This is sad news indeed for many of us musicians, old and young. The animatronic band that graced the stages of Chuck E. Cheese locations across America are finally throwing in the towel to enjoy a well-earned retirement.
Those of us born in the late 70's and early 80's will remember ShowBiz Pizza Place and Billy Bob the Hillbilly Bear. The ShowBiz and Chuck E. Cheese owners were once partners, had a fall out, became competitors, and ShowBiz won the fight and bought out a bankrupt Chuck E. Cheese, and converted itself into even more Chuck E. Cheese restaurants and theaters.
It was ShowBiz that had such a huge focus on the robotics and theatrics. Chuck E. Cheese placed it's bets on the rising popularity of arcade games and won, but they kept the concept of the "live" stage performances going, honoring the old partnership in Pizza Time Theatre, Inc.
Despite winning the technology war, Chuck E. Cheese over-extended itself with too many locations to maintain when the video game crash of 1983 hit and filed for bankruptcy in 1984. ShowBiz bought them and later decided to unify their entire brand under the Chuck E. Cheese banner.
The original band from ShowBiz was called The Rock-afire Explosion.
Their membership consisted of a variety of animals all proficient at varying musical instruments and sharing the responsibilities of the vocalist. They were:
In between songs, if Looney Bird wasn't reading fan mail and the others not arguing, we'd see Rolfe DeWolfe & Earl Schemerle perform their ventriloquist and comedy routine. Rolfe was a wolf who controlled his sentient puppet Earl.
This video is how I remember it growing up in the mid-80's. It was kind of scary, like some Jim Henson's Labyrinth and Sesame Street-infused surrealist bad trip.
After ShowBiz bought and converted all of its locations into Chuck E. Cheese, they also gave the robot band an overhaul. The first order of business was to change the name to Munch's Make Believe Band and use Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre characters.
Being smart money-savers, they reused all of the robots and pneumatic air lines and gave them new skins and furs instead. They swapped locations around on stage so it wasn't absolutely obvious what happened, but everyone eventually figured out which new character was a replacement of which old character.
The new band consisted of:
Before the line-up was finalized the band had already hired and fired Crusty the Cat on the keyboards. By this point, the band stopped giving kids nightmares. The original puppets for the bands from Rock-afire and Munch's were both horrifying. The robot creators were great engineers but really needed help in the "make it not look scary and creepy" department.
Here's a video from the less-creepy "Chuck's Adventure Machine" time period. They had so many 'time periods' and other details that there's even a wiki out there about it all.
The word on the street is they're replacing the band with an animatronic rap DJ and some dancers to be more in alignment with kid's tastes these days. I kid, but that is a part of the reason for finally breaking up the band:
Children’s taste in entertainment is much more sophisticated now than when the chain started in 1977 because kids today are used to slick animations and special effects, he added. The animatronics bands may be an icon for parents and grandparents, but children today prefer dancing with Chuck E. — a worker dressed up as the chain’s icon — or big-form video games, chief executive Tom Leverton added. “The animatronics became a side show,” he said.
Tom also stated that the pizza chain wants to begin renovating the restaurants with open kitchens, less vibrant colors and interior decorating, and a new menu with gluten-free pizzas and wraps. It sounds like they intend to keep the arcade games and ditch the guitar playing robot critters altogether.
What I didn't tell you was the two bands above weren't the only bands these pizza theatre had...
In order to recoup a bit of cash on their old investments, Chuck E. Cheese began offloading some of their robot collections, which of course immediately began popping up on Craigslist. For instance, you could find a circa-1985 Beach Bowzers Band from the Cabaret Rooms for as little as $5,000.
Don't you want a collection of four fuzzy, surfing, robot dogs for your basement man-cave? The problem with the purchases is that it doesn't come with the additional hardware and software to program and animate the robots, so they're just going to sit there and collect dust.
But, if you're a slick tech-wizard then with a tiny investment you'll be ready to mine YouTube gold with a million videos of hit songs being played by the one and only Munch's Make Believe Band!