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ShowBiz Pizza Remembered

By: raptor

So I’m a child of the Midwest. This fact had it’s disadvantages, but also some advantages. One of those advantages was ShowBiz Pizza.

 

If you’re familiar with Chuck E. Cheese, then you’ll have some idea of what ShowBiz Pizza was like;  huge arcade, great pizza, and a big theater area where a bunch of animatronic animals play instruments to the joy of kids and parents alike.

But that all ended several years ago. I miss ShowBiz Pizza. It was truly the place “where a kid can be a kid”, as the ad jingle went. I could have left my memories of ShowBiz alone, choosing to ignore any details as to why ShowBiz is gone, and how it got started. But, I didn’t.

Who here knows who Nolan Bushnell is? Anyone? Bueller? If you’re a 80’s video game geek, you probably at least recognize the name. Nolan Bushnell is considered (in some circles) to be the father of the video game. Nolan was the inventor of Pong, and founder of Atari. There is a lot to know about this dude, but I would never have known about his involvement in the “pizza theater” concept had it not been for my love of ShowBiz Pizza and those fond memories.

In the late 70’s, ole Nolan was looking for ways to promote Atari products and make a name for himself. Atari was gaining steam, but so was the competition. Consoles like the Atari 2600 and Magnavox Odyssey were starting to hit their stride. Heading into the early 80’s, video games were about to explode. It was during this time that Nolan came up with the idea of an arcade/restaurant/theater. This idea would become known as Pizza Time Theater, and Atari would fund it.

Pizza Time Theater began in 1977 and was also gaining in sales and popularity. You had your arcade, with all the latest games, you had pizza, and you had Nolan’s crafted animatronic animal characters. The place was billed as the only attraction outside of Disney to have fully functional animatronic entertainment.

Meanwhile, down in Florida, a dude by the name of Aaron Fechter was looking for ways to increase capital in his company, Creative Engineering. He was hoping to raise enough cash to fund a project he had long hoped to complete. It was a vehicle that could get 90 miles to the gallon, called the Jutta. So, one of the ways his company raised money was by selling the occasional animatronic character or group of characters to businesses. One year, Aaron took his favorite creation, known as the Wolfpack Five, to a convention hoping to generate interest. Nolan Bushnell took notice.

Aaron and Nolan conversed for a bit before Nolan offered to buy Creative Engineering, so that he could use Aaron’s creations in Pizza Time Theater. Aaron declined. He had bigger plans for the Wolfe Pack than just selling them off and getting kicked out of his own company down the road.

Nolan Bushnell had made a fortune so far in Atari, so he figured it was time to sell the thing off while the getting was good. Warner Communications (now TimeWarner) said “We’ll take it!” and soon Atari was in the hands of corporate know-nothings. It didn’t take long for ole Nolan to get irritated by corporate red tape and a lack of vision. So, he bolted from Atari, but not before buying Pizza Time Theater from them.

So now it was just Nolan and Pizza Time Theater. He concentrated his efforts on getting the place into prime shape. This meant FRANCHISING! A rich big shot by the name of Robert L. Brock took an interest. At the time, Brock owned the most Holiday Inn franchises of anyone in the country. Not a poor fella. Not a stupid one either. He and Nolan signed an agreement that Brock would the SOLE franchisee of Pizza Time Theater.

Well, Brock soon became none too happy with the way Bushnell handled Pizza Time Theater. So, he started throwing his weight around a bit. Brock was especially disappointed with the animatronic show. He felt there were better technologies out there, and that his competition would end up outpacing him. Brock’s staff mentioned a guy by the name of Aaron Fechter, of Creative Engineering. Brock was intrigued and went down to Florida to visit Aaron. The result would be ShowBiz Pizza Place, Inc. A company owned 80% by Brock and 20% by Creative Engineering.

As you can imagine, this didn’t please Nolan Bushnell, so the lawsuits started flying. Brock backed out of the agreement with Bushnell, and used ShowBiz Pizza Place, Inc. to create the product he knew Pizza Time Theater should have been. This meant Aaron Fechter had to go from making a few animatronic characters here and there, to mass producing them at record pace. Creative Engineering quickly expanded in order to keep up with Brock’s demands.

In the early 80’s, business for both Pizza Time Theater, and ShowBiz Pizza was booming.  But come the mid-80’s, and the great video game crash, it was a struggle for both of them. Bushnell had begun to move on to other projects, and he was loading up Pizza Time Theater with his debt for those projects. This spelled disaster, and Bushnell was forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Not even Chuck E. Cheese, Bushnell’s mascot for Pizza Time Theater, could save it.

Robert Brock used the opportunity to swoop in and grab all of the Pizza Time Theater locations. Now, Brock was the big dog. ShowBiz Pizza continued to expand and innovate. But the one constant was the animatronic wonders of Aaron Fechter and Creative Engineering. His beloved band, The Rock-A-Fire Explosion, entertained all generations of customers. ShowBiz’s mascot, Billy Bob was every bit as popular as Chuck E. Cheese, and now he had bested the mouse.

But ShowBiz and Creative Engineering were beginning to hit the skids. ShowBiz had begun using in house programmers to change the animatronic shows in ways that Aaron Fechter did not feel comfortable with. It was not long before ShowBiz decided it didn’t need Creative Engineering anymore. Fechter’s company had gone from mass producing to no demand at all almost overnight.

ShowBiz eventually converted all their restaurants to the Chuck E. Cheese brand. Only a few independently run locations still featured Aaron’s Rock-A-Fire Explosion band. Aaron was soon the sole employee of Creative Engineering. He still is.

In my heart, ShowBiz Pizza will always be what it was in it’s prime… when Fechter and Brock were a team and nothing could stop them. But in my mind, it’s a story of greed, ego, and disrespect. You suck Chuck E. Cheese!

Aaron’s exploits with Creative Engineering and The Rock-A-Fire Explosion are featured in an awesome documentary titled, well, “The Rock-A-Fire Explosion”, and it’s available to watch on Netfilx. I HIGHLY recommend it.



 

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raptor Posted on Jan 25, 2013 at 09:43 PM

I guess for Fechter, the plus side was that he ended up hooking up with that hot girl in the documentary. So, he may not be a rock star but, you can't win 'em all.

ProphetSword Posted on Jan 25, 2013 at 09:25 PM

Great article. I remember Showbiz pizza. Didn't realize that there was such a sordid history behind all this, though. That was an eye-opener.

raptor Posted on Jan 25, 2013 at 03:56 PM

Glad you'all enjoyed it. I have a great deal of memories wrapped up in ShowBiz, so to discover some of this info was a bit of time warp.

Fulton4V Posted on Jan 24, 2013 at 04:59 PM

Never heard of Showbiz until now but we ate at Chuck E Cheese many times when I was young. I still like going there sometimes.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jan 24, 2013 at 06:44 AM

Right. We had a ShowBiz Pizza about 45 minutes from here some years back. If, I remember right, I may have had a birthday party there once - or attended someone elses birthday there.

Great article raptor. Thanks for this.

AceNThaHole Posted on Jan 24, 2013 at 06:08 AM

Well done sir. I will check out that documentary tonight maybe cuz you have me interested

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