During my youth, I spent many a Saturday at a little place I liked to call ShowBiz Pizza Place (it helped that the company that owned it called it that too). It was kinda tucked away and isolated at 312 Border Street, next to Lynchburg Expressway’s Exit 8A in my hometown of Lynchburg, VA, but boy was it ever popular.
For those of you who may not be familiar with ShowBiz Pizza Place, it was co-founded by Robert L. Brock and Creative Engineering, Inc. and was an arcade & pizza restaurant that totally catered to the kiddies. I recall them serving large pitchers of beer to help parents cope with the madness. Think Chuck E. Cheese’s, but with actual video arcade games instead of being filled with the lame ticket games that I’m told all modern Chuck E. Cheese’s now feature.
Interestingly, Chuck E. Cheese’s was at one time a competitor to ShowBiz Pizza Place. ShowBiz bought out the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre franchise in 1984. The two chains coexisted under the umbrella of parent company ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. until 1992 when all ShowBiz Pizza Place locations were renamed Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza. ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. itself was renamed CEC Entertainment, Inc. in 1998.
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, boops, beeps & whistles going off in all directions, you could hear the roll of skee-balls rolling down their lane. Kids would be running around… sometimes crying… sometimes screaming. You’d see Billy Bob walking around the place shaking hands and giving hugs (we’ll get to him in a bit) and as the bleep blip boops of video arcade games would continue to swirl around in 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.
“Look, mom, just give me the money so I can get the tokens. I’m going to play Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, call me when the pizza’s ready.”
If you were having a kid’s birthday, you had three acceptable choices in Lynchburg: AMF Lynchburg Lanes, Skateworld, or ShowBiz Pizza Place. Birthdays were when you’d get like $10 worth of tokens from the birthday kid’s parents (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 for a game (okay, two tokens if you wanted to play Hard Drivin’) and you were set.
Of course, there was the traditional skee-ball games that I referenced earlier, which were fun, but no one came to ShowBiz to play skee-ball. Skee-ball was the best source to earn the tickets though. You could cash in at the gift shop to get those stupid rubber lizard finger puppets and plastic spider rings. There were a couple of other ticket games, but they escape me at the moment. Just use your imagination.
As it with all arcades, ticket games are a ripoff in general as you could never afford any “real” prize. The amount of quarters/tokens you pumped into ticket games was worth waaaaaay more than the value of whatever it is you ended up “buying”. It’d be much easier (and cheaper) to just go to the quarter vending machines at K-Mart and get the exact same plastic para-trooping figure or sticky hand or glow-in-the-dark sticker. Heck, just go buy a box of cereal back in those days and you’d be sure to get one of those, plus you’d have the cereal you could eat!
I think there may have been a little plastic ball pit to jump in, too. As an adult I find the concept of ball pits to be really nasty and I imagine it was full of all kinds of germs and bodily waste. But hey, it was the ’80s. Weren’t all germophobes with weak immune systems yet. As a society, we just didn’t think about germs and viruses and bacteria that much. We didn’t have to.
I digress. The real games you went there for were the VIDEO games: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Dragon, Donkey Kong, Hard Drivin’, Pac-Man, Paperboy, Rolling Thunder, Kung Fu Master, 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? And come to think of it… Why was I wasting quarters playing Nintendo’s Vs. System arcade version of Super Mario Bros. when I owned the game for the NES!?
Of course, there *was* more than just the games. There was the show. What show, you say?
The Rock-a’fire Explosion, baby!
A more ragtag, creepy & disturbing, yet mesmerizing cast of animatronics you could not find. Rock-afire Explosion was the creation of Aaron Fetcher and his Creative Engineering, Inc., and they were apparently only licensed out to ShowBiz Pizza Place over the years.
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.
Sometimes the curtain wouldn’t close and you’d have these giant lifeless creatures staring out into space. Now that was pretty freaky and you’re wondering when they’re going to come to life and eat you. It’s easy to see how the Five Nights at Freddy’s video games came into existence.
The picture you see above is exactly how my ShowBiz Pizza was set up. Other ShowBiz restaurants may have featured different characters on a rotating basis on the left hand stage. I don’t recall any Santa Claus or Uncle Klunk coming to visit but I guess it happened at other locations. The only visitor I can recall (and it was on a 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 recall if I was ever present for appearances by the Big Cheese at ShowBiz. 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 in the mid ’90s. I remember it being mostly ticket games by that point.
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 space-dog 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 cheer leading mouse Mitzi Mozzarella who waved around her pompoms and only did vocals. I think pretty much every boy tried to look up Mitzi’s 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… or am I making that up?), plus a number of movie poster parodies.
Last but not least, on the right stage is Billy Bob Brockali, Showbiz Pizza’s mascot. He played banjo and was the chain’s mascot. He sang, 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 Chuck E. Cheese/CEC Entertainment, Inc. as CEC was merely licensing out the Rock-afire Explosion characters and animatronics from a company called Creative Engineering, Inc. This seems really, really dumb to me. Rock-afire was a major part of the experience! How could ShowBiz not have bought these characters outright at some point? This probably explains why ShowBiz locations became Chuck E. Cheese, so that CEC could distance themselves from the Rock-afire Explosion characters.
Oh… with 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 a lot. 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.
According to locals, the Lynchburg location did indeed become a Chuck E. Cheese’s in the early 1990’s. A few years later, it became a restaurant centered around Billy Bob (according to ShowBizPizza.com, it was not uncommon during this time for independent chains to work Billy Bob into their restaurants as a mascot), which itself shut down in the mid 90’s. Animatronics from this location were reportedly still on site up until 2002!
As of July 2017, the building sits empty after having been a home to Billy Joe’s Ice Cream Parlor in the early 2000’s. Billy Joe’s is another place I have good memories of, but only from its original location in Fort Hill. Man, so many good times in that building sitting at 312 Border Street. It’s sad to see it not in use.
Experience varies by store, but all I’ve heard in the last few years is nothing but bad things about the Chuck E. Cheese chain: from the (lack of) variety of games, to 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 original Rock-afire Explosion animatronics have been sold and auctioned off to tiny pizza shops over the years where they do little-to-no maintenance on them and have no connection with the company they originated with or the company that created them. I originally posted some YouTube footage of a set of the Rock-afire Explosion in this post, from someone that owned them and actually maintaining them for his own amusement, but those videos have since been deleted by the YouTube user. :(
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. =)