *whistles innocently*