Where a Kid Can Be a Kid No More
Updated: Oct 17
By Matt Gordon
One day I heard that Chuck E. Cheese had decided to begin selling beer. Then, just like that, the Chuck E. Cheese in my town was turned into an auto parts store with neither beer nor pizza. As if being at Chuck E. Cheese weren’t heavenly enough, now one could be drunk at Chuck E. Cheese! Then the alarm clock of reality sounded and both dreams were dead. Only auto parts remained. Those and the memories.
Growing up, Chuck E. Cheese was called ShowBiz-Pizza. Billy Bob Brockali was the star of the animatronic show. Unless he was at the DMV or appearing in court, he was just called Billy Bob. He stood at center stage—and swiveled, too—plucking an old homemade guitar and flitting his golfball-sized eyes manically. He was joined onstage, likely bolted there, by Beach Bear and Dook Larue, a loveable tropical electric guitar-playing polar bear and a drumming dog. And then because every show needs a little sex appeal, Mitzi Mozarella, an over-rogued bear with killer dimples and an outfit befitting a 1950’s cheerleader, joined the merry band.
Yes, in the 80’s you’d pile up your pizza and enter into the forgotten world of dinner and a show, no need to stack them. The curtain would open, as would your mouth, and you’d be treated to one of a dozen different sets—the robots would never miss a line, a note, and didn’t ask for Sundays off.
It was a golden era of kid-dom, but all was not as a it seemed. It was hard to piece together the fall of Billy Bob’s famed troupe. Some whispered of embezzlement. Of course, child exploitation was also an opportunistic slice of gossip. I always figured it was just that 80’s rockstar life—cocaine smuggled into the parmesan cheese containers. The band did seem, in those final years, a little twitchier than their early days. Whichever theory, I smelled a rat. We all did. And seemingly overnight—though it actually took a couple weeks of install and rebrand—Chuck E. Cheese took the stage with Pasqually the chef, Jasper J. Jowls, Mr. Munch and the rest of the new talent. Like those who had come before them, they glitched and gyrated, sang and swiveled; as long as the cola flowed, we learned not to ask too many questions. This was the land that proclaimed itself to be “where a kid can be a kid.” All of us knew a big part of being a kid is to leave well enough alone. The rhythmic beat went on and so did we.
The functions of Chuck E. Cheese were the same as they had been at ShowBiz—order some pizza, then scuttle off to play in the ball pit till your mom yelled at you 73 times to come out of the ball pit because the pizza was ready and if you don’t you are going home immediately. So you’d eat some pizza while the peppy renditions of happy birthday blared, and then off to play games and snag tickets for small, plastic trinkets that would get lodged in seat belt buckles until the end of time. It was sublime.
My parents attempted not to spoil us, probably because we didn’t have that much money. They claimed, though, that it was because they didn’t want to make us spoiled brats. But the main reason that we were brats in the first place was due to the utter lack of spoiling we received. I’m pretty sure each of our lives would have been much better (and far less brattier) if these parents of ours had been more openhanded. As it was, ball pit time proved crucial for us Gordon kids. While the other children played chase and squealed down the slide, we methodically went to work, combing the bottom of the ball pit with our fingers, hands like little vacuums, in search of mistakenly abandoned tokens, tickets, or money. It was much like a Vietnam long-range reconnaissance patrol. We’d LRRP-ed the entire surface area, being careful to double-feel along the edges, down in the cracks. We plucked up our share of disgusting used Band-aids and hair barrettes, but always cleared a couple bucks worth of treasure, too, rendering the germs and headlice a totally worthy trade-off. We were dining at a pizza place named for a rat, after all; naturally, things were going to get a bit grimy.
After our treasure hunt, we’d lie about washing our hands and attempt to finish our pizza faster than the band could reach the chorus. It wasn’t that we didn’t appreciate their robotic talents, it is just that the games were beckoning—the pinging dings and whirs of a kiddie casino whispering our delinquent names.
Shoeless, we’d race to ski ball, ball toss, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arcade game, and so many more dinging diversions. It seemed everyone under the age of thirty was shoeless at Chuck E. Cheese. It was part of the enchantment. We came in that place as a people divided; we left closer to a pack of rats—barefoot and itchy, gnawing for the next birthday party like discarded foodstuffs.
My sisters and I were good at the games. We’d find little tricks—exploit the ski-ball lane that was tracking the score wrong, wait out the bigger jackpots on the laser reflex game, find the game that would release an extra four or five tickets if we pulled our winning strand from its discharge slot with perfectly deft precision. The key was patience. As the other rodents scampered from spot to spot, Pavlovian in their subjugation, we’d wait and watch. Ready to pounce but never overeager—our tokens were limited; we spent them judiciously.
But it really didn’t matter. At some point our mother would come and yell at us for the 73rd time that it was time to leave and if we don’t come now we’d never go anywhere fun again, ever. That was our cue to make one more sweep of the ball pit for wayward tickets. We’d then compile our hundreds of tickets with dancing dreams of purchasing the giant stuffed unicorn or remote-control truck or even the gaming system, always perched on the highest shelf like some impossible-to-reach deity. But the Chuck E. Cheese shop ran on Depression-Era economics and our fat stack of currency got us a couple tiny rubber dinosaurs, a sticky hand, and three finger puppets, perfect for the middle finger of each of our right hands.
In early adulthood, my younger sister and I carpooled with my parents to a family vacation in Michigan. I was tasked with leading our meager caravan to a restaurant. Upon exiting, against all odds, I saw that ever-endearing image: a hungry, grinning rat—some teeth, all heart. We pulled into the lot and into our past. It was a Friday afternoon, and we were the only non-employees in the place. My sister lied to the employee working the register, claiming that it was my birthday, so we got a small complimentary cake and some game “tokens” loaded on to a little credit card added into our overpriced order. There was no ball pit—apparently such were now deemed unsanitary. I could have told the experts that at the age of six. The show was no longer performed by creaking robots. Instead, a cartoon Chuck-rat danced and sang with his friends on dozens of flatscreens across the restaurant. There was a special dance-zone that kids and two twenty-somethings could enter for a more immersive entertainment experience. I danced pretty hard for one number and dozens of pictures, but I’ll admit, my heart wasn’t quite in it.
After devouring our tepid pizza, we took to the games. These high-tech machines were glitch-free and instead of cheating our way into more tickets by tug-of-warring them out of the discard slot, our bounty was loaded onto the same little game credit card we were given at the front. This meant it was impossible to find strays in the trash or on the floor or dangling out of some negligent twerp’s back pocket. The new Chuck E. Cheese was a meritocracy.
A lot had changed, but, refreshingly, the prizes still featured high ticket items aloft on stately perches, completely unattainable.
We re-entered the sunlight squinting, as a gambler does after a long night of hustling the penny slots and spreading the action on the craps table. Like that gambler, our pockets were empty; our hopes diminished, up pops the Devil . . . just like the Whack-A-Mole.
A lot had changed because a lot always does. Life leaves no thing alone, untouched. It pushes and prods, demanding 73 times that it is time to move along or else. A lot had changed, but mostly, the change was us. We had grown up, finding new ways to scour the world for any old advantage and moving frenetically from one diversion to the next. Only this time we wore shoes. All of us had entered the place where a kid can be a kid, and we had left it, too, becoming adults. The kind of adults who no longer skip or play ski ball. The kind of adults with mortgages and receding hair and wobbly bodies. The kind of adults who have surrendered top-shelf dreams to take what they can get. The kind of adults with little wavy-armed puppets on their middle fingers.
We drove on to vacation, my sister and I, the guffaws of the past meeting the grins of the future. We drove on, humming gently “Happy Birthday,” moving along from one year to the next.