Birthday parties conjure up a sequence of imagery: a box covered in glittery blue wrapping paper that sits on my lap as I stare out the window at passing clouds, red patent leather Mary Janes and a cloud of smoke from blowing out the candles on a cake.
For the sake of cliches, and because I’ve always adored this place, I think it’s crucial to talk about the 1980’s chain: Showbiz Pizza. Not to be confused with Chuck E. Cheese. At the time, arcade games were all the rage. And what kid didn’t love pizza? So there we were – the distinct smell of green peppers and mushrooms filling the air, the buzzing and jolting of simulated space shuttles, hot air balloons and fighter jets. Even though these little wonders moved to and fro and never quite picked up off the ground, we squealed with delight as we fixed our eyes on imagination at our fingertips. All the arcade tokens in the world couldn’t buy this kind of sweet, wide-eyed happiness.
When it came time for food and cake, we sat at a large table near the front of a stage. And then…it began. The red curtains opened and a band full of animals began to perform. Fascination overwhelmed me. This was not Fraggle Rock, this was The Rock-afire Explosion, an animatronic robot band that performed a variety of songs, including “Happy Birthday.” They giggled, swayed, and even bickered with each other, blinking and batting their unfeigned eyes. Of course, some small part of me believed they must be real. I jumped from my seat and stood in front of a mouse character dressed as a cheerleader, “Mitzi Mozzarella.” I didn’t understand why she didn’t notice me, I mean, I was right there, frolicking in my party dress. “Helloooo?” I wailed. The scene became chaotic, more like the bouquet toss at a wedding. We all fought for front row, a mosh pit brewing among bobbing pigtails and boys picking their noses. But this didn’t last long. The gorilla robot, Fatz Geronimo, keyboardist by day and lead vocalist by night, started thundering something incredible. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be so close to the stage.
There’s something infinitely magical about a place like Showbiz Pizza. It’s like being at the circus, without the horrifying clowns, elephant manure and toothless carnies. You could float around in the ball pit, a sea of primary colors that no doubt, some kid probably peed in, but you absolutely did not care, or have the intellect to think of that option. You just played until your heart was content. You could be a kid.
Quick Timeline: 1977: Chuck E. Cheese opens; 1980: Showbiz Pizza is introduced; 1984: companies merge; 1992: all restaurants take on the name of Chuck E. Cheese; 1999: company buys out its competitor, Discovery Zone. The Rock-afire Explosion has become the object of a cult following; although its shows died out in the early ’90s, a few still remain today.