During my youth, I spent many a saturday at a little place I liked to call Showbiz Pizza (it helps that the company that owned it also called it that too). It was kinda tucked away and isolated, just off one of the main roads in my hometown of Lynchburg, VA, but boy was it ever popular.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the place, it was an arcade & pizza restaurant that totally catered to the kiddies. Think Chuck E. Cheese’s, but with actual video arcade games instead of lame ticket games like I’m told they have now (though they had a few of those as well). Chuck E. Cheese’s, by the way, was at one time a competitor to Showbiz Pizza Place, but then Showbiz bought out Chuck E. and eventually all Showbiz restaurants (that weren’t closed) were converted to Chuck E. Cheese restuarants.
Where was I? Oh yeah, the place was popular. Saturdays were absolutely crazy there. The place would look completely calm from the outside, but as soon as you opened that door and walked in, it was utter chaos. You’d hear bells & whistles going off in all directions, you could hear the roll of skeeballs whizzing down their skee… lane? Kids are running around, kids are crying, kids are screaming, Billy Bob is walking around the place shaking hands and giving hugs (we’ll get to him in a bit) and the bleep blip boops of arcade games would whirl around your head. It was nothing short of magic and the first thing you wanted to do was get your freakin’ Showbiz tokens and head off to the video games. Or at least I did. I left all the meal plans to my parents or to whichever unlucky parent(s) got shafted with a group of us kids: “Gimme the money, gimmie the the tokens, I’m going to play my games, call me when the pizza’s ready”.
If you had a birthday, you HAD to have it at Showbiz. Nothing less was acceptable. Birthdays were when you’d get like $10 worth of tokens from whichever parents were hosted it (1 quarter per token) and keep in mind this was BEFORE you had to pay like .75 cents or ONE DOLLAR to play an arcade game. All you needed was one token (okay, two if you wanted to play Hard Drivin’) and you were set.
The games? Nothing short of classic. Of course, there was the traditional skeeball game, which was kinda fun, but I always sucked at it. I never had good aim and either rolled it too soft or too hard. I *think* there may have been a little plastic ball pit to jump in, which as an adult, I find really nasty and I imagine it was full of all kinds of germs and bodily waste. When I have a kid, he’ll never go into one of those pits. There were a couple of other ticket games, but they escape me at the moment. Just use your imagination. Of course, as it with all arcades, the ticket games are a ripoff and any decent prize is incredibly steep in terms of quarters to get your hands. It’d be much easier (and cheaper) to just go to the quarter machine at K-Mart and get the exact same plastic paratrooping figure or sticky hand or glow-in-the-dark sticker or plastic spider ring.
The real games you went there for were the arcade games anyway: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game (one of my favorite games of all-time), Double Dragon, Donkey Kong, Hard Drivin’, Pac-Man, Paperboy, Rolling Thunder, Kung Fu Master, Vs. Super Mario Bros., Q*bert and Rampage were all there alongside countless others. How many tokens did I waste trying to beat all the Shredders at the end of TMNT?
Of course, there *was* more than just the games. There was the show. What show?
The Rock-afreakin’fire Explosion, baybee! A more ragtag, creepy & disturbing, yet mesmerizing cast of animatronics you could not find than these guys. They were all in place on the stage, concealed by curtains and situated on three connecting stages. When the curtains opened the SHOW was ON. Many kids would run up to the stage and gawk at this weird experience being laid before them. That’s not to say I didn’t like the Rock-afire Explosion, I loved it and I loved the characters. But you have to admit, there’s just something a bit creepy about a huge mean looking gorilla play keyboards or some giant polar bear in bermuda shorts strumming on the guitar. Maybe it was their soulless eyes that creeped me out.
The picture you see above is exactly how my Showbiz Pizza was set up, other Showbiz restuarants may have featured different characters on a rotating basis on the left hand stage, but I don’t recall any Santa Claus or Uncle Klunk coming to visit. Nope, the only visit we ever received (and it was on definite rare occasion) was from Chuck E. Cheese himself! Showbiz would hype his arrival for weeks like Jesus Christ himself was returning to save us all. To be honest, I can’t remember if I ever actually saw the Big Cheese at Showbiz though.
In my young mind, Chuck E. Cheese was the actual leader of the Showbiz gang, with Billy Bob filling in while he wasn’t there. I’m sure the real reason was once Showbiz swallowed up the Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, they probably just didn’t want to cross the brands *too* much at that point and figured why mess with two good things and just let’em do their own thing. I *was* aware of Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants though. There was one over in Roanoke, about an hour from Lynchburg, and I was so mad that we didn’t have one of those too and upset that Chuck E. couldn’t just hang out at my Showbiz on a permanent basis. I think I’ve only been to Chuck E. Cheese’s once in my life and that was on a trip to Fort Walton Beach, FL, to visit my grandparents (that restaurant closed a few years ago). I don’t really remember it.
But let’s get on with the character descriptions (close-ups of these characters can be viewed here).
Starting on the left stage, there’s Rolfe DeWolfe with his hand puppet Earl Schmearle. Rolfe was pretty freaky looking to me as a kid. When he talked, he looked like he was trying to eat me using those sharp fangs they gave him. They were a comedy duo who also joined in with the Rock-afire band on a few songs, and I think Rolfe maybe even sung a few on his own.
Middle stage is the Rock-afire Explosion band. Bangin’ the skins is slow-witted spacedog Dook Larue. Then we have the scariest of all the Showbiz characters– keyboardist Fatz Geronimo, a huge gorilla in a shiny gold tuxedo jacket who looks like he’s about to snap. I think he was pretty much the leader of the band, and was always in a grumpy mood, which also led to me fearing for my life when he hit the stage. Next up is Beach Bear, who was a
stoner surfer and the axeman for the group, though he only simply strummed that electric geetar of his during every song. Rounding out the stage was every young boy’s crush– the cheerleading mouse Mitzi Mozzarella who waved around her pompoms and only did vocals. I think pretty much every boy tried to look up her cheerleader skirt (I know I did) and I personally hold her responsible for the american male’s fixation with cheerleaders. In the background are Sun & Moon, who would randomly pop up to add background vocals.
Does this frighten you? He sure frightened me when I was 7.
All of these characters did background vocals and they also took turn on lead vocals, depending on the song. The songs they played were pretty much everything from 60s pop to country to 80s hits (which would’ve been current at the time). During the wait for the shows to begin, there were TVs placed in the eating area which featured current music videos (I distinctly remember a censored version of George Michael’s ‘I Want Your Sex’ called ‘I Want Your Love’ playing), plus a few movie poster parodies such as a Chuck E. Cheese spoof of Crocodile Dundee (“Crocodile Chuckee”?).
Last but not least, on the right stage is Billy Bob Brockali, Showbiz Pizza’s mascot. He played banjo and in my mind, was the absolute star of the show. He sang as well, but I don’t think he joined in with the rest of the band for every song. Sharing the stage with Billy Bob is Looney Bird, who apparently hung out a lot in an oil drum. He wasn’t a member of the band and only poked his head out for comedy bits.
Other background characters were Baby Bear Choo-Choo, who did nothing but poke his out out of a small tree stump, but I always found it to be a fun challenge to keep my eyes open for any of his appearances. Then there was Antioch, the birthday spider, that would drop down from the ceiling near Fatz during songs, usually at birthday parties.
The Rock-afire Explosion show can still be found at a few pizza places across the country, virtually unchanged, but they are no longer associated with Showbiz Place/Chuck E. Cheese’s because the pizza chain had a falling out with the engineering company that created the animatronics.
Oh… In all this talk about animatronics and video games, I forgot to mention the pizza! Hey, I was just a kid, and I know there’s a lot of bashing in regards to the quality of pizza that the current Chuck E. Cheese’s are offering up, but to me, the pizza was pretty darn good. I remember ordering sausage pizza there alot. I remember them having a huge pepper shaker, the ones with those round shavings of pepper and I always used to pour on the parmesan cheese as well.
I don’t know if that Lynchburg Showbiz Pizza Place is open today as a Chuck E. Cheese’s or not. I would imagine it probably isn’t, but darn if that lot doesn’t hold a load of great memories from my childhood. Maybe experience varies by store, but all I’ve heard in the last few years is nothing but bad things about Chuck E. Cheese’s: from the variety of games, to the the attitude of employees, to the quality of pizza and prizes. It’s a shame. Showbiz Pizza Place was a magical world in the 1980s and the time spent there and the characters are something I’ll always cherish in my heart.
It’s especially sad to know that the Rock-afire Explosion has been reduced to tiny pizza shops where they do little-to-no maintenance on them and have no connection with the company they originated with, but hey, I guess that’s what YouTube is for:
Then check out this… People have the stage and are programming it with newer songs!
A commercial I remember:
A big THANK YOU to the team over at ShowbizPizza.com for the information and use of images and videos. It’s a really fun site and if you remember Showbiz Pizza at all, I think you’ll enjoy it. And I’d also like to thank Google Image search as well. =)