This is the story of a band that played its first gig in the 1980s and emerged with a shot at nationwide success. For a brief period, it hit the big time, before competitors stole its thunder and public tastes changed. It disappeared from view, only to get a cultish rediscovery decades later, driven by nostalgia, novelty and an admiring documentary. It is a riches-to-rags, flash-to-fade saga as old as rock 'n' roll itself, played out by innumerable bands in bars and VFW halls across America.
Only when this band finally breaks up, it will fall apart in pieces.
Its current venue is tucked away in the Hillwood Strike & Spare, a family entertainment complex that saw better days before the advent of PlayStation and Wii. It's a dingy stage in an area called "Circus World," an elephant's graveyard of once-cool diversions — arcade games, claw machines, a laser tag course, a tiny roller rink and an even tinier bumper car course. That's where you find what one employee describes as the "creepy little animals in the back."
Billy Bob's chin is cracked. His furry hand dangles from his arm, disturbingly exposing his metal skeleton as he strums his guitar. Mitzi's dressed as a cheerleader. Instead of playing an instrument, she was assigned pom-poms that by now are long gone, and one of her eyes appears to have shorted out. Fatz is in relatively decent shape, although his keyboard has taken some beatings, and he's missing his bowtie. One member is MIA altogether. It's Looney Bird, who's gone from the oilcan he used to rise up from.
For the animatronic collective known as The Rock-afire Explosion, this is The Last Waltz.
The memory of your first concert stays with you all your life. It can shape the social circles you join, or the career path you choose. Beatles or Stones, Tiffany or Debbie Gibson, Pearl Jam or Nirvana: Whether the experience drives you to become an obsessive collector or merely an interested fan, nothing compares to the first band you see live.
If you were a child of the '80s, there's a good chance that the first band you saw was The Rock-afire Explosion.
Also known as "the ShowBiz Pizza band," The Rock-afire Explosion — an animatronic band featuring iconic characters Fatz Geronimo, Mitzi Mozzarella, Looney Bird, Dook LaRue, Beach Bear, Rolfe DeWolfe and ShowBiz mascot Billy Bob the bear — was the brainchild of inventor Aaron Fechter and his company, Creative Engineering Inc.
The first ShowBiz Pizza Place opened in 1980, and The Rock-afire Explosion was the featured attraction. But after a merger with Chuck E. Cheese in 1984 and a substantial financial reorganization, the ShowBiz brand was phased out. By the early '90s, Billy Bob & Co. disappeared into obscurity.
The origins of The Rock-afire Explosion can be traced to Tennessee. In 1977, Fechter sold his first animatronic bear to Magic World in Pigeon Forge. He subsequently created the Confederate Critter Show, a pre-Rock-afire animatronic band, for the East Tennessee theme park. (Fechter has said that part of Billy Bob's "backstory" is that he's a country bear from Tennessee.)
In 1980, Third National Bank in Nashville began a financial relationship with ShowBiz's majority owner, Brock Hotel Corporation. Third National served as a trustee for a $6.4 million bond intended for Brock's renovation of the Hermitage Hotel, and in addition to shared staff and resources, inter-company loans supported ShowBiz in the mid '80s.
Coming full circle, Nashville is now one of the last places on earth where you can see a Rock-afire Explosion show. Nashville entrepreneur Larry Schmittou, former president and general manager of the Nashville Sounds, inadvertently kept the Rock-afire legacy alive when he purchased a mini-stage version of the band for the Strike & Spare in 2002. The stage setup — one of a handful of known commercially operating ones left — is sectioned off for small gatherings and birthday parties. It is still functional today.
The concept of an animatronic pizza party feels positively archaic in 2013, when children are often more tech-savvy than their parents. But the story of Creative Engineering, the ShowBiz/Chuck E. Cheese merger and eventual eradication of the ShowBiz characters remains eerily similar to the swift rise and fall of many a band run through the Music Row assembly line.
As a small but fervent group of enthusiasts embraces Rock-afire — partly in ironic regard for its cheesy obsolescence, partly out of childhood memories as warped as its decaying circuitry — it's worth looking back at the fortunes of a robot band that mirror those of countless human acts. Maybe you've heard a thousand similar accounts of music-business machinery.
In this one, though, the machinery is only too real.
How did the concepts of pizza and mechanized musical entertainment ever meet? In 1975, Aaron Fechter formed Creative Engineering Inc. (CEI) to produce an energy-efficient car. To raise capital, he started creating animatronic characters intended for amusement parks and, eventually, animated stage shows.
Animatronics — lifelike mechanized puppets powered by compressed air, pressurized oil or electricity — had been introduced to the entertainment industry more than a decade earlier in 1963, when Disneyland opened its first animatronic attraction: an Enchanted Tiki Lounge filled with singing (and talking) tropical birds. Disney has utilized the technology in its theme parks ever since, from Abe Lincoln to the Country Bears.
But Fechter's inventions would bring the animatronic technology to the masses. Maybe suburban families couldn't afford a trip to Disneyland, but he would feed their craving for relatively inexpensive entertainment options.
"In 1977, I sold a single bear — and that was the first bear I ever sold — to Jim Sidwell, who owned Magic World in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.," Fechter recalls in a phone conversation from his offices in Orlando, Fla. "[Sidwell] took a chance on me to see if I could actually build a working bear, and I did. By 1979, I was selling bear shows to another dozen or so amusement parks around the country and the world, as a precursor to building the Rock-afire Explosion for ShowBiz Pizza Place."
In late 1979, CEI signed an agreement with Brock Hotel to install an animatronic show in the first two ShowBiz Pizza Place restaurants, which opened in Kansas City, Mo., and Jacksonville, Fla., in March and July of 1980, respectively.
"Brock Hotel and Bob Brock, they were my partners in starting ShowBiz Pizza Place back in 1979," Fechter says. "Brock Hotel put up the money to build all of the restaurants, and I built the animatronics. I was given, for the exclusive arrangement that I gave this company, 20 percent ownership in ShowBiz Pizza Place. So Brock Hotel owned 80 percent and Creative Engineering, or I personally, owned 20 percent."
Once the partnership between Brock and Fechter solidified, ShowBiz Pizza Places rapidly proliferated. Between 1980 and 1983, CEI built 280 Rock-afire shows. At the height of ShowBiz's success, Fechter employed 325 people. Yet ShowBiz faced direct competition from a dirty rat — or rather, a 6-foot rodent.
Three years before the first ShowBiz opened, Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre had introduced the pizza-restaurant-meets-kid-friendly-arcade-meets-animal-dinner-theater. Its own animatronic show centered around the eponymous mouse character and a supporting band of animals. Once ShowBiz arrived on the scene, the two companies competed throughout the early 1980s like the Hertz and Avis of animatronic pizza joints.
But both companies were hit hard by the "video game crash" of 1983, a recession following the oversaturation of the home gaming market. On top of that came the steep cost of producing and maintaining the animatronic characters. Somebody would have to (animatronically) blink.
You can find a riveting history of this period in a 2008 documentary called The Rock-afire Explosion, which tells the story of various Rock-afire superfans and of the show's brilliant, eccentric creator Fechter. It also details the glory days of CEI, when Michael Jackson visited the facilities, and Fechter, dressed in a Billy Bob costume, descended from a helicopter to celebrate the opening the 100th ShowBiz restaurant in Dallas. One thing the documentary fails to do, though, is explain the convoluted ShowBiz/Chuck E. Cheese relationship, which is key to the rise and fall of the Rock-afire Explosion.
In late 1977, Fechter met Nolan Bushnell, creator of the revolutionary Pong video game. Bushnell shared his idea of a pizza restaurant featuring animatronic characters and video games — after all, he was co-founder of Atari, which not coincidentally had already opened the first Chuck E. Cheese in San Jose, Calif. Bushnell suggested that the two collaborate, but Fechter turned him down.
Bushnell left Atari in 1978, bought out Chuck E. Cheese, and signed a multimillion-dollar development agreement with none other than Bob Brock to franchise the restaurant. But after visiting CEI's headquarters in Florida, Brock severed the agreement — he found Fechter's animatronics superior to Bushnell's. Brock thus entered into partnership with Fechter and CEI, setting off a lengthy lawsuit with Bushnell that was eventually settled out of court. Under its terms, ShowBiz would pay a portion of its profits to Chuck E. Cheese over the next 14 years.
In 1984, however, Chuck E. Cheese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. ShowBiz purchased it, but The House That Billy Bob Built was on shaky ground itself. Only a year before, Fechter had been told to stop producing new Rock-afire stage setups. After the two companies merged, Brock informed Fechter that the Rock-afire Explosion would remain in the restaurants only if he relinquished the copyright.
Fechter refused. Thus began a period known as "concept unification" — a fancy way of saying that since Brock owned the rights to Chuck E. Cheese, the ShowBiz characters were gradually converted into Chuck E.'s cohorts. By the early '90s, ShowBiz as a brand was kaput, while Chuck E. Cheese restaurants continued to franchise across the country. The Rock-afire Explosion had been snuffed.
In a futile attempt to keep Rock-afire alive, Fechter licensed the characters to commercial ventures such as theme parks and restaurants. Most of these, he says, are no longer in business, though a community of fans and collectors hope for a reunion tour. He also sold sets from CEI headquarters to private collectors.
Ironically, though, the very advances in technology that made the original Rock-afire characters look antiquated by today's standards have given them a second life.
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