Chuck E. Cheese was a Bay Area tech manager’s fever dream

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If you’re a ’90s Bay Area kid like me, chances are you have memories of at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

Growing up in Fairfield, most of the kids I went to school with couldn’t afford big parties. So it was really great when you got an invitation to Chuck E. Cheese. This was the big time. Pizza, ball pit, arcade games I couldn’t play. And my god it was chaos. Screaming children pounded on a dark carpet that was hard and sticky at the same time. The greasiest pizza in the world covers everything with an oily film. And every few minutes the walls opened and a series of confusing animatronic singing animals appeared. For a fearful child like me, it was an unpleasant sensory overload with a pepperoni scent.

Many years later, I learned that the most elaborate venue of my childhood wasn’t some national chain in the Bay Area. It was local, the brainchild of an early Silicon Valley tech manager whose fascination with animatronics would bring the world an unexpected childhood mascot.

A rat named Charles Entertainment Cheese.

Chuck E. Cheese and Helen Henny pose in a file photo.

Mark Sullivan / WireImage

Before Atari, Nolan Bushnell only had one game in town: Disneyland.

As a young Mormon teenager growing up in Utah, Bushnell’s dream was to become an imagineer, the name Disney uses for its theme park designers and architects. After graduating from the University of Utah in the mid-1960s, Bushnell moved to California to seek employment with the entertainment giant. But when that failed, Bushnell moved to the Bay Area and started his own entertainment company. Atari, headquartered in Sunnyvale, was soon one of the world’s first and most famous home game consoles.

Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's founders Nolan Bushnell and Lori McKinney are hanging out in a hot tub in this 1976 photo taken in the Bay Area.

Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s founders Nolan Bushnell and Lori McKinney are hanging out in a hot tub in this 1976 photo taken in the Bay Area.

Barney Peterson / Hearst Newspapers via Getty Imag

But as his gaming empire grew in the 1970s, Bushnell’s thoughts kept drifting back to his true love: the singing of animatronic animals. The idea of ​​opening a pizzeria paired with arcade games had been in his head for a while, but few business partners were particularly enthusiastic about it. Nonetheless, Bushnell positioned the idea as a way to market Atari games and pushed ahead with what he called the Pizza Time Theater.

He took in $ 2.5 million for research and development with a company that made animatronics. And he found a mascot – or at least he believed it. During a convention, Bushnell saw a human-sized coyote costume on one of the stands. He bought his own, but when he got there he turned it over and saw that the “coyote” had a long, thin pink tail. It was a rat.

Do not worry about it. You would make the mascot a real Mickey Mouse competitor. And that’s how Chuck E. Cheese got his first name, Rick Rat. Fortunately, the name didn’t last long as concerns grew that the famous contentious Disney wasn’t going to be too happy with this pizzeria rip-off. So Rick Rat became Charles Entertainment Cheese, or Chuck E. Cheese for short.

In 1977 the first Pizza Time Theater opened in San Jose. It was packed with $ 120,000 in arcade games, a “giant toy Swiss cheese” that kids jump around on, and of course Chuck. Early newspaper reports could not determine its exact origin. “There is also a character dressed as a giant rat named Chuck E. Cheese who escorts customers to their tables with a Brooklyn accent,” the UPI wrote. The Sacramento Bee called him “Chuck, a street-wise Jersey rat”.

The delightful original signature of this photo from the 1980s on a Canadian Chuck E. Cheese: "This little girl smells a rat.  Actually a man in a rat suit.  Adam Roberts;  the man inside;  disguises himself as Chuck E. Cheese, rodent restaurateur.  And he loves his job.

The delightful original signature of this 1980s photo by a Canadian Chuck E. Cheese: “This little girl smells like a rat. Actually a man in a rat suit. Adam Roberts; the man in it; dresses up as Chuck E. Cheese, rodent restaurateur. And he loves his job: ‘The little ones kiss my nose and say,’ I love you Chuckee. ‘ You hand me notes and drawings, ‘he says.’

John Mahler / Toronto Star via Getty Images

It was also much more expensive than other fast food pizzerias – $ 10 a pizza as opposed to around $ 5. But that was because Bushnell saw his burgeoning chain as more than just a pizzeria. He saw it as a suburban rival to Disneyland.

“Kids might go to Disneyland every other year or once every five years, but there really aren’t any real cartoon times with Mickey Mouse,” Bushnell said in 1980. “I know there are a lot of kids out there who … Chuck E. Cheese because they can go to a Pizza Time Theater every few weeks. “

“At the local level, we’re a Disneyland,” added Pizza Time Theater President Gene Landrum.

To give the pizza halls that true Disney touch, a number of animatronics have been added over the years. There was Jasper T. Jowls, a banjo-playing hound; Dolli Dimples, a hippopotamus that sang for the adults; Pasqually, an Italian chef who was disconcertingly described in a newspaper review as “an eye for women”; Mr. Munch, a purple … thing; and Madame Oink, a French pig who sometimes sang a song called “Thank Heaven for Little Boys” that nobody should tell Pizzagate conspirators Above.

After the initial success of Bushnell’s first San Jose outpost, franchises began to emerge across Northern California in 1979. Each opening was an exciting event, often marked with rave reviews like this one at the Bee:

“When Chuck E. Cheese picks you up at the door, you think you’re in the wrong place. And when you hear Dolli Dimples blaring from the piano bar at the Chicago cabaret, you’re sure. Could this be Disneyland North?”

The review continued to rave about the “appetizing salad bar”, saying it served “one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, with thin, crispy crusts and piles of toppings”. Everyone who has eaten Chuck E. Cheese Pizza has serious questions for the reviewer.

Ed Porter, a Los Angeles director for Chuck E. Cheese, chats to a family who are having a birthday party in the 1990s.

Ed Porter, a Los Angeles director for Chuck E. Cheese, chats to a family who are having a birthday party in the 1990s.

Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

Before long, hundreds of Pizza Time theaters across the country were open. As the chain expanded, it was renamed Chuck E. Cheese’s. And, of course, Disney noticed that in 1997, with the very, very similar concept, Club Disney, tried to win back its suburban birthday party audience. But with prices much higher than Chuck E. Cheese’s, Club Disney was practically dead on arrival.


All branches closed until 1999, no chance for the street-wise Jersey rat.

Last year you might have seen Chuck E. Cheese sign up for Chapter 11. The pandemic was not a good time for a kid’s entertainment venue, which, under the best of circumstances, felt damp from a fine mist of germs. But like a die-hard underground rat, Chuck E. wouldn’t die, shed more than $ 700 million in debt, and out of bankruptcy in January.

As a kid, Chuck E. Cheese felt inevitable. He was never a baby Chuck E. He emerged fully sculpted from a sewer grate, wearing a purple sweater, and hurling pizzas.

So imagine my alarm when, as an adult, I discovered its official ancestry in one Children’s book 2004 distributed by the company.

Chuck – renamed Mouse, a change I don’t want to accept – grew up in an orphanage called St. Marinara. “Because Chuck E. was an orphan, nobody knew when his birthday was, so he never had his own birthday party,” explains the story, which actually doesn’t explain anything and leaves the reader with many more questions E. sadly. “

A familiar sight: children sliding down the slide at Chuck E. Cheese's 2004 birthday party.

A familiar sight: children sliding down the slide at Chuck E. Cheese’s 2004 birthday party.

MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle vi / MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Young Chuck was obsessed with birthdays and very good at Pong, a sly nod to the game Bushnell invented for Atari. Chuck E. actually won a “pong” tournament and used the $ 50 prize money to buy a ticket to New York City, where he moved into an apartment (Has he paid rent? Is he a squatter? It’s all unclear) over one Pizzeria.

The story then takes a “ratatouille” turn. Chuck E. is discovered by Koch Pasqually, who tries to crush him with a rolling pin. In a desperate movement of self-preservation and character development, Chuck E. begins to sing.

“A mouse that can sing?” says Pasqually, suppressing the fact that he witnessed an animal speech. “My restaurant is saved!”

Pasqually changes the name of his pizzeria to Chuck E. Cheese’s, a place where this pong-playing, singing rodent can have birthday parties every day. No explanation is given as to why or how Chuck E. has a friend who is a purple alien from space.

It’s a bizarre story, but, on the whole, perhaps no stranger than a retired Mormon engineer who eschews his world-famous gaming empire for a kids’ pizza and party chain.

“My sweet spot is figuring out how to make a product that people love and how to refine it so that they’ll love it even more,” Bushnell once said. “The rest is business noise.”

Another food origin from the Bay Area




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