by Abby White
Where: Hillwood Strike & Spare
When: Sunday, December 30, 2012 8:03 pm
If you’re a musician who has played a Sunday night gig in Nashville and wondered where the hell everybody is, you probably don’t want to hear about the venue on the west side that is totally packed.
I’m not talking about the Bluebird. I’m talking about the Hillwood Strike & Spare, the 42-lane bowling alley off Charlotte near the Nashville West shopping center.
When I try to reserve a bowling lane for the Bad Idea Friends, the guy behind the counter tells me I’m fourth on the waiting list.
“There’s a waiting list?” I ask incredulously. What is this, Studio 54?
I’m only slightly annoyed, partly because we already got a pitcher of beer from the bar, but mostly because we didn’t really come here for bowling tonight. We came to check out one of the most epic aural, visual — and, in most cases, olfactory — adventures that a child of the ‘80s could have experienced.
We are here to see The Rock-afire Explosion, the subject of this week's Scene cover story.
If you don’t know what The Rock-afire Explosion is — and if you don’t, I can only extend my sincerest sympathies — it was the awesome animatronic band that entertained and terrified patrons of the beloved 1980s restaurant chain ShowBiz Pizza. The band, featuring familiar plastic faces such as Billy Bob (the bear), Fatz Geronimo (the gorilla), Mitzi Mozzarella (the mouse and the lone female character) and Looney Bird (the bird in the can), was the brainchild of pioneering inventor Aaron Fechter and his company Creative Engineering.
The Rock-afire Explosion played current and classic hits and some original tunes, just like the bands you’d see in a honky tonk on Lower Broadway. Some kids loved them, but other kids — including this one — ran from the room screaming the moment the stage curtain drew back.
If you want a crash course on the history of ShowBiz, I suggest you watch the documentary The Rock-afire Explosion, which does an excellent job showing the rise and fall of these furry musical monsters and the eventual takeover of competitor Chuck E. Cheese. (A caveat: You cannot hold me responsible for whatever nightmares you have post viewing.)
But back to the Strike & Spare. My original plan was to drink lots of beer, eat some bowling alley food, bowl a few games, and then end the night on a high note with a performance from the Rock-afire Explosion. I even called ahead to ensure we could turn the band on. (Usually, that means something entirely different.) Because even though I’d still rather hide in the urine-scented ball pit than watch those furry robots, I’m an adult now, and it’s time to face this irrational fear head-on.
“Where’s the Rock-afire Explosion?” I ask the teenager behind the shoe counter. He stares at me blankly.
“You know, the ShowBiz band,” I explain. Duh.
“Um, we don’t have any bands playing here,” he responds, looking at me like I have a few screws loose.
“No, the animatronic band! A bunch of animals that play music?” Since words alone aren’t getting the point across, I move in the herky-jerky motion that the characters were known for. I can tell that Shoe Dude is turning the wheels in his head, trying to figure out what “animatronic” means.
“Never mind,” I huff, scanning the room and trying to figure out where these fascists hid the band.
On one end of the building, a sign that says “Circus World” indicates that something interesting may be around the corner. We walk past a smattering of arcade games, a laser tag room, and various rides that we cannot ride because we definitely exceed the recommended weight limit.
Momentarily distracted by these games, we remember how it always took about 300 tickets and at least $30 to win a $2 toy. We're older and wiser now. My friend Frances approaches the prize counter. She decides she simply must have the stuffed banana toy, and negotiates paying the kid behind the counter $3 for it. I spy an evil queen doll that I want to give to my friend Milton, so I cough up another $3. Frances and I feel pretty superior for avoiding two hours of playing skee ball.
Then, suddenly, situated in a room directly across from a tiny rolling rink and an even tinier bumper car course, we see them. We all stop dead in our tracks.
It ain’t pretty. While the animatronics at Disney World get facelifts as frequently as Belle Meade housewives, our Rock-afire Explosion is in bad shape. Mitzi, the mouse cheerleader, is missing her pom-poms, and one of her eyes looks like it’s rotting out. Her skin suggests a slight meth problem, probably the result of the humiliation of being the only band member onstage without an instrument for all these years.
Billy Bob has a hole in his chin. Perhaps he got into Mitzi’s meth stash?
And Fatz Geronimo. Fatz, you were the stuff my nightmares were made of. Nothing has changed. He's survived three decades, unscathed. I'm fairly certain he will outlive us all, like that kid robot in A.I.
Looney Bird’s garbage can is completely empty. Did they kick him out of the band? Perhaps he really got into Mitzi's meth stash.
This wouldn’t be so significant if this wasn’t one of the only commercially operating stage setups of the band in the entire country, and even the world!
This is true. We know because we called Mr. Fechter and asked. While there are a handful of superfans throughout the U.S. who have stage setups in their houses, there are only a few commercial Rock-afire Explosion setups in the U.S., one in Canada, one in Jordan, and one in South Korea. Google told us that a ShowBiz in Kuwait was bombed during that little skirmish in the Middle East. War is hell, my friends.
A little disappointed by the sorry state of the band — again, that phrase means something totally different than it usually does — we decide we need more beer and bowling before we're ready for the show. Luckily, it’s our turn on the list.
After an hour of halfhearted bowling ...
...and freezer-burned corndogs ...
... and playing with our $3 toys ...
... and taking a romp through the urine-scented ball pit ...
... and a lot of antibacterial hand gel, we return to the stage setup. The Circus World staff, who seems surprised that anyone is interested in those moldy creatures near the glow-in-the-dark golf room where middle schoolers make out, begrudgingly agrees to turn on.
Billy Bob starts singing a G-rated version of “Friends In Low Places,” replacing “whiskey” and “beer” for “Kool-Aid” and “root beer.” We are transfixed.
As the band launches into the perennial favorite “Rocky Top,” we notice that Billy Bob’s strumming hand is entirely fucked up. The fur has worn off, and the hand flops from the exposed shiny piece of skeletal metal. It looks like his hand could fly off at any moment.
Rather than wait for the ultimate Rock-afire souvenir to fly off and hit us in our faces, my friend Allen climbs the stage and tries to fix Billy Bob’s hand. I offer him my hair tie, which holds it for about 30 seconds. This probably isn't the kind of handjob most guitar players are hoping for, but we did the best we could.
The rest of the group seems mildly disturbed, but I appear to be the only one who is still completely terrified of the band. I gravely misjudged this particular adventure. Instead of conquering my fear, I’ve made it much, much worse. I start to panic, and in my paranoid state, the band starts to look more realistic. I question if Mitzi is giving me the side-eye with her one good eye. She totally is.
“I think that this, right here, is my quarterlife crisis,” announces my co-worker Pierce, a young twentysomething who never saw the band in their full glory in the ‘80s. He must think the rest of us are ancient.
The band reaches the end of their set. We all feel kind of weird. Penelope says that she wants them to turn the band on again. I mumble something about an early morning meeting.
At this point, a random couple walks over. As they get closer, their faces contort from bewilderment to recognition and back to bewilderment again.
“Is this ShowBiz?” the guy asks.
“Kind of,” I respond.
“Why?” he asks.
Why, indeed. Why does Nashville have one of the only commercially operating Rock-afire setups in the world? Why doesn’t anyone — including several of the Strike & Spare employees — know about it? Why have the animals fallen into such a state of disrepair that any nightmare they could inspire nowadays trumps the horrors of yesteryear?
We may never know, my friends. But I know this: Our Rock-afire Explosion is deteriorating faster than the Hickory Hollow Mall, so you’d better go see it now. And since I’m still trying to get over my childhood fear, I’ll even go with you.