From Pong to Pizza Entertainment: Nolan Bushnell and Chuck E. Cheese
July 18, 2013 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Nolan Bushnell was a co-creator of Pong and Atari, and he also sold Atari arcade machines. When he noticed that he sold the arcade machines for $1,500 to $2,000 but the new owners would earn twice that much in the life of the machines, he started thinking of how to make an arcade destination that wouldn't compete with his arcade machine clients. His solution: a pizza parlor, with an arcade for the kids and an pneumatic-powered animatronic coyote mascot to fool the parents it was restaurant with free entertainment. The coyote became a rat named Chuck, and what was code-named Coyote Pizza was briefly renamed Rick Rat's Pizza, but the marketing department thought the name wasn't such a great idea, and instead we got Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater.

For another read on the history of Chuck E. Cheese, you can check out Persuasion and Gamespace (Google books preview), a piece by Ian Bogost on the book Space Time Play -- Synergies Between Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism: The Next Level
posted by filthy light thief (38 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
1977. I believe we got our first Chuck E Cheese in 1982; I still remember "winning" enough tickets to buy a notepad cut in the shape of a slice of Swiss Cheese, with holes drilled through it to match. Now a days, their ticket counter looks like an ad for Oriental Trading Company. Until then we'd just had one or two machines in the corner of the local Pizza Huts. Then for a while we had a duel between Peter Piper Pizza and Pistol Pete's Pizza; the former bought the latter in 1995.

The kids were digging through my email in box the other day, trying to be helpful - they were amazed to know that Chuck E Cheese KNEW MY EMAIL ADDRESS and he EMAILED ME ALL THE TIME (I had a filter on, I'm bad at deleting things).

I always wondered how console vs arcade went; it was a bit of being on both sides of the industry, huh. Thanks.
posted by tilde at 11:04 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

he sold the arcade machines for $1,500 to $2,000 but the new owners would earn twice that much in the life of the machines,

And I would imagine a clever entrepreneur would have seen the benefits of using those coin operated machines to launder cash, or to hide income from taxation.
posted by three blind mice at 11:25 AM on July 18, 2013

I never saw Red Clash anywhere else but at Chuck E. Cheese on Homestead.
It was a sit-in arcade game, and when you blew stuff up you felt it, and it was a little glitchy.

I'm glad Pizza and Pipes got mentioned.
It was hazardously loud, but the Wurlitzer was visually complex and appealing when you weren't being deafened by it.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:27 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember being really confused for a long time because I remembered Chuck E Cheese as a character in Showtime Pizza Places when I was a kid. Looking at their Wikipedia pages, their histories are in fact intertwined and sorta confusing.
posted by kmz at 11:43 AM on July 18, 2013

There is a reason they serve beer at Chuck E. Cheese.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:51 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a reason they serve beer at Chuck E. Cheese.

Well, that's also why so many fights break out there, too.
posted by FJT at 11:58 AM on July 18, 2013

1977. Uh. I first ran across Chuck E. Cheese late into the 90's. Prior to that it was Showbiz Pizza with Billy-Bob Bear.
As for the claim that they are the "Best Pizza Place" ever....well I would vote for Imo's.
Did you also know that to go into a CEC's you HAVE to have children with you. Adults can't just wonder in and enjoy games and pizza. They might be crazy child molesters. I also do not remember Showbiz or CEC ever serving beer. Maybe it's because I am in the bible belt...but never any beer. Beer was a Pizza-Hut thing, and as far as I remember that ended some 15 years ago.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 11:59 AM on July 18, 2013

Bally tried making a 'mature' version of this concept in the early 1980s by taking a couple of Barnaby's restaurants in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas, adding an arcade, and calling it Tomfoolery.

All video games and pinball, no redemption, no robots, and no characters walking around. I remember a menu shaped like a Pac-Man.

The idea flopped miserably, but 20 years later Dave and Busters is doing just fine with the same wood-and-brass-rails idea. Go figure.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:10 PM on July 18, 2013

Well, that's also why so many fights break out there, too.
An alderman in Milwaukee, a town not famous for sobriety, compared the local Chuck E. Cheese to "something out of a Quentin Tarantino film... there is alcohol and pistols being brandished." In Brookfield, Wisconsin, the children's pizzeria-plus-creepy-robot-theater gets far more police activity than a nearby biker bar, including a 40-person riot earlier this year.
More drama on The WSJ. Good job, Murdoch, way to bring up the quality of the Journal.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:11 PM on July 18, 2013

It's undeniable: Chuck E. Cheese's is way better than any other pizza time theater.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:12 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the sticks, and only experienced Chuck E. Cheese vicariously through the wondrous tales of classmates whose parents would schlep them in towards the city for birthday parties. (But they wouldn't invite me, would they? I'm not too bitter.)

Nothing tops the The Mad Hatter's Tea Party.
posted by usonian at 12:20 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Pizza and Pipes was great. They never played our Metallica requests (boo) but you could get "Happy Birthday" played for nearly everyone at your table. [sigh]

The Chuck-E-Cheese down the way from my house closed when I was about of an age that closing was kind of ok because there were better places to go: it was part of a regional downscaling that hit our location kind of late but meant that we got to have all the video games. It was awesome.

It is now a church. The Church of the Holey Cheese. I've never been inside to see if they still use the robots.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:28 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

It was Showbiz Pizza with Billy Bob when I had my 8th birthday party there in 1986. I knew the pizza was crap and the animatronics were low rent and the prizes were cheap trash, but that place was FUN.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 12:29 PM on July 18, 2013

A map of pipe-organ-equipped restaurants -- most of them closed.

Pipe-organ pizzarias briefly explained.

At the risk of a derail, the term "Mighty Wurlitzer" was the actual marketing name for Wurlitzer Musical Instruments company's line of theatre organs (1914 - 1943) designed to be able to imitate an entire orchestra.

It wasn't until decades later that the term came to be associated with propaganda and dirty tricks.
posted by Herodios at 12:48 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

JoeZydeco: "20 years later Dave and Busters is doing just fine with the same wood-and-brass-rails idea. Go figure."

My wife works for a place called Pinstripes that is basically Dave & Buster's for grownup grownups. That is, they have bocce and bowling instead of video games, a bistro menu instead of chicken fingers and potato skins, and a wine list and craft beers instead of frozen drinks and buckets of beer. They're in the Chicago area and suburban Minneapolis, but they've got several more in the works in other places. I recommend it if you're ever near one. It's fun. Heck, if you're ever near South Barrington, let me know and I'll take you.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:49 PM on July 18, 2013

Chuck E. Cheese . . . a 'mature' version of this concept . . . Tomfoolery. . . Dave and Busters . . . Pinstripes . . . Dave & Buster's for grownup grownups. . . .

I never understood why Troff n' Brew didn't take off.

Steve Martin said they had "great lighting, great chili."
posted by Herodios at 1:00 PM on July 18, 2013

As the parent of 2 young kids, if someone were to open a Pizza and Pipes somewhere in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area, I would guarantee we'd be there at least once a week.

I am pretty sure this is what the Italians were thinking of when they invented pizza.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:01 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is something I posted to another message board a while back regarding my memories of these places:

I went to Showbiz a couple times as a kid. Birthday parties mainly. Chuck E. Cheese seemed more popular though, at least around here.

The concept of those places was always a lot better than what you actually got though;

promise: Video games? Sure, I love video games. reality: They still take "tokens", which cost money, and you only get a few. The games were generally older ones, not very well maintained, sticky, and around 20% were totally non-functional at any given time.

promise: Pizza. Everyone likes pizza. reality: It tastes like cheap frozen pizza. I think even Dominoes is better (though it would be a close race to the bottom). Even as a kid it wasn't very good.

promise: Sundae bar! OMFG what a concept for a 6 year old! reality: 1 small dish of crummy soft-serve vanilla, and the toppings bar is an atrocity that could only result from letting 6 year olds serve themselves hot fudge & butterscotch sauce. There are sprinkles in everything whether you want them or not. There are chocolate hand prints on all exposed surfaces. Again, even as a kid I realized it was pretty gross - I don't want anything on my ice cream that the smelly kid may have touched, and they were trucking in the smelly kids from other schools to those places. In retrospect I'm glad no one had explained to me about the ball-pit.

promise: Win tickets at Skee-Ball to earn cool prizes! reality: you've got to choose whether to spend your precious few game tokens on cool video games where you get no prizes, or boring Skee-ball. Spend all your tokens and you might earn 50 tickets, that's enough for... a plastic spider ring. The kind you get on Halloween and throw away 2 days later because it's crap. How much is that Sanyo boom box on the top shelf? Yes, the one with the inch-thick layer of dust. 600,000 tickets. That's worse than Rent-A-Center prices.

You sure better like that animatronic band too (and judging from the trailer of that documentary a few people really did), because the "show" is going to repeat every 6 minutes or so for the whole 2-3 hour birthday party. I recall more than one kid breaking down eventually; "Mommy, make them stop singing! PLEASE MAKE THEM STOP!"

I do remember vibrating with excitement the day before I went to one of those places the first time. By the 3rd birthday party I attended at one of them I think I had learned the ropes - only play the video games (and not the token-sucking Dragon's Lair or Space Ace machines), bring your own money if you have any so you can get more tokens after the birthday kid's parents run out (typically 10 minutes into the party), avoid the strobe light room (like so many things there, it smelled like pee) - following that strategy there was some fun to be had.

They still beat the hell out of the birthday parties at the god damn roller rink.

There was also Fuzzy Wuzzy Wizard's - but a cursory Google search on that comes up with nothing, so I guess it was just a 1-off clone rather than a chain. Same idea though, pizza & video games, pretty sure they had people dressed as the mascot too but I don't know if they had an animatronic show. It was always odd at Chuck E. Cheese when the employee in the full-body rat suit was wandering around at the same time the animatronic version was doing his thing - what is a really little kid supposed to take away from that? Run! There are hundreds of them!

The animals in that band are still hella-creepy. The ones are Chuck E. Cheese weren't much better. I guess to avoid being sued by Disney they had to go all out on the rat aspect. Yeah, he's definitely not a cute little mouse. He's a rat. A great big sewer rat. Want some pizza?
posted by NoAccount at 1:03 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

For fans of Showbiz and Billy Bob (previously discussed) I highly recommend The Rock-afire Explosion documentary about the animatronic band, the boom and bust of the company that produced them, the fans who collect and reprogram them, and the fate of the last remaining Rock-afire Explosion set.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:05 PM on July 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

Pizza and Pipes also had decent pizza, especially when compared to Chuck E. Cheese's. Or maybe that's just a faulty memory and the passage of time. They shut down in 1996, I hadn't set foot in the place since at least 5 years before that, and I've had a lot of pizza in the past 22 years.

As of 1999, the Wurlitzer from the Sacramento P&P lives in Spring Valley, CA, fully restored.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:10 PM on July 18, 2013

I did not know Pipe-organ pizzerias were a thing. WHY DIDN'T ANYBODY TELL ME?

Are there any Shakey's Pizza Parlors that still feature live dixieland music? That was the coolest. thing. ever. when I was 4 or 5. It was an honest to goodness formative experience for me, the first time I ever heard live banjo music.
posted by usonian at 1:10 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

OOOH, I'd like to see that doc. I've seen some of the videos of the reprogramming people have done of those on YouTube. Some of them are absurd and fun.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:11 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Slarty: There used to be one in Tacoma. I remember going to it as a kid. A little googling found it was destroyed in a fire in 1999.

I remember it was SO LOUD and dark inside. It was actually a little terrifying and I remember not particularly enjoying it, but the pizza was good enough.
posted by E3 at 1:14 PM on July 18, 2013

An example of the Mighty Wurlitzer being played at Toronto's Organ Grinder restaurant (closed in 1996). See the comments for the organist's explanation of some of the various organ controls.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:16 PM on July 18, 2013

I recall Pipe Organ Pizza in Chicago c. 1973 and a lengthy performance a la J.S. Bach of Theme and Variations on "I Wish I Were An Oscar Meyer Wiener".

Seemed like it went on a long time, but it could have been because of the . . . 'condiments'.
posted by Herodios at 1:26 PM on July 18, 2013

Excellent post, and I wholeheartedly second the recommendation for everyone to watch the Rock-afire documentary.

I set foot inside a ShowBiz exactly once -- this one -- as part of a school trip. I was 6 or 7 years old, so I'm sure I was freakishly excited about it, but to this day, I can remember only a few things about the entire experience, all of which involve the aforementioned Explosion:
1. The eerie mechanized clacking and slapping together of their animatronic jaws, which was so loud that it could be heard over the music.
2. Secreting a few grimy spheres from the plastic ball-filled disease pit so I could sneak under the barricade and wedge them into the mouths of the dead-eyed robot musicians.
3. That goddamned scary-looking bear. Nooooooooooo!
posted by divined by radio at 1:30 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

For pipe organ restaurants in the Chicagoland area, don't forget Sally's Stage.

Also, I went to Showbiz Pizza Place a lot as a pre-teen, and my only real memory (other than playing Popeye a lot) was that the televisions used Atari computers for displaying numbers for the orders that were ready, and (having an Atari myself) I thought that was awesome.

I went back with friends once as a teenager, but we got kicked out after one of us tried to ride that toddler chair ferris wheel thing that was just a seat attached by its side sticking out of the front of a machine on a big rotating wheel, totally awesome 70s unsafe-for-actual-toddlers ride.
posted by davejay at 1:32 PM on July 18, 2013

Seriously guys, the more I think about pipe-organ pizza places the more wistful I get. It's like nostalgia for something I never even experienced. In my imagination it's like the supreme amalgamation of every dimly-lit, dark-wood-paneled pizza place my family ever went to in the 1970s. The ones with red vinyl upholstery, stained glass windows and stained glass lamps hanging over each table. BUT WITH A PIPE ORGAN.
posted by usonian at 2:19 PM on July 18, 2013

Pipe organs, pizza, fire.
posted by user92371 at 2:34 PM on July 18, 2013

By the time I finally got to visit a Chuck E. Cheese, I was a bit past the target age and the establishment in question was more than a bit past its salad days. It was also mostly empty, so when the animatronic critters came out to do their thing all the whirring and clanking seemed louder than it probably should have.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:41 PM on July 18, 2013

Did you also know that to go into a CEC's you HAVE to have children with you. Adults can't just wonder in and enjoy games and pizza.

This isn't actually true, or perhaps it just varies store to store.

A couple of year ago, my local Chuck E Cheese was running a "free tokens for every A on your report card" promotion, and my grad-student girlfriend and I decided it would be amusing to print out the grades from her nuclear physics graduate courses and take it down there. The clerk was pretty skeptical, but gave us the free tokens and we proceeded to spend the afternoon drinking cheap beer and playing skee-ball.
posted by zug at 3:09 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also I'd never heard of Dave and Busters before this thread and was shocked to discover that there is one local to me (and it's 21+).

I'm totally dragging zug there soon.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:19 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

In high school I worked at Bullwinkle's in Santa Clara, a sort of Chuck E Cheese copy. Bushnell was always in there as was Woz, and Jerry Rice funnily enough.
posted by humboldt32 at 4:23 PM on July 18, 2013

Showbiz Pizza in Charlotte in the mid-80s had beer. Chuck E Cheese where I live now does not. And Lord, I wish they did. Because the only time I go in there is for my kids' baseball-team parties and such.
posted by Cookiebastard at 4:30 PM on July 18, 2013

We had a Pizza & Pipes in the Seattle neighborhood of Greenwood. Fond memories of a trip there with part of my fifth grade class. My teacher (a sad, angry burnout...but that's another story) asked the organist for a medley of Irish songs, and said organist responded with, if memory serves, "Hava Nagila," although he eventually segued into "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"...

About the original Chuck E. Cheese pizza: I've eaten better out of a box. Totino's. Yeah you kow what I'm talking about, those teeny tiny little cubelets of pepperoni.

Immortal dialogue from my family:

Dad: Oh, Chuck E. Cheese was so wonderful, you had a purple hippopotamus singing Sophie Tucker!

Me: Dad, that pizza was so horrible, you could just barely ea--

Dad: *Who cares* about the pizza, you had a purple hippopotamus singing Sophie Tucker!
posted by dr. zoom at 12:08 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took the wife (of about 5 years at the time) and kids to Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa out here in the Phoenix area, and it was a truly unique experience. Pizza was acceptable but the organ was magnificent. Not being a churchgoer, that was the largest and most impressive pipe organ I've ever seen. Highly recommend the experience.

The organist was great, too, and took dedications and requests from the room the entire time we were there. I snuck in a request for 'Stardust' for our '35th anniversary'.
posted by davelog at 8:17 AM on July 19, 2013

Quick test to see if your local establishment has read up on the franchise manual binder that corporate sends out:

Ask them what middle name the "E." stands for.

(It's "Entertainment".)
posted by radwolf76 at 2:28 AM on July 20, 2013

Also previously: The Chuck E. Cheese Ouroboros, a link-dense history/post on Chuck E. Cheese and Showbiz Pizza Place.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:27 AM on August 9, 2013

« Older "As an experiment, they dated for 40 days."   |   It's Better Up There Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments