Through the 1980s and 90s, if you went out to pizza with kids or to a childs birthday party, chances are you went to a Chuck E Cheese or Showtime Pizza restaurant. The restaurants are a kids’ dream: their favorite foods, an arcade with games (and tickets for prizes) and the animatronic show.
Animatronics, the use of robotics and sound to recreate a character with movements and a voice, was already in places like Disneyland, but it was in the original Chuck E Cheese and Showtime Pizza restaurants where animatronic characters could be seen just down the street. With characters such as Chuck E. Cheese, Helen Henny, Mr. Munch, Jasper T. Jowls, and Pasqually P. Pieplate, who couldn’t be awed by a performance. Showtime restaurants featured Billy Bob Brockali, a banjo-playing bear; Mitzi Mozzarella, a mouse chanteuse; and Fatz Geronimo, the gorilla keyboardist and frontman.
Chuck E Cheese and Showtime merged in the 1980s and took on the Chuck E Cheese brand. The ShowBiz bands — called the Rock-afire Explosion — were phased out and its performers repurposed into Chuck E. Cheese’s-led bands. As time went on, worn out robotics were replaced and in the last couple of years, band characters are finally being retired. The move is to a single, more modern animated version of Chuck E Cheese in restaurants, although there are still full bands in some locations.
Some fortunate Makers have managed to find or buy original Chuck E Cheese or Showtime Pizza animatronics.
Tested interviewed one such Maker at a Maker Faire last year. The clip is at the top of the article and on Youtube here.
Jack Turner is obsessed with Showbiz Pizza’s iconic animatronic robots. He and his father have scrounged up these old characters to restore them to their music-playing glory! We chat with Jack about his project and how he learned to rebuild these robots to animate the same way they did in the 80s.
Here are some photos of mechanics that have been posted on the web:
Folks like the Turners are looking to restore the animatronics, perhaps to make characters of their own. Jack controls his robotics using an Arduino and relays which activate solenoids controlling compressed air hoses which in turn activate movements.
You can see the eyes and eyelids have movement, along with the mouth and arms. Today, recreating such movements and controlling them programmatically is much easier than “back in the day”.
Adafruit sells motors, servos, and many other parts which can help restore a robot or build your own. And the upcoming Adafruit Crickit Board provides a one-stop motion and sound controller for robotics. It’s never been a better time to get into robotics. #MakeRobotFriend today.
- Tested Interview on Youtube
- Article on downsizing
- Wikipedia article on Chuck E Cheese’s
- Picture of the Band on Yelp by Sara S
- Robots, Pizza, And Sensory Overload: The Chuck E. Cheese Origin Story – Fast company.
- Atari Inc: Business is Fun – Google books
- The Pizza Times – 1982 (PDF).
5/12/2018 – Update: Ralph Olenick wrote in –
I received this article through Craig Hollabaugh. Thanks Craig. I designed the production model of the universal animatronics for Pizza Time Theater at my consulting company, Team Technologies Inc. in Cupertino back in 1978 when Nolan Bushnell owned PTT. I was hired to redesign the original prototype models that were used in their first pizza parlor in San Jose. The original prototype mechanics was done by Harold Goldbranson in Victorville.
We became good friends as we operated our separate companies contracted by Bushnell to design a low cost, production worthy, reliable version of the original five prototypes. Harold took over the design and production fabrication of the costumes (We called them “Cosmetics”.) I handled the mechanics design as we coordinated the fit between our two efforts via an original (very stinky) 3M drum fax machine. It was a hectic crash program that started in late fall and had to produce five characters ready to demonstrate by Christmas. The models were called universal because they had to be adaptable to several motions of the characters; from a dog character strumming a guitar to “Pasqualy” pushing open his pizza kitchen doors. The rapidly responding jaws were the toughest to design using pneumatics.
PTT management and Bushnell were very pleased at the radical low cost design and paid us well as they took over the production first in Sunnyvale, then in San Jose. It was a fast moving time of several other game development projects Harold and I worked on together for PTT for the next year or more. I was happy to work with the very creative Harold Goldbranson who also produced the costumes of Chuck-E-Cheese and other PTT characters that employees donned as they greeted customers in the pizza restaurants.
Sadly, Harold passed away several years ago. PTT got involved in some legal disputes with ShowBiz during the early store openings as they tried unsuccessfully to work together. ShowBiz eventually was out of the picture. Harold was later happily rewarded with franchises for a couple stores in southern California. I have a ton of photos (since digitized) of the projects – maybe even a few mechanical drawings. It’s hard to believe that forty years have gone by since those exciting days. Thanks.