The Chuck E. Cheese Ouroboros
December 31, 2008 7:33 PM   Subscribe

In 1977, Nolan Bushnell allowed Gene Landrum to bring Chuck E. Cheese [yt] to life as a family-friendly access point to Atari games. This, perhaps, explains the pizza.

During a search for a unique attraction, Bushnell offended Aaron Fletcher. They then lost a potential major investor, Bob Brock, who was more impressed by Fechter's animatronic wizardry - or put off by the mascot: a giant rat [yt]. Brock instead created the competition, Showbiz Pizza Place*, which would soon surpass and absorb Chuck E. uniformly converting into CEC restaurants or closing completely.

The ascendancy of the rat [.pdf] hasn't been without challenges and scandals, though. The effects of alcohol on adults and the child-filled environment have proven to be a contentious combination [nws; yt], leading to some changes and criticism**. While the germ issue may be overblown, it's true that the toys aren't the safest. Skeeball might lead to video poker. Chuck might be pro-military. The food [yt; 1:03] isn't the healthiest. And, most worrisomely, their Child Check program doesn't always work. Probably no killer gnats, though. And at least the condoms are unused.

Despite bitter [nws], sometimes even frothing [nws], post-childhood assessments [nws] by the disillusioned and jaded, CEC/SPP [yt] speculation, collecting, monetisation, and inspiration*** abound.

Some wonder [nws] if there's anything in it for the legendarily* disaffected [yt], long-suffering [yt] employees...beyond the shenanigans of their infamous, self-important, clueless and sometimes plain ol' famous patrons. Selling tokens to the nostalgic, maybe? It's surely not Chuck. Maybe General Tommy Franks (yes, that one) can turn it around.

How the rat will come off in Leonardo DiCaprio's upcoming film is uncertain, but it looks like Gene will be just fine, regardless.

[previously: *SPP/RAE post; **WSJ CEC violence article; ***Aaron Fletcher & Chris Thrash (update); Clapton @ CEC; shifting demographics?]
posted by batmonkey (17 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
"fechter" should be "fletcher". agh. sorry!
posted by batmonkey at 7:36 PM on December 31, 2008

I always hated the invention and implementation of ball pits after I was too old to play in them.
posted by Samizdata at 8:03 PM on December 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Chuck E. Cheese where a kid can play games, eat pizza and watch mom, dad and forty other people fight. I'm sorry but my kid is not going to "be a kid" at any place that feels the need to have armed security (I'm looking at you Chase Avenue Chuck E. Cheese).
posted by MikeMc at 8:15 PM on December 31, 2008

MikeMc: Looks like your location isn't the only one:
Five years after Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant hired private security because of excessive calls to police about disturbance ... The Town of Brookfield Police responded to the location at 19125 W. Blue Mound Road 81 times since the beginning of 2007, (January to May 21 2007)
When I was 17, I was with a group of friends who wanted to manipulate the Chuck E Cheese "tokens for good grades" policy by using his high school diploma to argue he achieved at least 30 Ds and deserved that many tokens. Good times in suburban America.

Batmonkey: Really wish I could favorite this twice. Holy cow.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:46 PM on December 31, 2008

Can I do one of those nostalgia comments here where I comment on the personal meaning of the post to me? Well, I'm going to.

My parents are divorced and when I was little, I'd spend some summers with my dad and we'd regularly go to Chuck E. Cheese and it'd be a really big deal. I remember playing skeeball with him, remembering back in the days when Chuck E. Cheese wore a bowler hat, vest, and bow tie as a way of saying "Welcome to my fine eating establishment!", and up in the attic I probably have like half a dozen stuffed Chuck E. Cheeses I got from winning collecting tickets from skeeball. Likewise, I also have a bank of Chuck E. Cheese and one of that dog who'd play the banjo. Since my dad could never show up for my real birthday, one time he was able to get them to bring me a cake and have Chuck E. Cheese and his band sing the Birthday song. I remember being absolutely surprised.

When I graduated from high school, my dad came up to visit me, for the first time in 3 years or so, and I remembered that there was a new Chuck E. Cheese in Dewitt, NY, and I said "Hey, we should go to Chuck E. Cheese!" So I was still dressed from graduation, we went to Chuck E. Cheese with my mom, my dad, my stepbrother, and myself. My dad got a shitload of tokens and tickets that I still haven't used.

The last time I went to Chuck E. Cheese was my first date with my most recent ex. Yes, I took a date to Chuck E. Cheese and it was awesome. I was ready to strangle this family that had like a dozen kids and they tried to get every permutation of them in this portrait drawer thingy that only costs a token. I also remember sitting with her and some little kid coming up to us and saying "HI!" She works at a preschool for kids with developmental disorders so she was use to being around kids. It was an actually good date. We played some skeeball, played some video games, and I think I tried fitting in one of those firetruck sort of things you can ride for a token (that experience ended in some pain).

I was tempted to have my 21st birthday at Chuck E. Cheese but I heard they only let you have one cup of beer so that was a no go.

Maybe it's just me getting older, but it seems like the place has changed a bit, in the feel. I remember when I was little, like how there were kids running around and going apeshit in the play area but in the dining room, it was a calm and sacred place for that is where Chuck dwelled. It seems like when I go there now, kids are running and screaming everywhere. Also, it's a pity that in all the times I've gone there since reaching adolescence (about 5 times or so), I've never seen a guy in the Chuck E. Cheese suit come out when I remember the guy in the suit coming out all the time. Also the getting my hand stamped upon entering is a sign of how things have changed.

Point is, I have a soft spot in my heart for Chuck E. Cheese. I'd say that if I had fond childhood memories of anyplace or anything, it's Chuck E. Cheese.
posted by champthom at 8:50 PM on December 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

Indeed, these reports are disturbing, or hilarious:
"police responded to a fight inside the restaurant involving up to 40 people yelling and pushing each other, according to police reports. It was chaos when police arrived. Officers called for mutual aid from the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department and the City of Brookfield. No one would come forward to say who instigated the incident, so there were no arrests.

When town officials first expressed concern about the calls to Chuck E. Cheese's five years ago, they asked the company to hire its own security. That was done.

[later] police arrived, the security guard was standing in the parking lot pointing a gun at 15 people, mostly children ages 6 to 16, lying on the ground. Police allowed the children to sit in their cars until officers could talk to them.

The fight started when one group told another group to be more careful while playing the games because a 1-year-old child was nearly hit by a ball. Words were exchanged between the groups and one person was "getting in people's faces," police reports say. "
posted by pwnguin at 9:25 PM on December 31, 2008

Upchuck E. Cheese

Man, that's some god awful pizza.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:45 PM on December 31, 2008

but I heard they only let you have one cup of beer so that was a no go

They serve beer? The ones around me (Central MA) you are not allowed in the door unless you are accompanying a child under the age of 14. It may have been one of the other entertainment venues (Roll on America things like that). My college friends and I were disappointed when we went and tried to go in and told we had to leave.
posted by lilkeith07 at 10:22 PM on December 31, 2008

The three of them that I have been in had uniformly bad pizza - the second-worst pizza I've ever eaten. It would be third-worst, but I'm not counting the one with the used band-aid on it, from that pizza place in Leominster. I didn't eat that one.

Besides their being major disease vectors, deafeningly loud, designed for stress and disappointment, and centered around a truly creepy giant rodent, Chuck E. Cheeses haven't got anything going for them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:09 AM on January 1, 2009

one hears of third world countries, so, presumably there are second world and first world countries. is there a fourth? wouldn't the existence of chuck e. cheese preclude membership in any of them?
posted by kitchenrat at 7:57 AM on January 1, 2009

This is the best post ever.
posted by ghastlyfop at 9:19 AM on January 1, 2009

in the dining room, it was a calm and sacred place for that is where Chuck dwelled. It seems like when I go there now, kids are running and screaming everywhere

You either have a really bad case of nostalgia or you were dining at some Chucky Cheese in another dimension. There were always kids running and screaming everywhere. That's the whole point. The only change I note recently is less animatronics and better pizza.

Does anyone remember another animatronic restaurant, Bullwinkle's? I seem to recall that my nephews enjoyed the water show part of it (which were really just remote controlled sprinklers).

With the robotics available today, you could make some really cool creepy restaurants.
posted by eye of newt at 11:11 AM on January 1, 2009

and yes, the pizza is better. It is awful, but before it was completely inedible.
posted by eye of newt at 11:22 AM on January 1, 2009

Never went to Chuck E Cheese as a kid. My genius parents figured out that the bowling alley was pretty much the exact same thing for half the cost. Video games, junk food,cheap beer, and they got to bowl while we ran around all hopped up on vending machine candy and cheese-fries.

As an adult when a friend had his son's birthday at Chuck E's I was excited to finally set foot in the place. The thing I will never forget is the smell. Dear god, children are some foul smelling creatures. I was out of there as soon as the cake was cut, but that distinct aroma of sweaty kids and urine was in my nose for a day and a half.
posted by billyfleetwood at 12:02 PM on January 1, 2009

this is an excellent post.
posted by zenwerewolf at 12:39 PM on January 2, 2009

I'm so glad you guys enjoyed it - I knew I was posting to a limited audience, and I wanted to make it worth your while.

I'd been collecting CEC links for weeks and a post in MeTa made me realise I should maybe go ahead and turn them into a post. While investigating those finds, I found more, and it just kept growing. After the spreadsheet hit 70 links, it was clear I'd sorely underestimated just how deep Chuck has embedded himself into US culture.

Personally, I vaguely recall being in a Chuck E. Cheese when I was an older teenager, but that could also be a dream, because I remember so little of it and my memory's usually fairly keen. I do remember pizza that tasted like sour tomato sauce and grease had been ladled onto a cardboard round, so maybe it really happened. My experience with the chain is largely based on cultural regurgitation and osmosis...and watching parking lot fights at one I worked near for a few years.

Which, I suppose, is why the whole topic intrigued me so - with the overpriced entertainment, bad food, angry adults, and uncontrolled children, I really didn't understand why it was such a touchpoint for a such a huge class and generational spread of Americans. After this research and the responses in this post, I now understand it's not all fights and indigestion but a lot of it is nostalgia for a Chuck E. Cheese we seem to have lost to the current trend of egotism and overweaning profit.

Hi. I'm on MetaFilter and I can overthink a cup of pizza-covered tokens.
posted by batmonkey at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2009

overweening. agh!
posted by batmonkey at 5:21 PM on January 2, 2009

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