Children of the '80s and '90s probably look back at Chuck E. Cheese’s fondly. The weird, dimly lit restaurant offered everything a kid could want: Pizza, arcade games, and twitchy robotic animals singing pop songs. Today, you might be—to put this lightly—hesitant to enter the establishment, but in its heyday, Chuck E. Cheese was king.
1. THE RESTAURANT HAS A TECH-WORLD BACKGROUND.
While one might not immediately picture a giant rat rubbing elbows with the tech giants in Silicon Valley, the restaurant was a side project created by Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari. "It was my pet project,” Bushnell told The Atlantic. “I started it inside Atari. My objective was to vertically integrate the market. We were selling coin-operated games at about $1500 or $2000 a pop. In their life, they'd make $15 to 20k. It didn't take rocket science to say I'm on the wrong side of the equation."
Bushnell decided that the best way to make the most bang for his buck was to create locations for his games himself. He decided to open up a restaurant with an attached arcade instead of a regular arcade as a means to avoid competition. As for food, pizza was seen as the most logical option. Bushnell’s thinking was that if the three key ingredients—cheese, sauce, and dough—were good, then there was very little to mess up.
2. THE ANIMATRONICS WERE FOR THE PARENTS.
Believe or not, the animatronic animal band, in all their jolty glory, were actually created with the parents in mind. When children asked to go the arcade, parents immediately thought of spending money; if a child asked to go see the robot band play, that was free with the meal. Once they were in the door, parents usually ended up coughing up money for tokens anyway. "The other thing was that we wanted the parents to have something to amuse themselves while the kids were in the game room. If you listened to the dialogue, it was fun, edgy stuff, kinda like Toy Story, written as much for the parents as the kids," Bushnell said.
This free entertainment was inspired by a restaurant called Pizza and Pipes that would draw in large crowds to watch an old organ being played. Bushnell discovered that pizza and entertainment paired well together, but didn’t want to pay for a performer. After seeing the Tiki Room in Disney, he was inspired to use animatronics. The decision was labor efficient and human free.
3. THE RESTAURANT WAS ALMOST CALLED RICK RAT’S.
While Bushnell was concocting his musical restaurant idea, the project was called “Coyote Pizza.” He stumbled across the perfect coyote costume at a trade show, which he immediately purchased and mailed back to his team to fill with robot innards. When his engineers received the costume, they realized that Bushnell had accidentally bought a rat costume. One for rolling with the punches, the creator simply changed the name to Rick Rat’s Pizza.
Understandably, the hired PR firm was horrified by this name. People generally associate rats with subways and low sanitary health ratings, so the name had to go. In an effort to take focus off the rat theme, the firm decided on the name “Chuck E. Cheese” (the “E” stands for entertainment).
4. THE ANIMATRONIC PIZZA WORLD IS CUT-THROAT.
The first Chuck E. Cheese’s opened in 1977, but by the following year, Bushnell had a falling out with Atari’s parent company Warner and left the company. Uninterested in the rat-themed pizza joint, they let him take the rights to CEC with him. Looking for new investors, Bushnell sought out the financial support of Bob Brock, chairman of the Brock Hotel Corporation. Brock was going to help Chuck E. Cheese open in 16 states, but through the tweaking process, he heard about Aaron Fechter.
Fechter was an aspiring inventor who created animatronics far superior to Bushnell’s awkward and spastic robots. The movements were smoother, the facial expressions changed, and the drumsticks actually hit the drums. Bushnell had asked to buy Fechter’s creations, but the offer was declined. Perhaps less creeped out by these more inept robots, Brock backed out of his deal with Bushnell and ran away with Fechter to create a competing restaurant. Called ShowBiz Pizza Place, this Bizarro restaurant was aimed at an older crowd; their band called Rock-Afire Explosion played more adult music that appealed to teens, who would flock to the restaurant at eight, after the parents had left.
This led to vicious competition of pizza joints, with both businesses sometimes opening up locations in the same town. Chuck E. Cheese sued ShowBiz, and after settling out of court, ShowBiz agreed to pay a portion of its profits to Chuck E. Cheese for the next 14 years. Despite the legal win, Chuck E. Cheese eventually went bankrupt in 1984, and ShowBiz bought it out the following year. Chuck’s charming rat face was too iconic to kill, so the two restaurants became friendly competition, with ShowBiz’s Billy Bob and Chuck E. Cheese sometimes posing together in ads.
Eventually, the two frenemy brands were merged and Fechter left the company, taking his characters with him. The Rock-Afire Explosion were stripped down to their robotic parts and recovered with Chuck E. Cheese character skins.
5. CHUCK USED TO BE A LOT ROUGHER AROUND THE EDGES.
Before Chuck E. Cheese was a guitar-playing mouse, he was a tired-looking rat from New Jersey. The thick-accented rodent was often seen smoking cigars in promotional images as well as the Pizza Time Theater comic book. [PDF] In 1980, Chuck put out his last cigar for the "Great American Smoke-Out" campaign. [PDF]
6. THERE WAS A SPECIES CHANGE.
In 2012, the marketing team at CEC Inc. pronounced that the giant rat mascot was in dire need of a cultural update. Somehow the backwards hat and elbow pads (but no rollerblades?) were not working for today’s youth. The new Chuck E. Cheese traded in the cap and Velcro-straps for a guitar and Chuck Taylors. Oh, and now he’s a mouse. The switch was done in an effort to pick up dragging revenue and drag in a younger guitar-loving audience. Other changes to keep with the times include adding Purell stations, offering gluten-free options, and adding churros to the menu.
7. THE VOICE ACTING HISTORY HAS BEEN ROCKY.
The Chuck E. Cheese’s brand overhaul was not without casualities. The new mousey mascot needed a new young voice to match, so former voice actor Duncan Brannan was dumped in favor of Bowling for Soup’s lead singer, Jaret Reddick. Brannan had been the voice since 1993. He was one of the last to know about the switch, only discovering the truth when a fan sent him “Chuck’s Hot New Single.” The saccharine pop punk song voiced by Reddick uses the chorus, “Say cheese, it’s funner.”
Understandably, Brannan was a little miffed. "After serving as the voice of Chuck E. Cheese since 1993 and taking the character through so many stages, changes, and evolutions this comes as a complete surprise to me. And, yes, it is hurtful that CEC, Inc. chose not to communicate with me about it,” he said in a press release. [PDF]
8. YOU CAN BUY THEIR CHEESE.
If you would like to recreate the magic of Chuck E. Cheese pizza at home, the company now sells their own shredded cheese featuring the rock 'n' roll mouse himself on the packaging. Also keep an eye out for mouse-branded string cheese and yogurt squeezes in crazy flavors like melonberry and cotton candy.
9. THERE WAS A MOVIE.
You may not have seen or heard of 1999's Chuck E. Cheese in the Galaxy 5000, but that’s because it was a direct-to-VHS movie that mostly just played in the background of Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. The convoluted story follows a young boy named Charlie Rockit, who needs $50,000 to repair his parents’ tractor. Chuck E. Cheese and his motley gang of plush animal friends decide to enter an intergalactic race on the planet Orion. The story has romance, treachery, and even some original music.
10. BARBIE WAS A FAN.
Barbie has never shied away from a little brand synergy, but it’s perhaps a little excessive that the doll sported not one but two Chuck E. Cheese outfits. The first rendition, released in 1995, featured a brand shirt and tote to go with Barbie’s Canadian tuxedo. The second, more aggressively branded outfit hit the market in 2001, with Barbie wearing a shirt emblazoned with Chuck E. Cheese’s face and logo—a design to make any Urban Outfitters employee swoon.
11. MOST SERVE ALCOHOL.
Although geared towards children, 70 percent of all Chuck E. Cheese locations have licenses to sell alcohol—and apparently they serve it at competitive prices. This is likely a big draw for parents who are looking for an escape from their screaming children. Although some concerned parents raise their eyebrows at this policy, the establishment stands behind their decision. "It is our experience that our adult guests are very responsible consumers who are concerned about the safety of their children, so it is rare that we experience any issues related to the service of beer and wine," they said in a released statement.
12. BUT MAYBE THEY SHOULDN’T.
Despite Chuck E. Cheese’s confidence in their adult guests, the restaurant has been the venue for an unusually high number of public disturbances. In 2008, the restaurant triggered more police reports than any other restaurant in Brookfield, Wis. The small town police had to break up a total of 12 fights from 2007 to 2008. These pizza-fueled brawls are so common that Vice compiled a list of their favorites.
On top of violent parents, the restaurant also has to worry about drunk minors. In 2009, police and the Illinois Liquor Control Commission set up an undercover sting to discover what establishments outside of Chicago were serving under-aged patrons. They found one Chuck E. Cheese's that was guilty of neglecting to card.