Chuck E. Cheese is breaking up animatronic band

Robert Channick
Chicago Tribune

One of the longest-running musical acts in show business may be over.

Chuck E. Cheese’s is phasing out its iconic animatronic band, the larger-than-life ensemble that has performed at the kid-friendly pizza chain for decades, in a bid to become more parent-friendly.

An early phase remodeling of Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants in San Antonio, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri, includes “a calmer, more inviting” environment, a focus on food and a live stage show. The animatronic band, however, seems to have lost its gig.

“We removed the animatronics in seven locations,” Christelle Dupont, a spokeswoman for the Irving, Texas-based chain, said Wednesday. “We’re testing to see how those remodeled locations do and what parents and kids like and what’s resonating with them.”

Chuck E. Cheese’s has 512 corporate-owned restaurants in the U.S. The company is majority-owned and controlled by investment funds affiliated with Apollo Global Management.

Launched as separate animatronic bands in competing pizza chains more than 40 years ago, the current Chuck E. Cheese’s lineup — known as Munch’s Make Believe Band — is the result of a 1984 merger between ShowBiz Pizza Place and Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, which had filed for bankruptcy.

The combined restaurant chain soldiered on under the Chuck E. Cheese’s banner, while the ShowBiz band — the Rock-afire Explosion — was phased out and its performers cannibalized to keep the Chuck E. Cheese’s-led band going.

These days, an animatronic Chuck E. Cheese performs as a solo act at most locations, Dupont said.

The band may be getting a little long in the tooth, said Tom Leverton, CEO of Chuck E. Cheese’s. Children, he said, now “have higher expectations of both realism and special effects.”

For some purists, the original Rock-afire Explosion was the height of animatronic bands, inspiring a cult following that manifested itself in animated message boards, musical revivals and a 2008 documentary.

“They are the greatest animatronic rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,” said Aaron Fechter, the Orlando, Florida, engineer who created them.

An original partner in ShowBiz Pizza, Fechter retained ownership of the characters and technology for Rock-afire, which began performing at the pizza chain in 1980.

When the chains merged, he kept his copyright but relinquished the “electronically animated soft sculptures,” which continued to perform for the rechristened Chuck E. Cheese for several years.

While Chuck E. Cheese’s is phasing out its animatronics, Fechter is putting the band back together in his Orlando shop, tuning up his creations for a new state fair tour.