Howdy everyone and welcome to a rather cheesy edition of This Animatronic Life. I’ve been a little surprised at the vocal outcry from many fronts in the past couple weeks since the announcement from Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants’ (as CEC Entertainment, Inc.) owner Apollo Global Management announced it was retiring the famous animatronic shows featured at nearly every Chuck E. Cheese’s (CEC) location—I didn’t know so many grownups would care! My company, Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) has significant ties to the animatronics of CEC—in fact, the work we did for that company over the years was hugely significant in moving GHP forward in our growth toward becoming the world’s largest animatronics creator.
The origins of animatronics for the CEC restaurants and arcades are well documented: restaurant and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell felt animatronics were a cool, high-tech hook to get people to come to his arcade disguised as a pizza restaurant, opened in 1977 (the same year I founded GHP). There’s a funny story that he thought he was buying a coyote suit to go over the mechanics his engineers put together as the first animatronic for his new venture, but it turned out to be a rat…and the original Chuck E. Cheese character was born. After the initial success and growth of Bushnell’s Pizza Time Theatre, the concern filed for bankruptcy and was purchased by Showbiz Pizza Place (home of the famous Rock-a-Fire Explosion shows) in 1984, and by 1990, each Showbiz location was renamed Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza, dropping the word “pizza” in 1994 (lots of details omitted here, of course). As of this writing, there are 523 CEC locations around the world.
At one point, pizza restaurants were the holy grail for animatronics companies. All the major builders in the 1980s tried to get into the act: Bob Gurr’s Sequoia Creative tried with Captain Andy’s River Towne, AVG with their Circus Playhouse, Advanced Animations with Circus World Pizza—all of them with animatronic animals in the wannabe Disney vein. All the companies hoped to cash in on the success of Showbiz (later CEC) and its Rock-a-Fire Explosion shows, which were built by Aaron Fechter’s Creative Engineering, Inc. None of the competing concepts took off, however, and all are now closed (in fact, only one of the companies that made them even still exists—Advanced Animations).
Following a series of lawsuits and corporate mergers ending in the mid-1990s, CEC (after being bought out by Showbiz Pizza) was looking to update its animatronic shows, and to replace the Rock-a-Fire shows at its various locations. The plan was to have one sophisticated animatronic figure in place of a band of several less impressive characters, and to retrofit characters from the old Rock-a-Fire to new CEC personalities. An all-new concept called Studio C revolved around a totally-revamped Chuck E. Cheese character appearing solo, with some small animated effects as backup.
Around the mid-1990s, GHP was getting better established in the theme park and retail markets. We had just started working for Disney on some parade elements, were working for Knott’s Berry Farm, and were generally starting to pick up steam after a tumultuous first decade of trying to break into the major markets. Around 1997, I got a call from Gene Bullard, one of the executives at Creative Presentations (not to be confused with Creative Engineering that built the original shows), saying that he’d been contacted by CEC to look into making the next generation of their figures. Creative Presentations had been a fairly impressive animatronics company in the 1980s and early 90s, and had a hand in working with both Showbiz and CEC, as well as parks and attractions around the United States. By the late 1990s, the company was on its last legs and unable to help CEC—so Bullard suggested they contact me. This was a huge opportunity…actually, it was the biggest thing to hit GHP yet.
CEC had a basic idea of what it wanted the new Chuck E. character to look and move like. It had to be smoother and more lifelike than the very stilted, robotic motions of the original figures. More than anything, they wanted to change Chuck E. from the hook-nosed rat he’d been since his start to a cuter, more friendly (and maybe even sanitary seeming) mouse. There was another big challenge: how to make a cute mouse mascot character who doesn’t resemble that other cute mouse mascot character, Mickey Mouse. Working with one of my artists, we came up with a perfect solution, and a design rather distinct from Disney’s regal rodent first as a sketch, then as a dimensional maquette. CEC liked where we were going, and asked us to build a prototype animatronic version of the new character. Initially, the figure had 32 independent functions, as opposed to the eight or so of the original versions. Combined with the much cuter look of the new design, CEC felt they had a winner on their hands, and placed an initial order of 32 units with GHP.
The Studio C concept included an animatronic parrot, a “pizza phone” that swung out and lit up, some lighting effects, and a camera where kids could pretend to be part of the show with some simple green screen effects. All of these elements were part of GHP’s scope. I can’t overstate the importance of getting this work, and what it meant for my company. First, it showed that one of the country’s largest entertainment concerns had faith in GHP’s ability to deliver a superior product and to have the longevity to transform hundreds of its locations. Second, it gave my company a cash flow stability it had never enjoyed before. And third, and most importantly, it allowed me to move from my relatively small 10,000 square-foot shop to one five times the size and to fill it with cutting-edge equipment that would make building CEC figures in series possible. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, it was my first really big break. Creatively, it was a unique challenge to build dozens and then hundreds of the same product for one client.
Working with my designers, we quickly came up with a method for building dozens of the CEC figures and elements at once in a “kit of parts” fashion that let us line up the chassis and go at it like an assembly line. Almost overnight, my shop transformed into a pizza-loving rodent factory. The sculpts, molds, plastics parts, silicone snouts, fur, costumes, hosing and wiring, controls, and more were cranked out by the dozen. We even built every figure with its base already attached to a shipping pallet that we could wrap with cardboard and put right onto a truck when complete. From 1998 to around 2011, GHP created close to 500 CEC figures and shows, much more than any of the other companies who’d worked on pizza shows, and more family entertainment center-type shows than any other builder in history.
Through the years, GHP worked on a number of other new concepts for CEC. At the company’s Irving, Texas headquarters, there is a full animatronic show set up for testing out new concepts and programming shows, as well as a design department charged with keeping things fresh for locations around the USA and even overseas. Over time, the animatronic parrot and pizza phone were dropped, as was the interactive camera. At one point, we created a stylized backdrop of moving flat sets and animatronics that was to be located behind the main Chuck E. figure…although we built it to perfectly match the designs from CEC’s in-house team, only one was made and it didn’t really achieve the “wow” the designers were hoping for…some things just look better on paper! We even contributed a few new concepts ourselves, like a magical birthday cake delivery cart that featured animatronics and custom video effects, and a new animatronic show that would have been mobile to move from place to place within each restaurant for a more intimate and personalized performance for birthday parties. The 32 function animatronics eventually became just 16 function characters, and orders began to dwindle in the mid-2000s as the company began to experiment with new lighting shows, video screens, and other ways to save on costs of physical elements for entertainment. A couple weeks ago, CEC announced it would be replacing the animatronics shows at all of its locations with a new dance floor concept, an effort slated to take a few years.
CEC’s creative culture has generally been very budget conscious. Imagine, everything they come up with has to keep the deployment to more than 500 locations in mind, so it all needs to work cross-regionally, across states, and even overseas. Coming up with “one size fits all” concepts is tough, and keeping them cheap and quick is tougher. Eventually, it was decided that the specialty elements of animatronics and other mechanical things in CEC locations was too much cost for not enough return. The official company line was that kids are simply not being engaged by the animatronics and a new method of entertainment is needed. I think most of you will agree: what audiences (especially kids) need is certainly not more screens, but more dimensional effects like animatronics. The best figures in the world aren’t very impressive without good show writing and stories. I strongly believe kids can be engaged by clever work in making shows relevant, funny, and surprising and using existing animatronics to do it.
Chuck E. Cheese was, I think, the most important single client I had in the first couple of decades of GHP. The work we created for CEC allowed us to grow and mature, and to buy space, machines, and hire people that helped launch GHP to where we are now at the very top of the animatronics game. I’m very proud of the work we did for them for close to twenty years. When I think of all the children we’ve entertained in that time, how many millions of birthdays our work has brightened, how many smiles from kids (and groans from grownups), I can’t help but feel like we made a difference in the way Americans celebrate birthdays and have fun. For lots of people, Chuck E. is the only animatronic they will ever see in person. Until the last one is retired, Chuck E. Cheese will be a word synonymous with pizza, games, tokens, and larger-than-life animatronics. For me, I’ve been amazed that my two biggest clients were mice: Mickey and Chuck E. Cheese.