As part of an effort to modernize and rebuild Chuck. E Cheese for today’s robot-hating children, the restaurant/arcade/nightmare-factory chain recently announced that it’s going to start phasing out its famous animatronic characters. With the death of Munch’s Make Believe Band looming, now’s the perfect time to read up on its contentious creation and the many dramatic behind-the-scenes scuffles it managed to survive all this time. And thanks to Motherboard contributor Jamie Loftus, you can get all the freaky, sad details in one neatly arranged, surprisingly deep timeline.
At the heart of the story Loftus tells are the dueling philosophies of Nolan Bushnell and Aaron Fechter. Bushnell, the founder of Atari and an infamously wily business man, had the idea to operate a kid-oriented pizza place that would also double as an entertainment hub and arcade. The first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre opened in 1977 and featured some simple animatronics made to look like portraits of the anthropomorphic animal crew known as the “The Pizza Players.” According to Loftus, their original purpose was to provide “banter for the parents’ entertainment while the kids played Atari games.” To Bushnell the animatronics, and even the restaurant aspect, were all secondary in service of providing a nice self-owned outlet for Atari’s arcade machines.
On the other extreme is Fechter. Loftus rightfully paints him as “the tragic hero of the animatronics world,” a passionate inventor who’s merely trying to chase his dreams but sees them dashed at every turn by The Man. After partnering with Robert Brock, an investor who was previously in negotiations with Chuck E. Cheese, Fechter created the famous Rock-Afire Explosion band, which was positioned as the star attraction of Showbiz Pizza, a Chuck E. Cheese competitor that opened in 1980. Bushnell sued Showbiz and its owners, primarily over what he claimed to be Brock breaching a contract, which kicked off a two-year legal battle that Bushnell would eventually win. But when the video game industry “crashed” in 1983, Chuck E. Cheese went along with it. Showbiz bought up the bankrupt company, forming the pizza-arcade super chain that exists to this day as Chuck E. Cheese.
This was far from a happy ending for Fechter, though. He was eventually pushed out after refusing to hand over the rights to The Rock-Afire Explosion. His animatronic band was erased from Showbiz locations, and through a gruesome process that no doubt inspired the Five Nights At Freddy’s games, their bodies were converted into the members of Chuck’s rock ensemble, Munch’s Make-Believe Band.
The Rock-Afire Explosion fell into retro-kitsch obscurity for more than a decade before a widely seen documentary and a handful of viral videos of the band playing modern pop songs brought Fechter’s bots back into the spotlight. More influential is the aforementioned Five Nights At Freddy’s game series, which became a phenomenon that introduced the concept and horrors of animatronic characters to a new generation of kids. After recovering from a bizarre explosion that devastated Fechter’s Orlando headquarters in 2013, the Rock-Afire inventor is attempting to capitalize on this newfound attention from nostalgic thirtysomethings and young Freddy’s fans alike. He’s turned Rock-Afire into a road show, started selling a $1,000 Animatronics Experimenter’s Kit, offers “customized video birthday shows,” and even opens up his workshop for tours so kids can see that those scary robots from their favorite video game aren’t so scary after all. Scratch that. They’re still pretty scary.