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The Electronic Pizza

by Craig Shaw Gardner

Quick! What’s over five feet high, with big ears and grey fur, wears a derby hat and runs a restaurant?

Well, I didn’t know the answer until recently, but my five year old niece could tell you all about it. We’re talking about Chuck E. Cheese.

The Chuck E. Cheese Pizzatime Theaters are part of a growing trend that combines fast food restaurants with video arcades. Other chains, such as Showbiz Pizza and Gadgets, are also riding the video food bandwagon, but Chuck E. Cheese, with over two hundred outlets in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Hong Kong (and plans for dozens more), is by far the largest. The brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, the inventor of Pong and the man behind the early days of Atari, Chuck E. Cheese restaurants are set up like Mini-Disneylands, with a lot of different things to do, and a lot of different ways to spend your money.

When you walk into a Chuck E. Cheese, the first thing you encounter is noise. First, it’s the noise of excited kids, bouncing from room to room, their bewildered parents trailing after them. The place is full of play areas, skee ball and bowling games, kiddie rides and video monitors. And that’s just the front hallway. Set back from this common area are the videogame room and eating areas.

I came with another adult on my first trip to a Pizzatime Theater. We walked slowly across the front hallway, careful not to bump into any small people. After some delicate maneuvering and a close call or two, we reached the order desk. The desk looks pretty much like any other fast food chain, with microphones to call the orders back into the kitchen. The employees, mostly teenagers working part-time, all wear Chuck E. Cheese derby hats. You can order pizza or subs, all rather more expensive than your typical fast food chain. A large pizza with anything more than cheese costs well over ten dollars.

We ordered a small pizza. The order person gave us a number and said it would show up on the video monitor when the pizza was ready. We were also given a couple of “free” game tokens, included in the pizza price. The larger the pizza you order, the more tokens you receive. The tokens showed a picture of Chuck E. Cheese, a rodent with a derby hat, and the words “In Pizza We Trust.”

Well, we had tokens, and we had time on our hands. The videogame room beckoned.

The room looked much like a video arcade in any suburban mall. There were no pinball machines, only electronic games. No Dragon’s Lair, but they did have most of the basics: Q*Bert, Donkey Kong, the Pac-mans, etc. I ran out of my tokens before the pizza was ready. So, of course, I got some more, four for a dollar, out of the token machine. Four for a dollar, just like quarters, except, of course, that you have to spend Chuck E. Cheese tokens inside a Chuck E. Cheese.

A couple more rounds of Q*Bert, and our order was ready. Our number “68” flashed large on the video monitor. We went to retrieve our pizza.

This presented us with our next problem. Where do you eat amidst all this noise? You see, all of Chuck E. Cheese is noisy with music, and electronics, and the voices of kids.

We settled on eating in the Lounge.

There are three or four different eating areas in every Chuck E. Cheese. In this particular restaurant, the Lounge seemed quietest. The room was long and narrow, filled with booths and tables, most large enough to seat big families or birthday party groups. And in the center of the room was a stage, on which stood an eight foot tall lion in a sequined jump suit. The lion’s name was, of course, “The King,” and he sang Elvis Presley songs.

All the restaurant rooms in a Chuck E. Cheese have these robots, who provide entertainment as you eat. The King, in a way, seemed like a giant, moving jukebox. A sign to one side of the stage informed us: “To Start the Show, Insert a Game Token Here.” When you put your token in the slot, the stage lights up and the Lion looks out over the audience, and tells us that this song is dedicated to someone special “out there.” (Q*Bert maybe?) The robot then proceeds to strum its guitar, open and close its mouth, and move its head and eyes as the sound system plays some hit Elvis record such as “Guitar Man” or “Heartbreak Hotel.” At song’s end, the robot will humbly thank the audience, then say “I’d be nothing without you.” Down go the lights. Back to our pizza.

Chuck E. Pizza is not that bad. It’s not that good, either, but it was better than the corporate concept pizzas I’ve had in the past: Pizza Hut, whose products often seemed to taste more like whatever preservatives they used rather than what food they were shaped to resemble; or Shakey’s, whose pizza tasted like nothing so much as reconstituted wood shavings. Chuck E. Cheese Pizza, on the other hand, is bland and inoffensive, rather like Chef Boy-ar-dee, fresh from the oven. I suspect that the blandness of the pizza is quite carefully planned. When I was six years old, I thought Chef Boy-ar-dee products were right up there with Hostess Twinkies as some of the great foods of the Western World.

And everything at Chuck E. Cheese is geared for the kids. The restaurants are billed as “family entertainment centers,” and are designed to have diverse enough attractions to appeal to children ranging from toddlers on up to those in their mid-teens. And “family centers” describes them exactly. Every group of kids must be accompanied by someone over the age of eighteen. So there are always adults around to keep things under control, or at least that’s the theory.

Would you buy a pizza from this rodent? Street-wise, New Jersey-born Chuck E. Cheese already has over two hundred outlets.

Having finished our pizza, and listened to the King sing half a dozen songs, we moved on to inspect the other rooms. The Cabaret had an elephant that played the synthesizer, and sang songs in a Betty Boop voice. This robot sang a medley of show tunes with rewritten lyrics, so that now all the songs were, of course, about the circus.

But the biggest room in the restaurant is the real Chuck E. Cheese Pizzatime Theater. It featured a five piece robot band, animated from the waist up, with female mouse back-up singers to one side. This was the “birthday party” room, and it was full of long tables, each one occupied by ten or more kids, who more or less listened to Chuck E. and company sing a song about “I’m glad it’s your birthday, because it’s my birthday, too.”

Birthday parties are big business at Chuck E. Cheese, and we found brochures available at the Chuck E. Cheese concession stand, where you can buy Chuck E. Cheese merchandise to take home for your kids. The birthday brochure offers you a package deal; for about four dollars a head, kids get pizza, cake, free game tokens, special birthday songs, and a visit from Chuck E. Cheese. That’s another facet of the Chuck E. Cheese experience. People dressed in costumes, either as Chuck E. Cheese or one of his cohorts, come around to greet the kids and hug them.

The theater seemed noisier than all the other rooms combined. A particularly harried looking mother walked by us, pulling her son after her. “I certainly hope you like all this,” she said in a low yoice, “because it’s the last time we’re ever coming here!”

And that’s the essence of Chuck E. Cheese. There’s so much going on in one of these places—color, noise, music, movement—that it’s just too much for some people, adults in particular. But for children raised on videogames and commercials and Sesame Street and McDonald’s, it’s a real attention grabber. The characters created for the restaurant could have come straight out of Saturday morning cartoons. In fact, some of them look a lot like the Banana Splits. And the inside of the restaurant is incredibly diversified. On my first visit to a Chuck E. Cheese, hardly anyone was playing video games. Most of the people there were young children attending birthday parties, too young to be interested in the relatively sophisticated electronics. But the kids clustered around the people in furry costumes, and the bowling game, kiddie rides, and play areas were in constant use.

It struck me, then, that in a certain sense, the Chuck E. Cheese Pizzatime Theater is very much like the world’s largest videogame. It’s noisy, and it attracts your complete attention. It can give kids instant gratification, in food, games, rides, and cartoon characters. And, to make it work, you have to keep on feeding in those quarters.

Having survived my first experience at Chuck E. Cheese, I still felt I should give the concept another chance. Here we were, two adults with a combined age of sixty-three passing judgement on a restaurant designed for people under fifteen. I decided it was time for another visit, this time guided by my niece, currently aged five.

My niece is an expert on Chuck E. Cheese. She had a birthday party there herself last year, and she will talk about it in great detail, including song lyrics. Her parents, on the other hand, won’t talk about the birthday party at all. At the mere mention of it, extreme weariness seems to overcome them. “Never again,” they intone.

So I went to Chuck E. Cheese with an expert. And the minute we got some tokens, she disappeared.

She reappered ten or fifteen minutes later to get more tokens, then vanished again. A few minutes later, her mother and I decided to look for her. The lounge in this Chuck E. Cheese had four singing dogs called The Beagles, lip synching Beatle songs. She wasn’t in the lounge.

This restaurant also had a video lounge with a five foot screen rather than a play area. She wasn’t there either. Nor was she in the videogame room (it was an older restaurant than the first one I visited, with older videogames. They didn’t even have a Q*Bert!) or in the theater. When asked later, she turned out not to be all that interested in the singing robots, or even in the pizza. It was nice they were there, but what she really wanted to do was ride on the flying saucer!

We found her in the kiddie ride section, riding up, down and around on a saucer shaped gadget large enough for her to sit in, powered, of course, by Chuck E. Cheese tokens. My niece had had enough of singing robots and bland food, but she could ride on that saucer forever.

It’s this diversification that keeps things interesting for the kids. And keeping things interesting is of prime importance to the people who control these concept restaurants.

“We want to keep away from concept boredom,” said Don Morgan, spokesman for Chuck E. Cheese’s chief competitor, Showbiz Pizza. So both Showbiz and Chuck E. Cheese are constantly looking for new twists to their concepts, to keep their customers coming back.

Showbiz Pizza has close to two hundred outlets, mostly in the midwestern states. “We’re better than Chuck E. Cheese,” Morgan says quite plainly, stating that a typical Chuck E. Cheese location costs three quarters of a million dollars to construct, while Showbiz pours one and a quarter million into each of theirs.

Showbiz is proud of their technology. Their robots are full figure, unlike most of those at Chuck E. Cheese, which are only visible from the waist up. According to Morgan, Showbiz’s robots have three times the animation of their competitors. During a ten minute show, they will go through 53,000 different positions.

Showbiz also believes in maintaining a state-of-the-art video arcade. They have brought Dragons Lair to all of their locations, and have even shown a tv commercial in some cities just focusing on their new game. But Morgan is even more excited about their latest acquisition, Mach 3, a combat game that uses laserdisc imagery over actual film footage, which will have been installed in all Showbiz restaurants by the time you read this.

Showbiz is also experimenting with their own play areas, called “Space stations”, sports rooms with large video screens and sit-down video games, waiters in costume, and other experimental innovations, all to keep the customers coming back.

Chuck E. Cheese is changing too, according to Nancy Gilbaugh in Pizzatime’s communications department. “We’re constantly upgrading our shows,” she said, citing that changes are made at Pizzatime Theaters approximately every six months. New characters are always being introduced. A recent addition at some outlets are the Beach Bowsers, a group of dogs who sing Beach Boy songs. And, Gilbaugh adds, they’re working on improving the pizza, too.

Gilbaugh also says her company is committed to keeping all of the top games in their arcades, although my own experience showed their video rooms to be good, but not great. But all that may change very shortly, because Nolan Bushnell is on the move again.

Chuck E. Cheese began as a small subsidiary of Atari under Bushnell’s administration. When Bushnell left Atari, and took Chuck E. Cheese with him, he signed a noncompetition agreement with Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications. According to the terms of this agreement, Bushnell was not to produce any new videogames until after October 1, 1983.

Both Showbiz and Chuck E. Cheese have their own robot factories, called, respectively, Creative Engineering and Cyberamics. But, while Showbiz has to depend on other companies to supply video games, Bushnell has set up a second company, Sente Technologies, which before October 1 of this year was occupied making target bowling games for Chuck E. Cheese outlets. After October 1, Sente began making videogames as well. While, as of this writing, Bushnell’s organization is keeping very closemouthed about what exactly these new videogames will be, Bushnell has gone on record to say that he expects his new products to revolutionize the industry all over again, and in three years Sente will control 40% of the market. Bushnell is also involved in a computer-aided animation project called Kadabrascope, which will produce Chuck E. Cheese cartoons for the restaurants and cable tv.

Pizza, anyone?

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