Flush with all his Atari fortune from Warner Communications buying his successful startup, Nolan Bushnell opened what would become a mainstay of the early Eighties…Chuck E Cheese Pizza Time Theatre. I guess he saw the near future better than others. I was only eight going on nine in 1977, so I wouldn’t have had the foresight he had. Contemporary me could see the plan because the closest thing before Chuck would be Shakey’s since they were the pizza joint with a player piano, prizes for the kids and a few pinball machines. However, Nolan had it flipped around, instead of a restaurant with these extras, he developed an arcade you could eat at. The other brilliant element was how this enterprise was double dipping; he continued to work at Atari until he got the boot in late 1978 while his arcade/pizza places bought Atari cabinet games and collected the revenue they generated. Warner Communications didn’t see the point as they let him buy the rights for a mere $500,000 ($2.3 million today).
I was completely oblivious of such a place until their aggressive expansion plans brought one to my old hometown in 1981. Before it was a gross place for little-kid birthday parties, Chuck was the hangout with tweeners, teens and young adults. Seriously. When it opened, ours had a collection of video games that put the local fave arcade, Aladdin’s Castle, to shame. I first saw Donkey King there too. The place worked harder on its animatronics too. There was the main hall with Chuck and his band plus a smaller room, mainly set aside for the parents/adults to drink their beers to a different animatronic lion made up as Elvis. The ticket-game stuff came years later when the bottom fell out with arcades and home consoles in the mid-Eighties. Anyway, I was an total pain-in-the-ass to my parents on my insistence to eat there at any opportunity. Good thing I grew older and wiser to preferring good pizza.
Despite being part of the majority who disdain the current Chucks, I fondly remember the great times I did have at Springfield’s franchise because after the Big Move, we never went to any in Houston or Indiacrapolis. By the North Dakota and Marquette years, Chucks were passé while my love of playing video games had never ceased. The first time we went, I played the closest thing to D&D around, Venture; it sucked. After some basketball game or speech competition, I remember watching classmates Jimmy V and Vincent S team up to defeat Vanguard, due to all the buttons, it was wisest to have person fly with the other shoot, Defender avoided this flaw. The night I graduated from St. Agnes was the biggest and best time there, well, the most nostalgic. Even more than my 14th birthday later in the Summer.
It would be amazing and cool if an original Chuck E Cheese from the era I described could be restored along with the cabinet games. I know it’s a fool’s errand given how they’ve been subsumed by better successors: Dave & Busters and my local Pinballz.