Aaron Fechter (Johnsonverse)
Aaron Fechter (born December 21, 1953) is an American engineering entrepreneur, voice actor, and musician who owns and operates Creative Engineering, Inc. (CEI). He is best known as the creator of The Rock-afire Explosion, an animatronic show featuring a variety of characters used within ShowBiz Pizza Place restaurants throughout the 1980s. A dispute with ShowBiz along with the chain's dwindling revenue led to the show's decline and eventual removal. CEI developed other products and concepts since its founding, but they failed to gain commercial interest with a few exceptions. Beginning in 2015, Fechter and the band returned to the revived ShowBiz due to its acquisition by Johnson Industries. Fechter also claims to have been instrumental in the early development of the Whac-A-Mole arcade game from Bandai, which became popular in the late 1970s, but his involvement has been disputed.
Early life and career
Aaron Fechter graduated from Edgewater High School in Orlando, Florida. In 1973, he graduated college at the age of 19. The United States was in the midst of an energy crisis, and Fechter decided to build a fuel-efficient, small car prototype in hopes of eventually manufacturing the vehicle under a new car company. He founded Creative Engineering Incorporated (CEI) in 1975 for that purpose, but in order to raise money for the project, he resorted to selling smaller inventions door-to-door, such as his "Leaf Eater" contraption that collected leaves from swimming pools. Fechter knocked on the door of individuals who solicited his help in designing an electronic control system for a shooting gallery, that was then sold to amusement parks. The gallery featured an animatronic horse, and his success led to other offers in the animatronic industry, which became the central focus for Creative Engineering.
Fechter's father was an early investor in CEI, helping it enter the animatronic industry. Early projects included The Scab, a single talking head, Willie Wabbit, an anthropomorphic rabbit, and a fortune-telling machine called Lazlo The Great. By 1978, Fechter had finished work on the "Wolf Pack 5", his first animatronic series featuring multiple characters including The Wolfman, Fats, Dingo Starr, Beach Bear, and Queenie the Fox who was later known as Mini Mozzarella. It was showcased and deemed a success at the 1978 IAAPA show. He completed work soon after on "The Hard Luck Bears", another show featuring a hillbilly band of bears and a mimicking bird in 1979. A more complex show called "The Rock-afire Explosion" debuted in 1980, which was a combination of the Wolf Pack 5 and The Hard Luck Bears concepts with improved animation and other changes. This was the concept ShowBiz selected for inclusion in its family entertainment pizza chain.
ShowBiz Pizza Place
In 1980, Robert L. Brock opened the first ShowBiz Pizza Place restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, featuring Creative Engineering's Wolf Pack 5 display along with other amenities that focused on games and a food menu for both children and adults. Brock owned an extensive chain of Holiday Inn hotels, considered the largest of its kind at the time. He originally partnered with Pizza Time Theatre but backed out after discovering Aaron Fechter's work. CEI was given a 20-percent ownership stake in the chain and retained all rights to characters, animation, and show development. Although ShowBiz would move forward with the "Rock-afire Explosion" (RAE) concept in future locations, RAE was still in the final stages of development when the first store opened using the "Wolf Pack 5". Queenie the Fox became known as Mini Mozzarella at this stage.
Following financial troubles in the mid-1980s, ShowBiz explored the possibility of reverse-engineering RAE and producing their own shows. This led to a feud over rights with CEI that lasted for several years. ShowBiz eventually stripped RAE of existing cosmetics, including facial and body features, and replaced them with Chuck E. Cheese (CEC) characters – ShowBiz obtained the rights years earlier when it purchased the bankrupt CEC franchise. The transition began in 1990 under the label "Concept Unification", which involved the renaming of all ShowBiz locations to Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza. A new show called "Munch's Make Believe Band" was installed in various locations. ShowBiz and CEI eventually agreed on allowed CEI to license the RAE band and characters to other businesses, but the presence of CEI's animatronics within ShowBiz-owned restaurants were mostly retired by the mid-1990s.
Post ShowBiz era
During CEI's involvement with ShowBiz, the company began to pursue other interests outside of the restaurant industry. CEI explored an arcade game concept called "Moon Goons", similar to Whac-a-Mole, in 1983. In 1985, a miniature animatronic doll of Billy Bob was produced that was similar to the popular Teddy Ruxpin, which was released to the public the same year. According to CEI's release manual, it could be plugged into a computer, as demonstrated with an Apple II, and be programmed to sing. Plans to manufacture similar versions for characters Mini Fatz and Mini Mitzi were later abandoned. They were finally released in 2020, along with Mini Rolfe and Earl, Mini Dook, Mini Beach Bear, Mini Looney Bird, and Mini Klunk, as well as Mini Mitzi Jr.
In 1996, animation from the New RAE was used in a karaoke game shown at the IAAPA. As with The New Rock-Afire, "Marvelously Electronic Animation" debuted as a Karaoke, Trivia and Video Recording area that features a NRAE Looney Bird Robot that is controlled with The Anti-Gravity Freedom Machine. In 2000, CEI developed "The Mezmerizer" arcade game, which was licensed for manufacturing to ICE and morphed into their successful Wheel of Fortune Game. They developed The Starlauncher in 2003, which was described as "An American Idol Kiosk" by Fechter in the 2008 RAE Documentary, though it was never publicly released until 2016.
Anti-Gravity Freedom Machine
CEI also invested $1.5 million in the research and development of a secure messaging device called The Anti-Gravity Freedom Machine (AGFM), which could send messages through a phone line similar to the concept of email. Johnson Technologies heavily invested in it as well.
The machine was finally completed and released in 1992 to moderate success; due to the rise of the internet a few years later, the AFGM was rendered obsolete.
In 1990, with the beginning of Concept Unification, Fechter partnered with Johnson Foods to create a competing restaurant chain called Looney Bird's. There were plans to make it a large-scale competitor to Chuck E. Cheese's; however, due to royalty disputes with then-Johnson CEO Phil Stacker, all further expansion and new shows were halted. When Sheldon Johnson, Jr. replaced Stacker on October 23, 1991, those disputes were settled, and new shows continued to be produced, with more locations continuing to open throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s.
For more, see Hydrillium (Johnsonverse).
In 2010, research began on an alternative fuel source concept for cooking called Hydrillium (formerly Carbohydrillium), which is described by CEI as a safer and cleaner way to cook when compared to propane, emitting little to no pollution from its combustion process. Fechter had been developing the alternative fuel system derived from water and graphite in partnership with a paid mentor, William Richardson. On September 26, 2013, an explosion occurred at the Orlando headquarters of Creative Engineering in its warehouse. A high pressure, steel canister ruptured and exploded. It was later discovered that Richardson had experienced a similar explosion in 2001 when he was working on the same product he previously called Aqualux. An investigation found that water vapor introduced into high-pressure carbon steel cylinders during the production of the gas caused several chemical reactions that eventually led to catastrophic failure. Hydrillium has been used prominently in the revived ShowBiz Pizza Place since 2017.
Return of ShowBiz Pizza Place
In media and pop culture
Public online interest in The Rock-Afire Explosion surged in 2005 with the release of several YouTube videos, such as "Ms. New Booty" by Chris Thrash, in which a fan recreated several new RAE animations that feature modern musical themes. The efforts were displayed in the 2008 The Rock-afire Explosion Documentary. Creative Engineering continued to sell Rock-afire merchandise online over the years. In 2014, indie game developer Scott Cawthon made Five Nights at Freddy's, which in part was inspired by both Chuck E. Cheese and ShowBiz Pizza Place for its family restaurant setting. In the game, a single player tries to evade possessed animatronics at night after the restaurant closes.
In 2015, CEI released a new arcade game to the IAAPA Convention called Bashy Bug (stylized as BASHyBUG). It revolves around a flipflop shoe used by the player to stomp on a bug in a timed skill scenario with multiple levels of difficulty. It is being installed in many ShowBiz Pizza Place and Chuck E. Cheese's locations.
In the 2016 film Keanu, by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, a scene featuring a cat named Keanu jumps through the window of a fictional, abandoned building that used to manufacture animatronics. Beach Bear, Billy Bob, Fatz, as well as other CEI characters were featured in the background.
Beginning in December 2016, a show based on The Rock-afire Explosion has aired on Netflix and The Hub, called The Rock-afire Explosion Show, in which Fechter serves as one of the showrunners. Fechter had floated the idea of an animated series in the late 1980s, which was one of the reasons he refused to hand over the rights to ShowBiz Pizza Time.