Advertisement

The last Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band in the world will exist in Northridge

A robotic Chuck E. waves his giant robotic mouse hands to the crowd.
Chuck E., left, and Helen Henny anchor Munch’s Make Believe Band, the animatronic musical group at the Northridge outpost of Chuck E. Cheese. The location will be last to hose the robotic bards.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Share

The character Chuck E. Cheese has had a long and convoluted history. The mouse, for instance, wasn’t always a mouse. And though the centerpiece of a child-focused restaurant, Chuck E. was initially a cigar smoker. While Chuck E. isn’t going anywhere, the mascot in robotic form is now an endangered species.

VIDEO | 02:33
The last Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band in the world

Soon, the Northridge outpost of Chuck E. Cheese will be the only location to feature a full animatronic band. The robotic musical groups were once a staple of the kid-focused pizza parlors but the company began phasing them out in 2017.

Advertisement

Globally, the Irving, Texas-based CEC boasts just shy of 600 Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. The company is in the process of remodeling its more than 400 U.S. locations, and the last 30 or so remaining animatronic bands are being shown the door in favor of interactive dance floors and large screens that feature Chuck E. and pals in animated form.

That is, they’re being evicted everywhere but Northridge, which was chosen to be the sole host of Munch’s Make Believe Band.

The goal — or hope — for the company is to have at least one location that can serve both new generations as well as nostalgia hunters, especially fans of animatronic figures.

A close-up Chuck E.'s buck teeth and wild eyes.
Chuck E., the namesake character of kid-focused pizza parlors Chuck E. Cheese. Chuck E. when the franchise launched in the ‘70s was initially a rat, but his look has gotten softer and more youthful over the decades.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Animatronics have long been the stars of themed entertainment, at least as long as Disneyland has been putting mechanical creatures in its rides and shows. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, theme parks began switching to screen-based entertainment to mirror blockbuster movies, but today animatronics have been making a comeback. The recent makeover, for instance, of Disneyland’s Adventureland Treehouse came with the addition of multiple animatronic figures, and Universal Studios’ Super Nintendo World is full of mechanical kinetic energy from an assortment of characters.

Additionally, this year’s video game-inspired movie “Five Nights at Freddy’s” is centered on a haunted pizzeria where the animatronics become sentient. The film is indicative of the cult fandom that has long existed around Chuck E. Cheese and its former competitor Showbizz Pizza Place, as evidenced by the documentary “The Rock-afire Explosion,” which charts the pizza and animatronic band wars of the ‘80s.

But the Northridge location is far from a museum. The anchor tenant of a small strip mall on Reseda Boulevard, from the outside Chuck E. Cheese — the “E.” is for entertainment — is cheery and modern, with the cartoon caricature of the titular mouse giving a thumbs-up to would-be guests. Inside, it’s a brightly lit, quick-service set-up with arcade games and an assortment of digital accouterments, including a recently added video game-y dance floor for little ones.

With a Keith Haring carousel and a Jean-Michel Basquiat Ferris wheel, Luna Luna aims to show the world that amusement parks should be taken seriously as an art-driven space.

Dec. 1, 2023

Yet when the curtain comes up on the five-piece robotic group known as Munch’s Make Believe Band, Northridge’s Chuck E. Cheese becomes a place of retro glory, where lighthearted songs feed the restaurant’s San Jose creation myth. One tune, in fact, is dedicated solely to the 1970s, the era that Chuck E. tells us gave us “disco and Jimmy Carter and the first Chuck E. Cheese.” Stuck in the past? No matter, the restaurant franchise’s CEO David McKillips hopes that the Northridge space can become something akin to a tourist destination.

Matt King, 31, who splits time between Dallas and Los Angeles, made the pilgrimage to the suburb with his younger brother on a recent weekday afternoon, noting “it’s such a bummer that they’re getting rid of them,” referring to the animatronic bands that played a role in the childhood memories of many. The Chuck E. Cheese business has long been centered on children’s birthday parties, with Chuck E. and friends as the musical entertainment.

King, a podcast host, once worked at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant, and says he’s “always had a fond connection” to the character — specifying that his strongest memories are of animatronic Chuck E. and not the animated “CGI Chuck E” that plays in cartoon form on televisions and large screens in the modernized locations. He wanted to see the robotic revue in the flesh.

“When I heard that this location was going to be the last one to have an animatronic band, I was like, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go see it in person,’” he says. “When I worked at Chuck E. Cheese, they had only one animatronic Chuck E., and I was disappointed because my memory was of the full band, so it’s awesome knowing that right here in Northridge is the full band.”

Advertisement

Chuck E. Cheese, the character and the pizza chain, was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, best known, perhaps, as the founder of Atari. When the chain launched in 1977 in San Jose, it was known as Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre.

While he has long been separated from the company, he says his primary inspiration behind his game-focused pizza joints was the ’70s-era trend of Wurlitzer organ-centered pizza parlors. He credits the Bay Area’s Pizza & Pipes with establishing his love in the decade of themed restaurants. It was a trip to Disneyland, however, that cemented the idea for what would eventually become Chuck E. Cheese.

“The place was packed when they had an organist,” Bushnell says of Pizza & Pipes. “I thought I could never grow a system based on Wurlitizer theater organs, and I didn’t want to hire a performer. I was at Disneyland and saw the Enchanted Tiki Room, and I thought, ‘I can do that!’”

The Enchanted Tiki Room is the birthplace of the Walt Disney Co.’s audio-animatronics technology, home since 1963 to more than 200 singing birds, flowers and tiki totems. But Bushnell couldn’t accomplish his goals without some hiccups. For one, he ended up with a rodent as a lead character. That was an accident.

Bushnell picked up a costume for what he believed would become his restaurant’s namesake animatronic at what he says was an “amusement park show.” Unlike Disney, Bushnell didn’t have a full team of sculptors, so he bought a costume for a walk-around character and instructed his team to “make him talk.”

The drummer Pasqually, of Munch’s Make Believe Band, leads the group in a tune.
Munch’s Make Believe Band at the Northridge outpost of Chuck E. Cheese. The group, from left, is Chuck E., Helen Henny, Mr. Munch, Jasper T. Jowls and Pasqually. The robotic group performs lighthearted songs that feed the Chuck E. Cheese creation myth.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

“I thought I was buying a coyote,” Bushnell says. “Our code name for the place was Coyote Pizza.” Except Bushnell didn’t buy a coyote at all. The costume he brought to his team was actually of a rat.

Bushnell: “I got the costume, and I said, ‘How’s the coyote coming?’ They said, ‘It’s not a coyote. It’s a rat.’ So I had to change the name or get another costume. I changed the name to Rick Rat’s Pizza. The marketing department says, ‘No way.’”

Bushnell says he was told to “de-emphasize the ratness.” The rat, then, initially a cigar-smoking wiseguy, got his friendly name of Chuck E. Cheese. Over the years his image has softened, gradually becoming the younger, upbeat band leader of a mouse that he is today. The band lineup has undergone numerous changes and corporate battles. A merger with competitor Showbiz Pizza would bring further alterations, but Chuck E. has survived everything from a species swap to bankruptcies.

Advertisement

The recently reopened Adventureland Treehouse Inspired by Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson places its focus on old-fashioned theme park trickery.

Nov. 16, 2023

“He’s mellowed,” says Bushnell. “If you look at the old Chuck E. and the new Chuck E., the new Chuck E. is younger and hipper.”

That’s partly because Bushnell envisioned the original Chuck E. as the entertainment that leaned slightly more to the grown-ups while the kids played games. In his early incarnations, Chuck E. and his compatriots were presented in picture frames as busts.

Robotic chicken Helen Henny sings to a crowd of children.
Children get a close up view of Helen Henny, the lead vocalist of Munch’s Make Believe Band at the Northridge outpost of Chuck E. Cheese.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

The band today includes Bushnell-era creations such as the friendly purple creature of Mr. Munch, who Bushnell says was influenced by Cookie Monster but is today described as an alien, and the comically dimwitted drummer chef Pasqually. Chuck E. foil Jasper T. Jowls, a guitar-slinging dog, has long been at Chuck E.’s side, and the band is rounded out with Helen Henny, a chicken that Chuck E. describes in one of the songs as a “gamer chick.”

The original Chuck E. was more of top-hat-wearing barker, sing-shouting in an over-the-top, generically East Coast accent. Helen Henny, meanwhile, sported more of a personified look, complete with a bob-like haircut. They came off more as musical veterans than the fresh-on-the-scene vibe of today’s robotic bards.

“This sounds strange to a lot of people, but it was as much as about entertaining adults as the kids,” Bushnell says. “Kids were happy in the game room.”

Advertisement

Over the years the band began to have a life outside of the restaurants. Music, for instance, is available on streaming services.

The blue alien Mr. Munch, behind the keyboards.
Mr. Munch was influenced by Cookie Monster, says Nolan Bushnell, who founded what became known as Chuck E. Cheese in the ‘70s.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

As for why the robot bands have been gradually phased out, CEC Entertainment’s McKillips says the company is acknowledging not just changing technological tastes but the realities of maintaining animatronic groups, which are programmed in Texas but maintained locally.

“These are decades old, and we have a dedicated technician at every single location who spends a fair amount of time making sure the animatronics are working properly,” McKillips says, adding that “it’s a fairly complex issue” to keep the bands up and running. “One of the reasons we choose Northridge is because those animatronics are in great shape.”

“We’ll still be here years from now,” Chuck E. sings in one of the band’s signature songs. The animatronics are charmingly exaggerated, all big feet and oversized heads, with clickety-clack movements that make it clear they hail from another decade. And yet Helen Henny is always at the ready, her bright, purplish dress as loud as her vocals. Mr. Munch’s floppy, furry hands flail at the keyboard, Pasqually’s pancake hands hover just above the drums — never touching them — and cowboy hat-sporting Jasper T. Jowls bops his head, opening and closing his hypnotic eyes into a rhythm all his own.

They may be robots of a certain vintage, but the “ratness” has long been de-emphasized and they can still carry a tune. Just don’t judge them too harshly if it’s the same handful, every few minutes of every day. As the band sings in a song dedicated to the pizza parlor, “They’ll be rocking here tomorrow, like they’re rocking here today.”

Advertisement