When you get married, you not only gain a spouse, but the family that comes with. In my case, I gained a niece and nephew, so I’m an uncle now. Every summer they each spend one week in Peoria to visit grandparents (and thereby us as well) without the other one around.
First one to visit this summer was the niece. She’s seven. We’ll call her “Irma”. Why? Because it’s the nickname I call her in real life and she hates it, so why not? When Irma’s in town, my life tends to resemble Richard Pryor’s in “The Toy”—hiding, seeking, crawling through boxes, whatever she decides. And I’m her perfect patsy, usually caving to whatever she wants.
Irma’s been promised a trip to Chuck E. Cheese during her week-long visit to Peoria, and let’s just say “Camp Mema and Papa” needed a night off, so Jenny and I volunteered. I’ve always gotten a kick out of kids (most anyways), so this will be a good trial run to see how we’ll do if they’re ever in the cards for us. Plus I’m not going to lie, I’ve always been a sucker for the place, especially in its earlier incarnation Showbiz Pizza.
I know I wasn’t alone, but Showbiz was my Mecca as a kid. The dark dining room with its animatronic house band “The Rockafire Explosion” was by turns terrifying, fascinating, and I couldn’t get enough of it. As if that wasn’t enough, after dinner and entertainment, you’d spend hours riding kiddie rides, playing games, crawling through the ball pit, and you always went home with prizes.
There was a certain amount of mystique, flair and “razzle dazzle” to the place that diminished as it gradually converted to Chuck E Cheese’s in the early 90’s. How and why that all happened is one of those confusing big business deals that flies over a kid’s head and even leaves adults confused.
The internet has given rise to a fervent fan community of Rockafire Explosion groupies and there’s even a full-length documentary about them on YouTube and Amazon which does a good job of outlining the changeover that went down in the early 90’s. You can even find the characters still performing in odd corners of the world (they were independently licensed so they still play fairs and odd one-off pizza joints and “fun centers”).
Here we are arriving. I’ll come clean now and admit I was still coming here into my 20’s. I loved the food, the games, and the nostalgia. But it’s pretty difficult to walk in and not look like Creep of the Year unless you have a kid with you, so it’s been quite a few years since I’ve been here. And it’s also the first time I’ve been here as an adult directly responsible for a child. It’s been even longer since Jenny’s last visit, and her only knowledge is what she can remember from childhood, mostly memories of “Showbiz”.
This list of rules greets you right in the foyer. Apparently gang activity is something to be concerned with around here now? It used to just be the idea of eating pizza made by a smiling five foot rat. The only real hiccup during our visit happened at the ordering counter right as we entered. Now, Chuck E’s counter works exactly like any other place where you order food and have it delivered to your table, a task I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of times in my life. But I’ve never done that here, and as we went to order, both Jenny and I choked.
“I’ve never had to do this here, my parents always did it,” I admitted.
“I know! Me too! I don’t know what to do!” agrees Jenny.
After a few moments of awkward staring from the counter girl, we successfully ordered and made our way in, careful in the process not to lose Irma, already distracted by the sensory overload. She’s wily and moves fast. In childhood you always wanted to dive into the rides and games right away, only to have your collar grabbed by the adults reminding you we had to eat first. This trend has not changed over time.
AMBASSADOR OF FUN you say? Lofty claims you make, mouse.
This is the dining room as it looked in its Showbiz days, and below that is how it appears today. It’s dramatically different than we remembered as kids, not only in characters but ambiance as well. The room has been substantially opened up with several walls knocked out and multiple seating levels reduced to just one. There’s virtually nothing that separates the dining and game rooms now. There’s also been a definite shift in the lighting package-the room used to be dark and the stage so bright it was almost startling when the curtains opened and the music kicked in. The focus was directly on the characters and show while you ate, whereas now they sort of serve as background noise like a television in a sports bar.
The Rockafire documentary even touched on how locations were required to re-skin the Showbiz animatronic skeletons into Chuck E Cheese characters when the changeover happened. From left to right, Rockafire’s flygirl Mitzi the Mouse became “Helen Henny”, Fatz Geronimo the gorilla became a furry purple thing called “Munch”, and Beach Bear was doggified into “Jasper”. It appears they’ve traded the woodsy backdrop for something a bit more metropolitan as well.
The drumming chef on the side stage was formerly “Dook”, a sort of space dog in his previous “Rockafire” life.
The headliner himself took over the space (and body) of Rolfe DeWolfe, a wisecracking wolf who was always bested by his ventriloquist dummy, Earle.
This Moon that intermittently pops up during the show has actually been here since the beginning, the only thing to survive the changeover. He is aged and cracking down his middle, proof that latex doesn’t last forever. There’s a joke there somewhere…
Above the stage is a sign that’s been here since the Chuck E. conversion that winks at the audience (or at least did, I’m not sure if it still does). The electrical system for this wink actually once powered “Antioch the Birthday Spider” for Showbiz.
Oddly enough, the only animatronic removed and not re-skinned in the change was the original star of the show, Billy Bob! Even though Showbiz did not have an official headliner, Billy Bob and his sidekick Looney Bird were the breakout favorites of the Rockafire Explosion. Billy Bob also walked around and was featured more than any other character on merchandise, print ads, etc. But it seems he just disappeared, which made me wonder what happened to him…
One of the walls that was knocked away in favor of the brighter open floor plan created a hallway lined with parody movie posters such as “Wizard of Cheeze” , “King Fatz” and Beverly Hills (Billy) Bob”. It separated you from this small room that hosts rides and games for the littlest guests. If I remember correctly, it was this room, WAY back in the day, where the ballpit was originally located.
Encased by netting and encompassing the entire room, the balls were all a distinct shade of orange that could have only existed in the 1980s. I called them “the orange juice balls”. This of course was before the ball pit was re-located into the larger space out front…
But there is no ball pit here at Chuck E. Cheese now, thanks to germaphobic parents, increased allergies, and diminishing immune systems. But you can crawl around in these “skytubes” mounted from the ceiling.
Dear me, I seem to have gone off-track. Nostalgia gets me every time. As you can see, Chuck E. has a strong approval rating with Irma, just one of the many kids oblivious to what this place once was. But I guess it’s all perspective. I’m sure when you’re seven it carries just as much allure as it once did for the rest of us at that age.
Now that we’ve quickly killed the pizza (I’m pretty sure that in her ecstasy, Irma ate more than either Jenny or I), it’s time to let the games begin...
First, the Irms tries her b-ball skills on “Street Hoops”. If genetics are any indication, she’ll be tall enough to dunk one day.
Next she drops a token into this Water Blast game, not even waiting for a competitor. By the time I sit down, she’s already moved on to the next game. This is a trend that continues for her most of the night-drop the token in first , then figure out what it does. By the time we grasp the concept of each game well enough to explain it, she’s lost interest, snagged the tickets and made waves to the next box of bells and whistles. At seven years old, nothing keeps your attention for too long these days.
There don’t seem to be quite as many kiddie rides anymore, but Irma has no interest in them anyways (or she might just be too big-I really have no idea). This clock ride reminded me a lot of the old Billy Bob “Musical Ferris Wheel” whose seat my little butt spent many rounds farting into as a tyke. More on that ride later…
Fatz may not live here anymore, but this son of Kong does and is the star of what is probably the most disturbing game on the floor…the objective is to hold onto those metal handles and endure the shocking pain that shoots through them as long as you can…the longer you last, the more tickets you get. I tried it, lasted until the end and had no feeling in my hands for the five minutes that followed.
There’s this full-size Operation game you can also play...I always felt bad for that castrated guy…
For me I prefer the classic Skee-Ball, and fortunately there’s still a row of lanes just where they’ve always been. Most of the games here now are just little electronic bits of chance and luck that are over seconds after you drop in the token, so it’s nice to still have one that requires skill and has an actual “game playing” element to it. Of course I was much smaller back in the day, but I’m pretty sure the Skee-Ball lanes were much longer, blazing with lights and a layer of that aforementioned “80’s Orange” paint.
I give it a go, missing the giant light-up WINNER sign that used to perch on top. I also start to miss my second favorite game they used to have, a Whack-a-Mole variant called “Sweet Licks.”
I find my way to the Deal or No Deal game, which pretty much plays like the TV show and keeps me occupied for awhile. Don’t worry, Jenny is watching Irma.
Soon Chuck E. comes out to dance with the kids, a long standing tradition in the Showbiz/CEC universe. His new look-that of a very young looking gray mouse-confirms a phenomenon that I caught onto early in our evening, that being Chuck E. has had more facelifts than Joan Rivers (too soon? RIP) and its evident just by looking around…
This control panel is engraved with his earliest look-a shifty looking rat dressed as a shifty looking carnival barker.
This portrait depicts him as a friendly, distinguished dandy in tuxedo and bowler...
Here on the “sneaker keeper”, he’s still rat-like but less formal in appearance.
Then in many places throughout he’s like a skater dude mouse or something that reeks of the 1990s. He’s really evolved through the years, and as I continue pondering these great curiosities of life that truly matter, I suddenly realize I should go find my party…
Irma has fleeced us for every quarter we had, so now it’s time to tally our tickets! Back in our day, you were left to count them yourself, or make the poor teens working the prize counter do it for you. In later years, they moved to a heavily flawed system where they were placed in a bowl and “weighed” which I’m sure was never accurate. These days you just feed them into the “Ticket Muncher” machine which does all the work for you. Our final count for the night? 258 tickets.
The final stop on a trip here is still the impressive prize wall, a big sight for little eyes...but I swear it used to be even bigger, stretching all the way along the front of the store at one time. They still carry the usual trinkets, odds and ends, branded with Chuck E Cheese characters and made in Taiwan, of course.
Among the prizes I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, still going strong after all these decades. There was something full circle about this find, as I visited Showbiz the same afternoon I saw the first Ninja Turtles movie at Westlake. That was almost 25 years ago, and they’re still around!
After much deliberation, Irma presents her winnings, settling on a bag of pink cotton candy (her favorite food she informs us), plus a cup of additional sugar and stickers.
In this ever softening world, where everyone gets a trophy, even Chuck E. Cheese is quick to remind us as we exit that none of us are losers.
You didn’t think that would be all did you? I mean, what’s a night out without dessert? Around the corner we stop off at Cherryberry for frozen yogurt. Irma’s never been here but it’s an instant hit.
After sampling every flavor, the wall of toppings consumes her.
This is Irma’s self-made concoction, a little bit of everything they offered. We sat outside and told her stories about our memories of Showbiz, the movie theatre that use to be at Westlake, and a lot of other topics that I tend to babble about to anyone who will listen. It’s then we realize we are talking to ourselves, since Irma’s decided she’s fascinated by the cherry-shaped, kid-sized stools inside and gone in to try sitting in one.
But we survived! We did it! The night was a success, and we managed to control our patience, watch our language, and keep our eyes on her the whole time. It’s nice to know if kids ever come into the picture for us, that at least we won’t lose them and they might turn out okay.
It went so well in fact that we came back the next week with Irma’s brother.
EPILOGUE: Soon after our trip to Chuck E. Cheese, I made a stop in Pekin for work and spotted a hidden gem standing amongst the makeshift arcade outside Godfather’s Pizza…
It’s our old friend Billy Bob! What in god’s name he’s doing here is anyone’s guess. But if you’d ever like to visit an old familiar friend, you now know where to find him. Just don’t try and actually sit in the seat—you’ll look like Creep of the Year, but it probably still won’t be the strangest thing happening in Pekin that day.
Chuck E. Cheese’s
Westlake Shopping Center
2601 W. Lake Avenue