Dolly Dimples, the 12-foot hippo, is sitting to the left at the piano bar and crooning "Hello Dolly." The dint of Dolly drifts to the right on an audio/olfactory collision course, smashing into the sound of "Superman" on a giant video projection screen and the smell of pizza being eaten by 20 families watching the movie.
Down the corridor, right across from the pizza stand: Bip. Zap! Thwonge. Beep. Pow? 75 electronic arcade games are blasting away in simultaneous abandon. "NOT THE HUMANOID," proclaims the creepy synthesized voice from Berserk, where a robot shoots and gets shot. "PREPARE YOURSELF FOR ANNIHLATION," says the omniscient master of Gorf, a more sophisticated Zen-like version of Space Invaders. Throughout the building, color video monitors with futuristic displays announce when a pizza order is ready.
Welcome to Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater, the new American Family Night Out, everything you want from a store and a little bit more: Pizza Hut, Disneyland, the Boardwalk, (yes, they have Skee-Ball), a movie theater, a playground, an electronics arcade, mutant Muppets and a candy and novelty shop all rolled into one compact unit that is taking in cash bear paw over frog's foot on the Pike in Rockville's Wintergreen Plaza.
Flash past the kiddie corner, where helicopters twirl and a miniature Ferris wheel spins, into the dining room, facing an elevated stage occupied by six-foot "Cyberanic" figures: Chuck E. Cheese, Madame Oink, Jasper T. Jowls, an organ grinder named Pasqually, three birds called the Warblettes and Mr. Munch, a dead ringer for a Wookie, only he's purple. Every eight minutes they perform. Chuck E. Cheese, a rat from Brooklyn, introduces Madame Oink, who renders "Thank Heaven for Little Boys" a la Maurice Chevalier, accompanied by the Warblettes who add backup vocals a la the Andrews Sisters. Dozens of American and Confederate and Maryland flags ringing the room wave in unison, in time with four pairs of distended, clapping elephant, deer, frog and polar bear feet.
This whole bizarre extravaganza is the vision of Nolan Bushnell, a former Atari executive who created Pong and sent America reeling toward its, micro-electronic leisure-time destiny. Blame Bushnell for all the quarters that have been dropped into the slots of Asteroids arcade games.
"Nolan really believes this is the greatest thing since Swiss cheese, and potentially even more popular," says Suzie Crocker, the communications manager for Pizza Time Theater Inc., which operates out of Silicon Valley in California and has 44 Chuck E. Cheeses already deployed. By the end of the year they hope to have 68.
As strange as Bushnell's Cheese factories may seem, they really are a logical escalation of America's ongoing romance with computer games.In the past three years the toy industry has assumed the vanguard status in consumer electronics. Kids instinctively took to the little red blips of light that represented ball carriers and tackles in Mattel's Electronic Football. And it wasn't long before parents came to accept as givens the otherworldly syntheized voice that issued from Texas Intrustments' Speak & Spell.
The only problem was . . . the kids outgrew the games faster than they outgrew shoes. Electronic Football wasn't enough, mostly because the small size and low price of the units limited the amount of memory that could be built in. So the more sophisticated arcade games grew in popularity, and not not just with kids. The larger size permitted better graphic definition, which bridged the gap to the less imaginative minds of adults.
"You go in most of our centers at lunch," says Pizza Time's games director Bob Lundquest, "and you'll see the units surrounded by businessmen."
America became so obsessed with Space Invaders that a silly song -- which orchestrated the annoying sounds emitted by the game -- became a top-10 record. And families started buying home computers, largely to be able to replicate arcade games like Space Invaders and Asteroids on the living room television screen.
But the pinball machines of the '80s -- the ever-changing electronic arcade games -- kept getting more and more popular. Nolan Bushnell had seen it coming. Maybe he realized it early on, when he saw that people tired of Pong quickly. He figured, why drive to McDonald's and then bring the kids home to sit in front of the tube when the whole family can be scarfing pizza, and Mom and Dad can watch a movie, and Junior can ride the Ferris wheel, and Sis can play . . . crazy climber???
Dee Dee Catron, age 13, is a master at Crazy Climber. She's got the day's high score of 145,940 listed right there on the video display next to her initials DDC. Dee Dee drops a 25-cent token into the slot. She starts working two levers that control the arms of this little green man, and he starts climbing up a skyscraper. Plop, plop, his suction-cup hands are sticking to the wall, just like Spiderman. But wait a minute. The people inside the building aren't being very nice. They're slamming the windows down on his fingers, and he's moaning ouch! The higher Dee Dee gets the little guy, the nastier the folks inside the building act. Now they're throwing flower pots out the windows. Ouch! And as Dee Dee gets him to the top of the building, King Kong himself is swatting at the green man. Dee Dee scoots around Kong's flank and grabs onto a helicopter that lifts the green man to another building WHERE REALLY NASTY PEOPLE LIVE. tThey're not satisfied with flower pots. Oh no, Mr. Bill. They're throwing bottles and buckets and garbage cans and barbells! And Steel GIRDERS! And water balloons! Nice neighborhood. And now a big white bird is flying over the green man's head and defecating on him! And -- Whoops! -- here comes an electric sign with loose cables that will ELECTROCUTE the green masn if they touch him, and turn him red. Whew! A big blue balloon floats by and Dee Dee gets the guy to grab onto its string and he floats up seven stories, safe for a few fleeting seconds from the barrage of aerial garbage. Now he's back plop-plopping up the building. OHMIGOD, IT'S AN ENORMOUS BILLBOARD and green man can't escape it and -- POW!!! -- he screams out OHHHHHNOOOOO and plummets down to the pavement five minutes and 36 seconds after Dee Dee has inserted the token into the slot.
In short, the perfect way for a child to learn about life itself.
And if Crazy Climber isn't enough, how about the realities of Vietnam represented in Armor Attack, whose offensive helicopter has synthesized audio that seems borrowed from the sound track of "Apocalypse Now"; or Missile Command, in which Junior can defend three towns from atomic Armageddon with anti-ballistic missiles; or Battle Zone, wherein the operator gets to blast tanks and jet fighters into three-dimensional smithereens while moving across a landscape filled with very spacey geometric solids? All this, and pizza too. . .
"My kid will be much better adjusted to the world than I am because he plays these games," says an attorney with a prestigious Washington law firm as he watches his son blast his way through the pecking order of Gorf. "Get behind barriers and shoot at everybody before they shoot at you. And, of course, you can never really win; just hold the other guys off for as long as possible."
"I have two children who are in Florida now," says Charles Hall, "and I can't wait to get them here. This is quite an innovation. They'll get a bank out of it. The machines are amazing, and the pizza's not bad. It might seem a little expensive, but everything is relative. I paid $11.50 for a Scotch and soda in Stockholm. And there's a certain art to this. 'm no art critic by any standard, but I went to New York recently with a group from the Corcoran. We went to this apartment that had broken white dishes glued to a wall, and the woman asked me what I thought it meant.I said, 'The only thing I can think of is anger,' and she said, 'That's exactly right.'"
In 1977, Nolan Bushnell realized there was only one way to make arcade video games attractive to people like Charles Hall. He decided to position them in wholesome suburban locations instead of dingy, mildewed boardwalk arcades and smelly city pool halls. And to prevent the centers from becoming dreaded dens of juvenile delinquency persons under 18 would not be admitted without a parent. The average visitor to Chuck F. Cheese's spends about $8, excluding game play. Each of the arcade machines takes in between $300 and $1,000 a week.
Bushnell, who is now 38, created the Pizza Time Theater as a division of Atari, which had marketed Pong. With only two outlets, the company pulled in $347,000 in the first year of operation. Sbushnell gazed into his video display terminal. . .
And he could see the future. She bought Pizza Time from Atari.
In 1979 he grossed $2.9 million; in 1980 $9.3 million. The company went public this April, traded over the counter. Pizza Time now has 200 employes at its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters, where the giant Cyberanic figures are built and programmed and where records are kept to determine the average time spent playing a video game (60 seconds) and the most popular game (Pac-Man, a little blue figure who runs around a maze and eats other figures). As the game-playing at each location gets better, the machines themselves are adjusted to become more difficult. Nothing is overlooked in the land of Chuck E. Cheese.
And Chuck E. himself? It's true, it's true that he hasn't always been the most wholesome of fellows. He was created by Bushnell as Atari's in-house mascot, and began his career as Rodney Rat, the countercuiture's answer to Mickey Mouse. Visitors to the firm would be greeted by a cigar-smoking wise-talking . . . RAT?
Now he looks an awful lot like the mouse he was ostensibly mocking, probably hoping to follow Mickey right down the yellow brick road. Rodents always did have a good sense of smell.