This is the story of a band that played its first gig in the 1980s and emerged with a shot at nationwide success. For a brief period, it hit the big time, before competitors stole its thunder and public tastes changed. It disappeared from view, only to get a cultish rediscovery decades later, driven by nostalgia, novelty and an admiring documentary. It is a riches-to-rags, flash-to-fade saga as old as rock 'n' roll itself, played out by innumerable bands in bars and VFW halls across America.
Only when this band finally breaks up, it will fall apart in pieces.
Its current venue is tucked away in the Hillwood Strike & Spare, a family entertainment complex that saw better days before the advent of PlayStation and Wii. It's a dingy stage in an area called "Circus World," an elephant's graveyard of once-cool diversions — arcade games, claw machines, a laser tag course, a tiny roller rink and an even tinier bumper car course. That's where you find what one employee describes as the "creepy little animals in the back."
Billy Bob's chin is cracked. His furry hand dangles from his arm, disturbingly exposing his metal skeleton as he strums his guitar. Mitzi's dressed as a cheerleader. Instead of playing an instrument, she was assigned pom-poms that by now are long gone, and one of her eyes appears to have shorted out. Fatz is in relatively decent shape, although his keyboard has taken some beatings, and he's missing his bowtie. One member is MIA altogether. It's Looney Bird, who's gone from the oilcan he used to rise up from.
For the animatronic collective known as The Rock-afire Explosion, this is The Last Waltz.
The memory of your first concert stays with you all your life. It can shape the social circles you join, or the career path you choose. Beatles or Stones, Tiffany or Debbie Gibson, Pearl Jam or Nirvana: Whether the experience drives you to become an obsessive collector or merely an interested fan, nothing compares to the first band you see live.
If you were a child of the '80s, there's a good chance that the first band you saw was The Rock-afire Explosion.
Also known as "the ShowBiz Pizza band," The Rock-afire Explosion — an animatronic band featuring iconic characters Fatz Geronimo, Mitzi Mozzarella, Looney Bird, Dook LaRue, Beach Bear, Rolfe DeWolfe and ShowBiz mascot Billy Bob the bear — was the brainchild of inventor Aaron Fechter and his company, Creative Engineering Inc.
The first ShowBiz Pizza Place opened in 1980, and The Rock-afire Explosion was the featured attraction. But after a merger with Chuck E. Cheese in 1984 and a substantial financial reorganization, the ShowBiz brand was phased out. By the early '90s, Billy Bob & Co. disappeared into obscurity.
The origins of The Rock-afire Explosion can be traced to Tennessee. In 1977, Fechter sold his first animatronic bear to Magic World in Pigeon Forge. He subsequently created the Confederate Critter Show, a pre-Rock-afire animatronic band, for the East Tennessee theme park. (Fechter has said that part of Billy Bob's "backstory" is that he's a country bear from Tennessee.)
In 1980, Third National Bank in Nashville began a financial relationship with ShowBiz's majority owner, Brock Hotel Corporation. Third National served as a trustee for a $6.4 million bond intended for Brock's renovation of the Hermitage Hotel, and in addition to shared staff and resources, inter-company loans supported ShowBiz in the mid '80s.
Coming full circle, Nashville is now one of the last places on earth where you can see a Rock-afire Explosion show. Nashville entrepreneur Larry Schmittou, former president and general manager of the Nashville Sounds, inadvertently kept the Rock-afire legacy alive when he purchased a mini-stage version of the band for the Strike & Spare in 2002. The stage setup — one of a handful of known commercially operating ones left — is sectioned off for small gatherings and birthday parties. It is still functional today.
The concept of an animatronic pizza party feels positively archaic in 2013, when children are often more tech-savvy than their parents. But the story of Creative Engineering, the ShowBiz/Chuck E. Cheese merger and eventual eradication of the ShowBiz characters remains eerily similar to the swift rise and fall of many a band run through the Music Row assembly line.
As a small but fervent group of enthusiasts embraces Rock-afire — partly in ironic regard for its cheesy obsolescence, partly out of childhood memories as warped as its decaying circuitry — it's worth looking back at the fortunes of a robot band that mirror those of countless human acts. Maybe you've heard a thousand similar accounts of music-business machinery.
In this one, though, the machinery is only too real.
How did the concepts of pizza and mechanized musical entertainment ever meet? In 1975, Aaron Fechter formed Creative Engineering Inc. (CEI) to produce an energy-efficient car. To raise capital, he started creating animatronic characters intended for amusement parks and, eventually, animated stage shows.
Animatronics — lifelike mechanized puppets powered by compressed air, pressurized oil or electricity — had been introduced to the entertainment industry more than a decade earlier in 1963, when Disneyland opened its first animatronic attraction: an Enchanted Tiki Lounge filled with singing (and talking) tropical birds. Disney has utilized the technology in its theme parks ever since, from Abe Lincoln to the Country Bears.
But Fechter's inventions would bring the animatronic technology to the masses. Maybe suburban families couldn't afford a trip to Disneyland, but he would feed their craving for relatively inexpensive entertainment options.
"In 1977, I sold a single bear — and that was the first bear I ever sold — to Jim Sidwell, who owned Magic World in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.," Fechter recalls in a phone conversation from his offices in Orlando, Fla. "[Sidwell] took a chance on me to see if I could actually build a working bear, and I did. By 1979, I was selling bear shows to another dozen or so amusement parks around the country and the world, as a precursor to building the Rock-afire Explosion for ShowBiz Pizza Place."
In late 1979, CEI signed an agreement with Brock Hotel to install an animatronic show in the first two ShowBiz Pizza Place restaurants, which opened in Kansas City, Mo., and Jacksonville, Fla., in March and July of 1980, respectively.
"Brock Hotel and Bob Brock, they were my partners in starting ShowBiz Pizza Place back in 1979," Fechter says. "Brock Hotel put up the money to build all of the restaurants, and I built the animatronics. I was given, for the exclusive arrangement that I gave this company, 20 percent ownership in ShowBiz Pizza Place. So Brock Hotel owned 80 percent and Creative Engineering, or I personally, owned 20 percent."
Once the partnership between Brock and Fechter solidified, ShowBiz Pizza Places rapidly proliferated. Between 1980 and 1983, CEI built 280 Rock-afire shows. At the height of ShowBiz's success, Fechter employed 325 people. Yet ShowBiz faced direct competition from a dirty rat — or rather, a 6-foot rodent.
Three years before the first ShowBiz opened, Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre had introduced the pizza-restaurant-meets-kid-friendly-arcade-meets-animal-dinner-theater. Its own animatronic show centered around the eponymous mouse character and a supporting band of animals. Once ShowBiz arrived on the scene, the two companies competed throughout the early 1980s like the Hertz and Avis of animatronic pizza joints.
But both companies were hit hard by the "video game crash" of 1983, a recession following the oversaturation of the home gaming market. On top of that came the steep cost of producing and maintaining the animatronic characters. Somebody would have to (animatronically) blink.
You can find a riveting history of this period in a 2008 documentary called The Rock-afire Explosion, which tells the story of various Rock-afire superfans and of the show's brilliant, eccentric creator Fechter. It also details the glory days of CEI, when Michael Jackson visited the facilities, and Fechter, dressed in a Billy Bob costume, descended from a helicopter to celebrate the opening the 100th ShowBiz restaurant in Dallas. One thing the documentary fails to do, though, is explain the convoluted ShowBiz/Chuck E. Cheese relationship, which is key to the rise and fall of the Rock-afire Explosion.
In late 1977, Fechter met Nolan Bushnell, creator of the revolutionary Pong video game. Bushnell shared his idea of a pizza restaurant featuring animatronic characters and video games — after all, he was co-founder of Atari, which not coincidentally had already opened the first Chuck E. Cheese in San Jose, Calif. Bushnell suggested that the two collaborate, but Fechter turned him down.
Bushnell left Atari in 1978, bought out Chuck E. Cheese, and signed a multimillion-dollar development agreement with none other than Bob Brock to franchise the restaurant. But after visiting CEI's headquarters in Florida, Brock severed the agreement — he found Fechter's animatronics superior to Bushnell's. Brock thus entered into partnership with Fechter and CEI, setting off a lengthy lawsuit with Bushnell that was eventually settled out of court. Under its terms, ShowBiz would pay a portion of its profits to Chuck E. Cheese over the next 14 years.
In 1984, however, Chuck E. Cheese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. ShowBiz purchased it, but The House That Billy Bob Built was on shaky ground itself. Only a year before, Fechter had been told to stop producing new Rock-afire stage setups. After the two companies merged, Brock informed Fechter that the Rock-afire Explosion would remain in the restaurants only if he relinquished the copyright.
Fechter refused. Thus began a period known as "concept unification" — a fancy way of saying that since Brock owned the rights to Chuck E. Cheese, the ShowBiz characters were gradually converted into Chuck E.'s cohorts. By the early '90s, ShowBiz as a brand was kaput, while Chuck E. Cheese restaurants continued to franchise across the country. The Rock-afire Explosion had been snuffed.
In a futile attempt to keep Rock-afire alive, Fechter licensed the characters to commercial ventures such as theme parks and restaurants. Most of these, he says, are no longer in business, though a community of fans and collectors hope for a reunion tour. He also sold sets from CEI headquarters to private collectors.
Ironically, though, the very advances in technology that made the original Rock-afire characters look antiquated by today's standards have given them a second life.
In 2007, Chris Thrash, a ShowBiz collector in Phenix City, Ala., programmed his Rock-afire stage setup to Southern rapper Bubba Sparxxx's "Ms. New Booty." It created a viral YouTube sensation, inspiring fans to contact Thrash and Fechter to have their requested songs "performed" by the Rock-afire Explosion. (Fechter maintains a full stage setup at CEI headquarters in Orlando.) The band followed that with appearances in other media, from music videos (MGMT's "Electric Feel" and Mayer Hawthorne's "Dreaming") to film (Adam Sandler's Just Go With It).
It was the first crest in a groundswell of new interest in the group that had been building since the late '90s. After searching online in vain for any information about ShowBiz or the Rock-afire Explosion, Colorado native Travis Schafer launched ShowBizPizza.com in 1999. Since then, Schafer has collected and archived all things ShowBiz and Chuck E. Cheese. The website serves as both a resource and a forum for the fan community, brought to light by the YouTube attention and the documentary (which features both Schafer and Thrash).
"We were caught off guard by it," Schafer says, explaining the community's reaction. "A bunch of people were coming to me and asking questions, and it exploded." Schafer also owns a Rock-afire Explosion set, which he purchased from Fechter for $12,800 in 2005.
"I went down to Florida, and [Fechter] let me stay in his house, put me up, helped me pack it," Schafer says. "He was really cool about the whole thing." He notes that he's careful about the content that he puts on ShowBizPizza.com, ensuring that he doesn't damage his relationship with Fechter.
"He's very protective about the characters and the copyrights," Schafer explains, "so I've got to really make sure I stay on his good side and not post anything that he would consider proprietary, like manuals, because I know he doesn't want that getting in the wrong hands."
A brief trip through Schafer's site — or the accompanying Facebook page — reveals that nearly three decades after the two companies merged, the ShowBiz vs. Chuck E. Cheese war in some quarters is as intense as Biggie vs. Tupac. Commenters lament how "lame" Chuck E. Cheese is, or share poignant memories of seeing the Rock-afire Explosion. One Facebook fan recounts a humorous story of peeking under Mitzi Mozzarella's skirt as a child: "lord do i wish i never had ... it was just a bunch of metal gears and scary ... i didn't talk the rest of the day i was so freaked out."
Which brings up a fascinating facet of the ShowBiz fanbase: For the many fans who love the characters and have fond memories of them, there are just as many — if not more — who are absolutely terrified of the animatronic characters.
"I was always afraid of them as a kid," Schafer admits. "I was 4 when I first went in 1984, and I remember walking into the showroom and running. I was scared to death. They were just a little bit too real."
Schafer, who says he knows of about 10 band setups owned privately (though he acknowledges there could be others outside the fan community), has never taken his band out of their original boxes. He admits he has a "morbid curiosity" about them akin to watching a horror film.
"It's scary, and you kind of cringe at it," Schafer says, "but you like it."
The characters are even scarier when they start to deteriorate, which may explain why private owners like Schafer keep them confined in their boxes. Through the years, the wear and tear on the animatronic characters has proved to be too expensive for many commercial operations to fix. When parts start breaking down, the cost to fix them may outweigh their value to a business owner.
And over at the Hillwood Strike & Spare, the Rock-afire Explosion is literally breaking up.
Hillwood Strike & Spare's president and co-owner, Larry Schmittou, purchased the Rock-afire stage setup in 2002 to mirror his Hendersonville location, which housed "Circus World," animatronic characters created by Advanced Animations. For him, purchasing the Rock-afire Explosion wasn't a nostalgic move, but a strategic one for his business.
"People were doing family fun centers to copy Chuck E. Cheese," Schmittou explains. "Every Chuck E. Cheese that I've ever been in has [an animatronic band], and that's the reason I wanted one, because Chuck E. Cheese does such a good job at what they do." Schmittou says he purchased the Rock-afire Explosion from "someone in Florida" for $65,000. The set at Hillwood is not the classic multi-stage version that ShowBiz restaurants ran in the '80s, but a scaled-down show with Billy Bob, Mitzi, Fatz and Looney Bird on a single stage.
Fechter remembers selling the set to Schmittou. "Larry called me and told me that he was interested in having a Rock-afire Explosion in his bowling alley and games center, so we put together a deal for a smaller version because he didn't have enough space for a full-sized show," he explains. "I had a technician who was once working for me do the installation. I haven't actually been there and seen it myself, but my company was involved directly in selling and putting that show in for him."
Schmittou seems unaware of the cult of interest that surrounds the Rock-afire Explosion. "We thought that it would be something kids like — while you're eating your pizza or celebrating your birthday party," he says. He also says he doesn't believe that people come to the Hillwood Strike & Spare primarily to see the Rock-afire Explosion.
"It's like when you go to a ball game," Schmittou explains. "You don't go because of the video screen, but it makes your experience better. I don't think we have a single person that I know of who says, 'I'm coming here because you have this.' "
Phillip Cox, manager at the Hillwood Strike & Spare, echoes Schmittou's belief. "It's on all day Saturdays and Sundays when we have a lot of birthday parties," he says. "But people don't really come in just to see it."
It could be argued that the reason people aren't coming to the Strike & Spare specifically for the Rock-afire Explosion setup is because they simply aren't aware it's there. Additionally, most of the staff at Hillwood is oblivious to whatever significance Rock-afire holds as an '80s/animatronic artifact. Except for Cox, none of the employees the Scene spoke to even knew what the Rock-afire Explosion was.
Accordingly, it's no surprise that the Rock-afire at Hillwood is in serious need of some rehab. Schmittou notes that Looney is the one that they have the most trouble with, and that he "breaks all the time."
"It's not in the best shape," says Schafer, who visited the Strike & Spare in 2009. "You have to have constant upkeep, and they're expensive to keep running. It's like a car, they just start to fall apart."
When told of the ragged state that the current Hillwood Rock-afire setup is in, Fechter says that while he'd need to see the band to properly examine the damage, he estimates it could cost anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 to repair it. The Scene asked Schmittou if he would consider investing more money to refurbish the Hillwood Rock-afire. He replied that he had no opinion at this time.
But the reality is that most businesses simply aren't going to keep investing in something so expensive to maintain, especially when children are more accustomed to being entertained by giant high-definition TVs or sleek tablets. Last summer, Chuck E. Cheese — whose revenue fell 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012 — rebranded their mascot as an electric-guitar-slinging mouse voiced by Bowling for Soup singer Jaret Reddick.
And in Dallas — where exactly three decades ago Aaron Fechter made his famous helicopter descent to open the 100th ShowBiz Pizza Place — Chuck E. Cheese is currently testing a new setup that completely phases out the animatronics. A human in a rodent suit is cheaper than a stage full of machines.
"They don't even have the robot at all," Schafer says. "Every eight minutes, a guy comes out in a suit, gets up on the little stage, puts on a show, and walks away."
In Spokane, Wash., Wonderland Family Fun Center is in the process of tearing down its Rock-afire Explosion setup. "It's kind of outdated," explains Brandon Mulvey, a Wonderland manager. "We had challenges in maintaining it and keeping it running, and we had to balance if it was bringing value to the business. It's difficult, because the parts and pieces to keep it running are becoming more and more unavailable."
Mulvey said that once word got out they were dismantling their set, other businesses, such as Scandia Golf & Games in Kelowna, British Columbia, jumped at the opportunity to replace damaged pieces in their sets.
In addition to the setup in Canada, a full-stage Rock-afire Explosion is currently operating at Billy Bob's Wonderland in Barboursville, W. Va. In the Chicago suburbs of Naperville and Tinley Park, smaller versions of the Rock-afire Explosion — which Fechter designed and created in the '90s — are still in two Odyssey Fun World locations, though at press time, Tinley Park's setup is down for repairs.
A few stage setups exist abroad, including one in Jordan and one in South Korea; the latter set belonged to Chris Thrash, who sold it through Fechter and is now in the process of building a new full setup. But those, along with Fechter's set and the ones owned privately, are the only ones left.
In the 1980s, ShowBiz was the closest thing to a Disney-esque experience for families who didn't have the money or the opportunity to visit the fabled theme parks. Back then, the technology behind the Rock-afire was state of the art. To a child, the realistic characters were intriguing, baffling and slightly disturbing, fanning the flames of curiosity in a world that had yet to experience email, texting or viral videos.
And while animatronics are still used today in movies, museums and amusement parks — and are far more advanced than their '80s ancestors — they don't appear to be a draw for the restaurant industry. With Chuck E. Cheese, the franchise that started it all, moving away from robotic characters, the animatronic pizza band may be one for the history books.
"It's sad because I don't think it's completely dead," Schafer says. "I think if it was more commercially viable it would still justify spending the extra money."
Schafer, Thrash, and of course Fechter are actively dedicated to the preservation of this peculiarly beguiling animatronic band, and Schmittou's purchase of it for the Hillwood Strike & Spare allows for the most authentic recreation available in these parts, for anyone who wants it. But the end may be nigh — if Looney Bird was yanked from the stage after repeatedly breaking, does the same fate await Billy Bob, Mitzi and Fatz if they stop working? Will they too become organ donors for other collectors' sets? Is Nashville's Rock-afire Explosion about to leave the building?
Perhaps. But today, watching the dilapidated band perform their show at Hillwood looses a torrent of childhood memories. The blips and beeps of video game music mixed with the crash of Skee-Balls against their alleys. The aroma of bowling-alley pizza intermingled with the scent of socks — why did it always smell like socks? — and the plasticky scent of hundreds of rainbow-colored balls. (That's why it always smelled like socks — no shoes allowed in the ball pit, which some kid always ended up puking or peeing in.) The image of a dark, murky theater and a shiny robotic band moving in a distinct, herky-jerky manner, performing a Beatles song or singing "Happy Birthday" to a full house.
Nearby, children stop roller-skating to peer over the wall to see where the noise is coming from. They watch the shabby animals on the small stage in the corner for a moment, then lose interest quickly. But a couple in their 30s strolling by stop dead in their tracks. They walk over.
"Is that ShowBiz?" the man asks, gaping at the stage. "Why?"
Nobody can answer him, but it doesn't stop the couple — and another group of adults in their early to mid-30s — from migrating toward the stage, oddly transfixed by the familiar sight and sound of the figures creaking and lurching into action. There's a word for what happens when a human band puts away thoughts of retirement and a slow fade, shakes off the rust and the dust, and plays one more song to keep from joining the ghosts of entertainment past quite yet.