The Dark History of Chuck E Cheese


wikimedia commons

Chuck e Cheese Pizza Time Theater, the original Pizza, Arcade and Animatronic Animal Band. Originally intended to be “Coyote Pizza”, the name was changed after owners accidentally ordered a Rat head and then named it “Rick Rats Pizza.” After realizing people wouldn’t want to eat at a place with “Rat” in the name, “Chuck e Cheese” was born.

The creator of Chuck e Cheese is Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari. According to an article from Fast Company, his inspiration for the restaurant was strange, to say the least.  “Throughout history there was a celebration, and the celebration had food, drink, and games, without exception,” he explains. “Whether you were talking about the summer solstice with primitive man to the circuses in Rome. There was always an entertainment element. I always felt that was something that was lacking in restaurants. I wanted to add a dimension of fun to the act of having a meal.’” Yes, you read that correctly. The inspirations for a children’s pizza and arcade were pagan solstice rituals and Roman circuses, which every child loves. This “darkness” is not regulated to its inception, rather it is expanded on in its implementation. 

While Bushnell originally had some idea about singing barrels, that idea morphed into animatronic characters. The animal inspiration for these apparently came from Disney’s Tiki Room at Disneyland which featured animatronic parrots.   

The original animatronics were regulated to portraits on the wall. The original Chuck was not as friendly as his modern-day counterpart. He smoked a cigar, had a New Jersey accent, and was essentially an insult comic, where most of the jokes were offensive insults directed at his audience or his fellow animatronics or the jokes were simply sexual innuendos. The other famous characters involved “Crusty the Cat” who was soon replaced with the character “Munch” (a sort of alien cookie monster), “Pasqually the Alarmingly Italian Chef,” “Jasper T Jowls” (the stupid cowboy flanked by confederate flags), and–as part of a Cabaret line up–“Dolli Dimples,” a hippopotamus who sang the blues and would flirt with customers for a quarter. 

If these characters don’t sound appropriate for children, that’s because they were initially meant to appeal to adults. As the children poured money into the surrounding arcade, the animatronics were meant for the adults to ostensibly watch. 

By 1980, the company began franchising, even with a few places internationally (Fast Company). This remarkable success was stained by the emergence of cheap imitators that attempted to capture the same charm of a foul mouth mouse. Places like, “Captain Andy’s River Towne Restaurant,” “Tex Critters Pizza Jamboree,” and “Pizza Plant” with a terrifying panda mascot. The biggest rival was “Showbiz Pizza Place,” the Joker to Chuck e Cheese’s Batman. 

However, this rivalry was short-lived as Chuck e Cheese would break the figurative knees of Showbiz and buy it out. During its time, however, Showbiz had the upper hand, making Chuck feel the icy cold grip of death. Showbiz featured a full-body life-size animatronic band with smoother animatronics than Chuck’s. After 2 years of fierce legal battles between Chuck and Showbiz, Chuck won with a hearty profit. Unfortunately, Charles Ebenezer Cheese would face more financial problems from its own father Bushnell. Essentially, Bushnell was trying to make another Atari. He looked into new animatronics, bought a video game firm through Charles Earnhardt Cheese Pizza Time Theater, and started the process of making it the pizza arcade it is today. 

Going through the entire history of this temple to gambling for children would be a long process with not much more strangeness to learn about. However, there are a few more strange things to go over. There was a policy that when a location closed down or got rid of animatronics that the heads had to be destroyed. Bushnell gave a speech at one time speaking about the things cast members did in the costumes and behind the scenes, they did gross and inappropriate things. Finally, before wrapping this up with how they handled Covid, there was a straight-to-DVD one-hour movie called Chuck e Cheese in the Galaxy 5000, a full movie with an added live show of the animatronic band. The plot is that a little boy has to get $50,000 to fix his aunt and uncle’s tractor. It’s up to Chuck and the Gang to win the titular Galaxy 5000 and save this probably orphan boy’s tractor. Nothing else is ever explained regarding the plot. 

Now during Covid, Chuck tried a little bit of trickery to get some business. Through apps like GrubHub or DoorDash, they were able to deliver pizza to many hungry people. But those people didn’t know the pizza was coming from Chuck. They set up ghost kitchens in order to generate business. Never mind the rumors that they recycle their pizza, this is just straight-up lying to not even their customers. 

This was the “Dark” history of Chuck E Cheese Pizza Time theater. From the window box animatronic Chuck that might put its cigar out on a child’s head, to the direct-to-DVD movie where Chuck and Jasper T Jowls flirt with a human woman. This darkness was Pizza Time’s success, and its absence is the reason for its failure.