Without the Beatles, there would be no Rolling Stones and without Chuck E Cheese there would be no Showbiz Pizza. And like the Rolling Stones, Showbiz paid homage to it's predecessor while taking pizza-themed, entertainment to new heights.
When Showbiz arrived in Mobile in March 1982, at Downtowner Loop, Chuck E Cheese had already been opened a year. But to my young eyes, Showbiz appeared to be light years ahead.
While Chuck E Cheese was designed to entertain adults and kids alike, Showbiz was unabashedly aimed at kids. Showbiz was louder, brighter, and bigger than it's rodent cousin.
Chuck E Cheese had "Dolly Dimples", Showbiz had the "Rock-afire Explosion!" Chuck E Cheese had a kids maze, Showbiz had an enormous ball pit that threatened to swallow you whole!
Officially operating as ShowBiz Pizza Place, the chain opened it's first location in 1980 in Kansas City, Missouri. The company founder, Robert L. Brock, originally planned to open a chain of Chuck E Cheese restaurants but saw an opportunity to improve upon the concept by partnering with Aaron Fetcher's Creative Engineering upstart. And boy did Creative Engineering deliver!
Using a system known as "electronimation," Creative Engineering breathed life into a band of bigger-than-life creations known as the "Rock-afire Explosion." Like Chuck-E-Cheese, Showbiz characters moved with the aid of compressed air and computer programming. But Creative Engineering designed the the character movements to be more realistic and the characters were much wilder than the ones found down the street at Chuck E Cheese.
Anchoring the Rock-afire Explosion band was, "Fatz," the piano playing gorilla. He was joined on drums by "Dook" the dog, "Mitzi," the cheerleading mouse, and two comedic talented bears, "Billy Bob," and "Beach Bear." The sound of the band was the product of a team of 13 musicians, also directed by Creative Engineering. A documentary featuring the work of Creative Engineering is prominently featured in the aptly titled documentary, "Rock-afire Explosion."
Showbiz also set itself apart from the competition with frequent promotions such as "colander night," where families were encouraged to wear colanders on their heads for free tokens. Kids with good report cards could also score free tokens.
And what great games there were to spend your tokens on. Over the years some of my favorite games appeared including, "Popeye," "Space Ace," "Baby Pac-Man," and "Joust II."
In addition to arcade games, Showbiz featured one of the last coin-op, strobe light boxes. The box was an enclosed dark area, where for a quarter, kids could play under flashing lights that gave the effect of moving in slow-motion.
One of the most popular features had to be the ball pit that was so immense that the company called it a "ball pool." Kids could launch themselves into the pool of orange and yellow balls from a slide or one of two platforms. The balls were deep enough that kids could cover themselves completely but not deep enough that it didn't hurt when another kid jumped on you.
After a time, the company implemented height requirements to keep the bigger kids out of the pit. This was not an entirely popular policy. A "Mary D, Age 8," wrote into the Mobile Press Register's "Tell it to Gripeman" column in 1989 to protest the unfairness of a policy that would let her younger sister into the pit but not herself. Showbiz did not bend on the policy but did give Mary and her family a free night at the restaurant.
ShowBiz Pizza Place acquired Chuck E Cheese in a bankruptcy sell in 1984. Despite the purchase, Chuck E Cheese survived and the Rock-afire Explosion and ball pits are no more.
For a time Chuck E Cheese and Showbiz continued to operate as separate restaurants. But the partnership between Showbiz and Creative Engineering soured as Creative Engineering refused to turn over the rights to the characters and shows to Showbiz (now called CEC). Already owning the Chuck E Cheese shows outright, CEC made the decision to commit entirely to the Chuck E Cheese brand. This led to a "unification" effort to bring one brand across all restaurants. Some of the Rock-afire explosion characters were remade into Chuck E Cheese characters, while others were discarded.
In recent years, CEC has driven away from characters entirely, focusing on shows featuring one costumed employee throwing out tickets in hourly intervals.
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