You have to admit, of all the restraunts out there, Chuck E. Cheese is the most unique. Most eateries are made or broken on the quality of the meals served, but this is the one exception--it drowns itself in so many gimmicks that it can get away with selling short on the ONE component no other restraunt can afford to forsake. How'd all this come about, anyway? What nut thought it up, and what's the real truth behind it?
This is the best single source of Chuck-E-Cheese related information on the Internet. If you're going to go there, be warned: the vast behind-the-scenes library of footage and materials will easily suck away time. It'll be nightfall in ten minutes--that's how fast the site pulls you in.
If you're short on spare minutes, it's better to play it safe and read the condensed version of Chuck E's history in this article. The pictures and videos garnishing this page are obviously from there, but they also stole one of mine, so I think this makes us even. Nyah!
The story begins with its founder, Nolan Bushnell, who also founded Atari. One of the problems Bushnell saw with the market for his games was that most video arcades weren't the most family-friendly places to visit. He envisioned a way to fill that need by creating a restraunt patterned after an amusement park, with games, small rides and audioanimatronic shows. Such a venture couldn't be tested by the average pocketbook, but being the head of one of the most profitable businesses of the late 1970's didn't hurt...and neither did the access to Warner Bros' limitless cash (they owned Atari at this point, and didn't care what side projects Bushnell took on as long as he kept Atari afloat).
The very first Chuck E. Cheese appeared in San Jose in 1977, and was very different from what most people are familiar with. Instead of being grouped on a stage, the various characters (including one named Crusty the Cat who didn't last the year) stared down at you separately from portrait frame openings around the main dining room. And guess what....Chuck E. smoked.
The following year, in 1978, Bushnell had a falling-out with Warner and left Atari, but was allowed to keep the Chuck E. rights. The restraunt franchise was small at the time and Warner didn't care about it, which was good for Bushnell.....but competition had begun before the first CEC was ever built.
At the same time, a young nerd named Aaron Fechter was also producing audioanimatronic creations. He'd entered the amusement park market with his tinkerings, and in 1977, Fechter and Bushnell would meet at a convention. Bushnell told Fechter all about his restraunt idea, and Fechter showed off his technical wizardry. Did they become friends? Hardly....Bushnell offered to buy Fechter's robots, but without controls, claiming his men were far better at making that component. Fechter must have felt there was something about Bushnell he didn't trust, and the conversation resulted in nothing. But Fechter continued to build.
The following year, at the 1978 convention, Fechter and his production company Creative Engineering Inc. unveiled a set of singing audioanimatronic bots named the Wolf Pack 5. Again, Bushnell was impressed and asked for Fechter's partnership. And again, Fechter declined.
At this time, CEC was growing and looking for investors. One interested client was Bob Brock, president of the world's largest Holiday Inn franchisee company, who signed on to open CEC's in sixteen states across the southern US. Brock not only wanted to spread CEC, but to make sure everything within it was of the highest quality to guard against competitors (evidently the pizza was out of this equation). It's through Brock's refinement process that he learns of Fechter.
The creatures and live animation that Fechter was creating thoroughly impressed Brock--who was then not at all pleased to learn he wouldn't work for Bushnell. It was apparent he could only have one or the other, not both--and if somebody else got ahold of Fechter's talent first, and created a successful competition restraunt, that simply wouldn't do!
There was only one option for Brock...BE that competition! The Wolf Pack 5 was revised and modified into the Rock-Afire Explosion, and through various weaselly legal maneuvers, Brock opened a franchise called Showbiz Pizza Place instead of Chuck E Cheese. Naturally, that decision made Bushnell blow his top! But when he tried to sue Brock over breach of contract, the courts ruled in Brock's favor. Showbiz was a reality, and the battle for the hearts and minds of American families with pizza money was going to get bloody.
Bushnell didn't need Brock to spread his restraunt anymore, so CECs began showing up in more states....but Brock was a strategist, and Showbizzes started popping up in the states CEC wasn't occupying yet. If you were a kid in the 1980's, you either had a Chuck E. Cheese or a Showbiz Pizza Place depending on where you lived--and sometimes both, as production got so fierce that CECs and SPPs started appearing within the same towns. Both businesses came up with ways to stay unique by rotating new robot "guest stars" every so often. Some of the more interesting abandoned concepts were a Yogi Bear bot for Showbiz (this one made it into a few test markets)...and, believe it or don't, an audioanimatronic Paul McCartney. That would have been the creepiest thing in the world; thank goodness it didn't get past the plaster model stage.
The legal feuding did not stop until it was settled out of court. Showbiz finally agreed to start paying CEC a small portion of its profits for the next 14 years, a sum that would eventually total 50 million dollars. CEC may have won that battle, but technically, Showbiz eventually won the war. CEC went bankrupt in 1983, and Showbiz bought CEC out in 1984.
You might be asking how that is possible if Chuck E rules the children's restraunt market right now and not Billy Bob. The story behind the downfall of CEC as the 80's knew it once again begins with Bushnell. His standard business practice was to start a company, build it up, then go start another one once it was strong enough to last on its own. CEC had been successful for a while, and Bushnell was somewhere else building a technology company when he got the news: It was 1983 and the video game market had crashed. Bushnell's investments plunged in value, including CEC, and he found no way to pay off the debt he had built up from his newest venture. CEC had to file for Chapter 11, and Bushnell abandoned his sinking ship. The whole company was about to go extinct when Showbiz swooped in and snatched it up.
Showbiz could have easily ended the two-man race right there and executed Chuck E, but the rat was too popular a character to kill. Chuck E and Billy Bob were now in friendly competition, appearing together in promotional materials. The future of both CEC and Showbiz was on solid ground through the 1980's, but through the consolidation, one party was ignored--Fechter's. Showbiz began trying to find ways to reduce dependency on Fechter's company by producing and programming their own animatronic showtapes.
Determined to show the bigwigs that only HIS men could produce the best material, Fechter and his Creative Engineering team created the most spectacular show they could whip up with the technology. On the eve of the day they were to show this to Showbiz, however, someone partied a little too hard and drunkenly erased the entire program. Oops. That was the end of Fechter's involvement with his own creation, and soon it would be the end of said creation itself.
In September 1990, Showbiz changed its name to Chuck E Cheese, Inc. and began a conversion process with the cold sinister name of "CONCEPT UNIFICATION." Between Chuck E and Billy Bob, Chuck E had won the most important battle--that of popularity with children. All Showbiz restraunts were ordered to convert and remodel themselves into Chuck E Cheese restraunts, and swap their Rock-Afire Explosion characters for Chuck E's gang. A few outlets couldn't afford this conversion and were cut off from the franchise.
This comes from the site's YouTube library and is an instructional video for the construction workers who converted Showbiz places. Don't watch this video; it's too depressing.
Since then, the only other competition Chuck E. has had came from Discovery Zone, whose "indoor jungle gym" motif stole some thunder and dollars for a while, but proved to eventually be just a fad. The only other major change to Chuck E. was the official altering of his species from a rat to a mouse. Bah to that....rats get no respect. You cause one massive plague and they never let you forget it.
The rights to the Rock-Afire characters were returned to Fechter, and Creative Engineering started selling the bots to independent competitors. Billy Bob and pals are far from dead; the Rock-Afire sets purchased during this time, as well as the ones still existing in places that couldn't afford the Chuck E. conversion, mean you never know where you might run across him again. (One guy managed to assemble a complete working version in his own basement.)
Where is everyone now? Bushnell is involved in an Internet company, Uwink.com, and nowhere near as rich as he once was but not a quitter. As for Fechter, he and his team are still assembled, currently focused on selling a karaoke machine, but they will still sell you a Rock-Afire set if you're interested (and loaded). They'll even offer you materials to open a Showbiz-like restraunt called "Looney Bird's," but don't do it -- three parties have taken that offer and all three had shuttered doors within a year or two.
Chuck E's is still going strong and there's no indication kids are growing tired of it, though I have to wonder if today's children greet it with the same excitement that we did. For me, the main pull of CEC was the arcade games. I lovingly remember an intense NBA Jam session against another kid, setting our respective players on fire over and over. This was when the arcade was not dead. Nowadays, you can get the same stuff on a device you can carry in your pocket, and it doesn't take tokens. I'm sure there are kids now who go to CEC, bring a DS, and never even look up from their booth. Though I've never met those kids, I hate them already.
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