Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre opened in Mobile, Alabama in April 1981
I hate Chuck E. Cheese...or I should say, I hate what it's become. Today, your local Chuck E. Cheese has all the appeal of a grade school cafeteria, complete with the crappy food and disgruntled staff.
But when Chuck E. Cheese's came to town in 1981, it was like a small pizza scented portal to Disneyworld opened right in Mobile, Alabama. I remember kids losing their minds at the avalanche of entertainment possibilities promised by the TV commercials. As impressive as the commercials seemed, in person, the size and the scale were more than a kid could take in on one evening. It demanded repeat visits!
This Chuck E Cheese's features the same type of entrance as the original restaurant in Mobile.
Officially operating as the Chuck E Cheese's Pizza Time Theater, the chain began in California in 1977 as a venture started by Nolan Bushnell of Atari fame. By 1981, the chain had expanded to 50 locations. It was during a business trip to California, that Mobilian, William Drane, learned of the concept. Drane eventually opened his own restaurant with his wife Nancy in April 1981 at the Regency Shopping Center on Airport Blvd.
The restaurant was the first of it's kind in Alabama-and lucky for seven year-old me, just around the corner from my neighborhood. I can remember entering the glass doors and being greeted by a staffer at the box office on the right. Sometimes the big cheese himself was stationed there to greet you. As you continued down the hallway, piano music drew your attention to a lounge on the right where a giant hippo, named Dolly Dimples, played piano and sang. The "Cabaret Room", as it was later called, was designed as a room for adults to relax. I'll admit its the last place you'd find me.
"Why don't you come down and see me some time?"
A little ways down on the left was the "Fantasy Forest" game room. Enclosed with glass walls, the dark arcade featured video games, skee ball, and a maze. Over the years, some of my favorite video games appeared, included Crystal Castles, Defender, Gorf, and Dragon's Lair.
Across from the game room on the right stood "Jasper's General Store" where merchandise was sold and tickets could be exchanged for prizes. Early Chuck E Cheese souvenirs and tokens are still sought after by collectors today.
Sample of the early Chuck E Cheese merchandise
At the end of the hallway you'd find the main dining room where you could enjoy pizza while Chuck and pals carried out kid-friendly skits on a bandstand.
The original bandstand in Mobile featured Chuck E as MC; Mr. Munch, a purple monster, as sidekick; Jasper T Jowls, a hound dog on banjo; and Miss Piggy stand-in, Madame Oink. Madame Oink was quickly replaced by Harmony Howlette, a western themed coyote, who offered better chemistry with Chuck E and Jasper, and less of a lawsuit target than Madame Oink.
Example of the Harmony Howlette shows at Chuck E Cheese circa 1981
Matt the Franchise
The magic of the shows was delivered through a pneumatic system of air-powered choreography, with movements programmed by a reel-to-reel system that provided both electronic instructions and voices to the cast
As magical as Chuck E Cheese was, the restaurant only enjoyed a one year monopoly on animatronic, pizza entertainment in Mobile. In March 1982, Showbiz Pizza opened at Downtowner Loop, giving Mobilians another choice of family fun; this one featuring a piano playing gorilla.
Despite, the competition, Chuck E. Cheese survived another two years before closing in 1984. The Pizza Time Theatre restaurant chain began bleeding money as arcade games suffered a downturn in popularity in 1983. By 1984, corporate debts forced Bushnell to file for Chapter 11. The remnants of the company were purchased by none other than chief competitor, Showbiz Pizza.
That March, Chuck E Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre closed in Mobile, running an ad for customers to take their business and their tokens to Showbiz Pizza Place.
Ad announcing the restaurant's closing ran in March 1984
Mobile Press Register
Despite, Showbiz winning the rivalry, both Showbiz and Chuck E Cheese restaurants continued to operate across the country. In 1992, the company went through a unification of concepts and rebranded all restaurants as Chuck E Cheese's.
Experience the sites and sounds of a Chuck E Cheese circa 1982
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