Chuck E. Cheese's: The untold truth

How long has it been since you visited a Chuck E. Cheese's? 

Maybe you were a fan of the '70s and '80s era of the restaurant, which featured wise-cracking, elaborate animatronic shows for the entire family's amusement. Perhaps you were more of a '90s era Chuck E. Cheese's fan, which offered a pared down animatronics show, coupled with character animation and newer arcade and small-scale carnival-type rides. Or maybe you just love watching the many videos showing the hysterical, and often frightening ways the animatronics have backfired.

Over the years, this family activity space and children's birthday party destination has undergone some drastic changes. From menu overhauls to radical rebranding, Chuck E. Cheese's 40-plus years of history have given us a much different experience — from the time were were begging to have our own party there to the time we were booking one for our own kids. But how much do you really know about Chuck E. Cheese's wild and crazy history?

Its start has close links to Atari

Nolan Bushnell may have found fame and fortune as a co-founder of the video game company, Atari, but his first dream was to open an interactive, family entertainment restaurant. His visions became reality in the late '70s with the advent of the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre chain of restaurants. Bushnell's original concept was to combine dining with the feeling of being at a carnival. His concept of a pizza parlor with "talking beer barrels" eventually morphed into the animatronic, talking animal characters the chain became famous for, which were partly inspired by Disney World's Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree.

Bushnell also wanted to present his video game concepts under his own terms, minus the unsavory teenage element that was running rampant in your average, local video arcade. For more family-friendly appeal, the company established a policy that minors must be accompanied by adults, cementing the way for the company to really become the place "where a kid can be a kid."

There were many spin-offs

The initial popularity of Pizza Time Theatre spawned no shortage of spin-off restaurants. In the early '80s you could visit Bullwinkle's Family Restaurant, Major Magic's All Star Pizza, as well as a chain called Showbiz Pizza Place, which was opened by a former potential business partner of Bushnell, Robert Brock. Brock had backed out of a deal with Bushnell and opened his own chain when he found a company that could create much more sophisticated animatronics than the slightly-creepy, first generation characters appearing at Pizza Time Theatres. The original Showbiz Pizza Places featured an animatronic band called The Wolf Pack 5, which evolved into The Rock-afire Explosion, with endearing characters like Showbiz Pizza's mascot, a bear named Billy Bob Brockali, and a keys-playing gorilla called Fatz Geronimo.

Pizza Time Theatre sued Showbiz Pizza, and won a portion of their future profits, but it wasn't enough to save Pizza Time Theatre from the decline of the business due to over-expansion, competition, and the worn-off novelty of their restaurants with the public. By 1984 they filed for bankruptcy, only to be bought out by their biggest competitor… Showbiz Pizza. Showbiz Pizza combined both restaurant's characters into one show for some time, but eventually removed the Rock-afire Explosion from all their locations. Finally, all locations were rebranded as simply, Chuck E. Cheese's.

Chuck wasn't always a mouse

Long before the first Pizza Time Theatre had opened its doors, Bushnell had purchased the character costume that would eventually evolve into the Chuck we all know and love today. But it wasn't a mouse, or even a rat costume, that Bushnell believed he was buying. Bushnell's original concept was called "Coyote Pizza," so imagine his surprise when the costume that arrived in the mail after a visit to an amusement show was in fact a life sized, gray rat costume instead. His co-workers at Atari embraced the character they began to refer to as "Rick Rat," making him an unofficial company mascot.

Rick Rat hung out at Atari outings, and in the corner of Bushnell's office, until Pizza Time Theatre was ready to come to fruition. Wisely deciding that a rat might not carry the best connotations for a restaurant chain, Rick Rat's name was changed to "Chuck Entertainment Cheese," or Chuck E. Cheese for short.

Chuck's evolution

The character of Chuck E. Cheese has been around since the dawn of the company, but you might not recognize the first version of Chuck, compared to what he has evolved into today.

Chuck E. Cheese has had quite a few top-to-bottom makeovers in his life. The original Chuck was quite clearly a rat, with a prolonged snout and jutting, buck teeth. Meant to appeal to adults, the character sported a red derby hat with vest and bow-tie, chomped a cigar, and was something of a hooligan, which was precisely the intent of voice actor John Widelock, who modeled Chuck's personality after the wise-talking film character of the '30s and '40s, Muggs McGinnis.

A movie was planned in the early '80s, but Widelock's inability to sing saw him replaced with voice actor Scott Wilson, who warmed the character up along with designers who were softening and rounding Chuck's look. The '90s saw his transition from an adult rat in a tuxedo to a sporty teen rat with a baseball cap. He got a new voice once again, from voice actor Duncan Brannan who transformed the character even more, dropping the trademark New Jersey accent originated by Widelock.

Chuck was majorly modernized again in 2012, and now looks decidedly like a mouse. The bold, new, rock star look demanded a new voice, and Bowling for Soup's Jaret Reddick replaced Wilson as the voice of Chuck. Reddick still voices Chuck, performing self-penned original songs written exclusively for the character.

The characters

Chuck has gone through so many changes over the years, that it may be easy to forget that once upon a time, he was surrounded by a whole host of animatronic friends that joined in the big musical show at Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatres.

Some characters, like Pasqually the Pizza Chef and Jasper T. Jowls, entertained customers for years, evolving right along with Chuck. Other less-known characters, like Harmony Howlette and Sally Sashay, only guest-starred with Chuck for a year or two, falling into the category of Chuck E. Cheese retirement legend.

Still more characters, like Dolli Dimples and Artie Antlers, were featured as cabaret performers, whose act was performed from a side stage or completely separate room from the main show. Dolli in particular had a somewhat saucy act, that was definitely meant for the adults, in which she would flirt with men in the audience and tell stories of her many husbands. In some locations, the cabaret stage was retrofitted to accommodate another small band, like The Beagles, or The Beach Bowzers, who sang Beatles and Beach Boys songs.

And let's not forget the original Showbiz Pizza Place characters from the Rocka-fire Explosion band, who were unceremoniously shown the door after the buyout of Pizza Time Theatre. The band, surprisingly, never broke up, and still enjoy cult-like status, with modern song covers appearing on You Tube. A full-length documentary was even made to appease the many fans who still believe they were the superior animatronic band.

Phasing out the band

Sadly, today's kids don't seem to have the same affinity for the robotic musical characters that previous generations did. In August of 2017, Chuck E. Cheese's announced that they would begin revamping their locations, and removing the animatronic "Munch's Make Believe Band" or "Pizza Time Players" and stage, to make way for a large dance floor where children can conga with the live Chuck E. Cheese that emerges from a back room to boogie and throw tickets in the air.

Chief Executive, Tom Leverton, told CBS News, "The kids stopped looking at the animatronics years and years ago, and they would wait for the live Chuck E. to come out." He went on to say that children today have more sophisticated taste in entertainment, preferring slick animation and special effects. But what about the parents who are still nostalgic for the old experience? Leverton tells NPR, "What we need to focus on is creating that magic for the new generation of kids that are coming in for the first time."

The characters have an odd fate...

If you've been missing your old favorite characters for far too long, and you have some extra room in your basement, you may have been considered getting your hands on some of the old animatronics. It may seem like it shouldn't be too hard, considering the company's decision to remove the robot characters from all locations, you would think a wave of Chuck E. Cheese's characters are about to flood the market. But it's not that easy.

Chuck E. Cheese's has a rather bizarre policy of destroying their characters once they're retired. In the case of the actual Chuck E. Cheese character costume, which is worn by an employee who walks around, high-fiving guests, one restaurant location was filmed demolishing the head with a sledgehammer, though the normal policy would see the costume shipped to a a warehouse where the deed could be performed out of eyesight. Meredith Rose, an intellectual property attorney who once worked in a New Jersey Chuck E. Cheese's location, tells Atlas Obscura, "If you own this intellectual property writ large, you don't want a secondary market to pop up."

But where there is a will, there's a way. Sets of the old characters do occasionally appear on Craigslist, like a 1985 Beach Bowzers set that asked a cool $5,000. A Rock-afire Explosion Band also appeared back in 2008 on eBay for a very reasonable $14,000.  

Count your kids

Anyone visiting a Chuck E. Cheese's for the first time with a tot in tow may wonder what the company does to ensure that errant kidnappers aren't casing the joint in order to to whisk off unsuspecting children. Chuck E. Cheese's allays those fears by stamping each child and parent with a blacklight hand stamp that is checked and matched before exiting the premises. The company can't do much, however, when it comes to people just plain forgetting to take their kids home with them when they leave.

ABC News reports of five incidents in recent years where parents left their children behind at the restaurant. In one case in Texas, seen in the above video, the parents didn't even realize the 5-year-old child, who was one of ten siblings, was gone until the next morning. In another case, a 3-year-old girl was not noticed missing until her parents saw her picture on the local news.

Things can get pretty violent...

Chuck E. Cheese's may be the place where a kid can be a kid, but unfortunately, some adults have made it a place filled with violence, and even death.

Chuck E. Cheese's locations nationwide are no stranger to fights breaking out among parents. So what gets adults so riled up at a place that's supposed to equal fun, family time for them and their kids? Is it the stress of birthday parties, or perhaps that some locations serve alcohol? You may be surprised to learn that even in some locations that gave up their liquor license, violent incidents did not decrease. YouTube shares footage of endless brawls that have taken place inside Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants.

In the most horrific story of violence erupting in the restaurant, we have the case of the "Chuck E. Cheese Killer." In 1993, disgruntled ex-employee, Nathan Dunlap, hid in a restroom until the Aurora, Colorado restaurant closed, emerging to fatally shoot four of his former co-workers, and critically injure one more, who played dead until Dunlap left the building. To this day, Dunlap sits on death row while politicians debate his fate.

What about the pizza?

So there's no more animatronic band, and a fight could break out at any moment… but how's the food?

The good news is, the food, including the pizza, might actually be a lot better than you remember it. In 2011, the restaurants all transitioned to freshly made dough and freshly grated cheeses. In 2015, CEC Entertainment issued a press release stating that Chuck E. Cheese's pizza had beaten out rival Pizza Hut in a blind taste test. The menu also has some more adult-friendly choices that you may not remember from years gone by. Currently, diners can choose from both thin and traditional crust pizzas, and gourmet pizzas like BBQ chicken and Cali Alfredo. Wraps and sandwiches are available, as are chicken wings, salads, and hot desserts. In keeping with the times, gluten-free pizza crusts and desserts are available as well. Some locations have even gotten a little more hip with their offerings, with choices like a "Chucktober" candy-corn pizza, and a "Mac-cheesy" pie, covered with mac and cheese.

A token memory...

Indicating that the Chuck E. Cheese's that you remember from when you were a kid are truly something of a bygone era, Chuck E. Cheese's has done away with one more bit of nostalgia from your youth — the game tokens.

In 2016, Chuck E. Cheese's locations began transitioning from game tokens, to the more high tech, value added cards that can track a customer's spending and habits, as well as store credits for future visits. Customers in some locations can even opt for timed unlimited play passes available during birthday parties or at special times throughout the week. Don't worry, the machines that issue prize tickets are still available for all of your plastic spider ring needs.

Have some old tokens hanging around the house? Relax, you can trade them in for value on a play pass. Or, you could check to see if those tokens are worth even more than they would be at your local location. There's a collector's market for old Chuck E. Cheese's tokens, with more value placed on tokens with Chuck's old likenesses, or from locations that have since gone out of business.