The Rise and Fall of Showbiz Pizza Place
It seams as though there are some things in life that are just meant to be together, like peanut butter and jelly, baseball and hotdogs, popcorn and movies, and pizza and arcade games. Now imagine taking the pizza and arcade games and adding live music…correction…”simi-live” music, you get Showbiz Pizza Place, a place that featured The Rock-afire Explosion Band. As a kid from the 80’s I have very fond memories going to Showbiz and being in awe of all of the entertainment. It was almost like going to a mini Disneyland back in the day.
The very beginning of Showbiz Pizza Place actually started with Chuck E Cheese Pizza Time Theatre back in 1977 by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, and opened it’s first location simply called Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose, CA. By November of 1978 Bushnell left Atari (had been bought out by Warner Communications) and eventually started franchising out the Chuck E Cheese brand, which resulted in a co-development agreement between him and Robert Brock in 1979. At the time Brock was a successful business man who was owner of Brock Hotel Corporation which was one of the largest franchisers of Holiday Inn Hotels. This agreement gave Brock the rights to open Pizza Time Theatres in 16 states across the southern and midwestern United States, as well as develop a company subdivision called “Pizza Show Biz”.
Later in 1979 Brock met a young engineer by the name of Aaron Fetcher, founder of Creative Engineering Inc (creator of the popular Wac-a-Mole game in 1976). Creative Engineering had developed some animatronic shows, and Brock was so impressed that he sent a request to Bushnell to be released from the co-development agreement with Pizza Time Theatre, and started Showbiz Pizza Place. Brock started Showbiz Pizza Place with Fetcher so that Creative Engineering would create all the animatronic shows. The agreement between Brock and Fetcher would give 80% ownership of Showbiz to Brock and 20% to Fetcher. Bushnell quickly sued Brock on a breach of contract, and Brock soon filed a counter-suit against Bushnell citing misrepresentation. Eventually the case would be settled out of court with Showbiz Pizza Place agreeing to pay some profits to Chuck E Cheese Pizza Time Theatre over the next decade. The first Showbiz Pizza Place opened on March 3rd, 1980 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Aaron Fetcher and Creative Engineering came up with a unique band for Showbiz Pizza Place and called them The Rock-afire Explosion. This complete animatronic band consisted of: Billy Bob Brockali a grizzly bear who was lead singer and guitar, Looney Bird who was Billy Bob’s sidekick, Fatz Geronimo a gorilla who played the keyboard, Mitzi Mozzarela a mouse who was lead female vocal, Beach Bear a bear who played bass, Dook Larue a drumming dog, and Rolfe Dewolfe who was a wolf and sang backup with his hand puppet Earl. Showbiz Pizza Place continued to open stores, and Fetcher with his company Creative Engineering were busy providing Rock-afire Explosion bands all over the country. At the peak Creative Engineering had employed over 300 people. By 1982 Showbiz Pizza Place had expanded to 200 locations and had moved its main headquarters from Kansas City, Missouri to Irving, Texas. Business was going great for both companies.
Then the videogame crash of 1983 hit and things started to nosedive for both Showbiz Pizza Place and Chuck E Cheese Pizza Time Theatre. By 1984 Chuck E Cheese had filed chapter 11 bankruptcy, and Showbiz had expanded too fast for what they could afford. Soon after Chuck E Cheese’s bankruptcy Showbiz bought out the remaining stock of Chuck E Cheese and the company changed their name to Showbiz Pizza Time. Showbiz Pizza Time would continue to operate both businesses separately for a number of years
By 1986 things started going better for Showbiz Pizza Time thanks to CEO Richard Frank. Frank improved the quality of the food, started table service, added lighting and new games, and in 1990 totally restructured the restaurants under “Concept Unification”. Concept Unification consisted of renovating all Rock-afire Explosion animatronics into Chuck E Cheese characters and rebranding all remaining Showbiz stores to “Chuck E Cheese’s”, thus severing all ties to Fetcher and Creative Engineering. In 1998 Showbiz Pizza Time was disestablished and officially changed to CEC Entertainment Inc, which it still is today.
Today Creative Engineering Inc is still around and still based in Orlando, FL with Fetcher running the company. He is the sole employee, and has been licensing out the Rock-afire Explosion Band ever since. There are still some Showbiz Pizza Place locations open in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and up until recently Kuwait (bombed in the middle eastern war). There are currently no more Showbiz restaurants located in the States, and there are currently over 540 Chuck E Cheese’s all over the world.
Rock-afire Explosion is still very much alive thanks to a very close and enthusiastic fan base. Many people have purchased their own Rock-afire Explosion bands and there are a number of places including Billy Bob’s Wonderland in Barboursville, West Virginia, and at Fun Station USA in Staten Island, New York that have performing Rock-afire Explosion bands. Fans including Chris Thrash from Phenix City, Alabama have purchased their own personal Rock-afire Explosion band from Fetcher. In 2008 Thrash even opened his own restaurant called Showbiz Pizza Zone which eventually closed in 2010.
Recently many fans like Thrash have reprogramed their Rock-afire Explosion bands to play modern music. Fetcher has even recruited the original voices to record some new tracks. Thrash began posting videos on YouTube back in 2008 showing off his reprogramed shows, and it has increased a lot of interested back into Rock-afire Explosion. Also in 2009 a documentary called The Rock-afire Explosion was released.
Showbiz will continue to live on in many people’s hearts including myself. It was truly a place “where a kid can be a kid”.
Official “The Rock-afire Explosion” documentary trailer:
One of Fetcher’s new shows with the original voices:
Chris Thrash’s first reprogrammed show:
The Rock-afire Explosion have an appearance in MGMT’s music video Electric Feel: