Chuck E. Cheese's (Johnsonverse)

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Formerly known as: Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre (1977–1989)
Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza (1989–1994)
Type: Company
Industry: Family restaurant, fast food
Parent: Atari, Inc. (1977-1978)
Pizza Time Theatre, Inc. (1978-1984)
ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. (1984-1998, 2015-present)
CEC Entertainment Inc. (1998-2015)
Traded as: NASDAQ: CHKY (1981–1984)
Key people: Gene Landrum (first president and COO)
Tim Johnson (CEO)
Belle Armstrong (president)
Founded: May 17, 1977; 43 years ago
San Jose, California, U.S.
Headquarters: Irving, Texas, U.S.
No. of locations: 417
Areas served: North America
South America
Asia
Middle East
Australia
India


Chuck E. Cheese's is a chain of American family restaurants, and a brand of ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. based in Irving, Texas. The restaurants serve pizza and other menu items, and feature arcade games, amusement rides, and animatronic displays as a focus of family entertainment. The chain's name is taken from its main character and mascot, Chuck E. Cheese.

The first location opened in San Jose, California, as Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre, on May 17, 1977. The concept was created by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, a pioneer of the video game industry. Pizza Time Theatre was the first family restaurant to integrate food and an arcade with animated entertainment. After filing for bankruptcy in March 1984, the chain was acquired by competitor ShowBiz Pizza Place in May 1985, forming ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. In 1990, the company began unifying the two brands, renaming every location Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza. In 1994 the name was shortened to Chuck E. Cheese's, and ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. became CEC Entertainment, Inc. in 1998.

In December 2014, Johnson Industries acquired CEC Entertainment, rebranded it back to ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc., and revived the ShowBiz brand in 2015, along with undoing the unification of the two brands. As of June 2020, CEC Entertainment owned 417 Chuck E. Cheese venues in 47 U.S. states, four Canadian provinces, Guam, and Puerto Rico, along with additional locations in Mexico, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia.

History

Foundation

Two children in the Ticket Blaster, where children having birthday parties can collect as many tickets as they can before the time expires.
A girl playing in the now-removed SkyTubes play area.

Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre was founded by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who sought to expand video-game arcades beyond adult locations like pool halls to child- and family-friendly venues. His experience in the amusement park industry, and his fondness for Disneyland's Country Bear Jamboree, influenced his concept for Pizza Time Theatre. He has said, "It was my pet project ... I chose pizza because of the wait time and the build schedule—very few components, and not too many ways to screw it up." When his first animatronic show was being assembled, Bushnell learned that the costume he'd bought for his main character, a coyote, was actually that of a rodent, prompting him to suggest changing the establishment's name from "Coyote Pizza" to "Rick Rat's Pizza". His marketing people proposed "Chuck E. Cheese" instead, and that became its name.

The first Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater opened in San Jose, California, in 1977. In 1978, when Atari's then-corporate parent Warner Communications refused to open additional locations, Bushnell purchased the rights to the concept and characters from Warner for $500,000. Gene Landrum then resigned from Atari and was made the restaurants' president and chief operating officer. By late 1979, there were seven PTT locations, all in California. Its animatronics were produced fully in-house by PTT employees.

ShowBiz Pizza Place

Main article: ShowBiz Pizza Place

To expand beyond California and the west coast, Bushnell began to franchise, resulting in a co-development agreement between himself and Robert Brock of Topeka Inn Management in June 1979. The agreement handed Brock exclusive franchising rights for opening Pizza Time Theatres in sixteen states across the Southern and Midwestern United States, while also forming a company subdivision, "Pizza Show Biz", to develop the Pizza Time Theatres.

Late in 1979, Brock became aware of Aaron Fechter of Creative Engineering, Inc. and his work in animatronics. In November 1979, he scouted Fechter's business and concluded that Creative Engineering's animatronics would be too strong a competition for Bushnell's work. Brock therefore requested that Bushnell release him from their co-development agreement, wishing to develop with Fechter instead. In December 1979, Brock and Fechter formed Showbiz Pizza Place Inc., and Brock gave notice to sever his development relationship with Bushnell. ShowBiz Pizza Place was conceptually identical to Pizza Time Theatre in all aspects except for animation, which would be provided by Creative Engineering. Showbiz Pizza Place opened its first location on March 3, 1980, in Kansas City, Missouri.

Upon the opening of ShowBiz Pizza Place, Bushnell sued Brock and Topeka Inn Management over breach of contract. Brock immediately issued a counter-suit against Bushnell, citing misrepresentation. The court case began in March 1980, eventually settling out of court with Showbiz agreeing to pay Pizza Time Theatre a portion of its profits over the following decade. During this period, Topeka Inn Management also changed its name to Brock Hotel Corporation and moved its headquarters to Irving, Texas. Both restaurants experienced increased success as the video game industry became more robust, and, to maintain competition, both franchises continually modified and diversified their animatronic shows.

Mergers and restructuring

An older Chuck E. Cheese location under the now defunct title of Chuck E Cheese's Pizza

In 1981, Pizza Time Theatre went public; however, the evolving video game industry and the video game crash of 1983 resulted in significant losses for Pizza Time Theatre, which lost $15 million in 1983. By early 1984, Bushnell's debts were insurmountable, resulting in the filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy for Pizza Time Theatre Inc. on March 28, 1984. Showbiz then bought the foundering company, finalizing the purchase in May 1985 and recreating itself as Showbiz Pizza Time Inc.

After the merge, both restaurant chains continued operating under their respective titles, while major financial restructuring had begun. During this period, Creative Engineering began to sever ties with ShowBiz Pizza Time (officially splitting in September 1990), resulting in the unification of the two brands. By 1992, all restaurants assumed the name of Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza. The name was then shortened to Chuck E. Cheese's by March 1995 after a redesigned concept. In 1998, Showbiz Pizza Time renamed itself CEC Entertainment, Inc. to reflect the remaining chain brand. CEC Entertainment has since acquired additional family restaurant properties, including 13 locations of the now-defunct Discovery Zone in 1999, and all locations of Peter Piper Pizza in October 2014. Peter Piper Pizza still operates under that name.

International expansion

In the early 1980s, the restaurant franchise debuted in Australia under the name Charlie Cheese's Pizza Playhouse. The name change had to do with the common meaning of the word "chuck", which in Australia is a reference to the phrase "to throw up". Consecutively, Pizza Time Theatre, Inc. also opened at least one restaurant in Hong Kong and Singapore, which both closed shortly thereafter as a result of the initial company's 1984 bankruptcy.

Chuck E. Cheese's Boulevard Marina in Viña del Mar, Chile
Trujillo, Peru

As of June 2020, Chuck E. Cheese is operating 612 corporate and franchise stores as well as 122 Peter Piper Pizza restaurants. They are located in 47 states across the United States and in 16 countries and territories around the world.

Buyout and modern redesign

By 2012, CEC was struggling with decreasing revenue. They ran a rebranding campaign, changing the rat mascot into a rock star guitar-playing mouse. In-store restaurant sales continued to decline through 2013 but merchandising and box office revenue increased.

In February 2014, Apollo Global Management acquired CEC Entertainment, Inc. for $54 per share, or about $950 million. In October 2014, under Apollo Global Management, CEC Entertainment announced that they would purchase their Phoenix-based competitor, Peter Piper Pizza from ACON Investments.

Johnson acquisition and restructuring

On November 14, 2014, Johnson Foods announced it would acquire CEC Entertainment, Inc. Initially, Apollo Global Holdings, which had acquired the company in February, was reluctant, but after a massive letter-writing campaign, relented, and sold the company to Johnson for $3.2 billion.

The acquisition saw the Concept Unification process being undone, in a new process known as "Concept Division", in which 53 locations were converted into new ShowBiz Pizza Place locations between November 2015 and March 2016. Further locations were converted into ShowBiz locations until January 2021, while a new showtape, "Under Renovation", was created to play during renovations.

Entertainment

Video arcade

A 2001 Chuck E. Cheese token.

Since the company's inception, one of the primary draws for the business has been its video arcade offering inside restaurants. Within the arcade, customers can play coin-operated video games or redemption games, the latter of which involves games of skill that reward players in the form of tickets based on score. Tickets can be redeemed later for merchandise, such as candy and toys.

The coin-op games accepted brass tokens issued by the company, stamped with various logos and branding that evolved over time. The company experimented with a card access method as a supplement for tokens, which allowed customers to load credits onto a card that could then be swiped for access at arcade games and refilled later. It was tested under different names including "Chuck E.'s Super Discount Card" and "Chuck E. Token Card", before using the name "Chuck E.'s Play Pass Card". Tokens stopped being struck for regular use in 2019 when the last few locations switched to the Play Pass card (new ones with higher-end metals such as silver and gold continue to be struck as collector's items from the Chuck E. Cheese's website).

From 2015 to 2019, the tokens used random obverses showing members of Munch's Make-Believe Band. The reverses depicted their respective instruments (Chuck E.'s guitar, Helen's microphone, Mr. Munch's keyboard, Jasper's banjo, Harmony's tambourine, and Pasqually's drums).

Characters and animatronics

Chuck E. Cheese "Studio C Beta" animatronic, 2017; it has since been removed

Another primary draw for the centers since their beginning has been its animatronic shows. There have historically been several different styles of animatronic shows in use within the company, details of which would vary depending on when the location opened, whether it was renovated, available room for animatronic stages, and other factors. Over the years, these animatronics have often been supplemented by costumed characters.

When the first location opened in 1977, the animatronic characters were featured as busts in framed portraits hanging on the walls of the main dining area. The original show featured Crusty The Cat (the first character to face retirement as he was soon replaced with Mr. Munch in 1978), Pasqually the singing chef, Jasper T. Jowls, the Warblettes, and the main focus of the show, Chuck E. Cheese. One of the early Cabaret characters was Dolli Dimples, a hippopotamus who played the piano and sang in the blues/jazz style of performer Pearl Bailey. The in-house control system consisted of a 6502-based controller in a card cage with various driver boards was called "Cyberamics".

While Aaron Fechter separately produced Rock-afire Explosion animatronics for ShowBiz Pizza through the early 1980s, Bushnell and Pizza Time Theatre continued work on characters for their portrait format and newer balcony performance stage shows under the umbrella of the Pizza Time Players. In addition, more Cabaret shows modeled after actual music artists were released, such as the Beagles (The Beatles), The Beach Bowsers (The Beach Boys), and The King (Elvis). Many of these used tracks by the original music artists. Development on Cabaret concepts slowed greatly after Pizza Time Theatre Inc.'s bankruptcy in 1984 and its purchase by ShowBiz a year later. From 1985 to 1990, the merged company kept their brands (and their respective animatronics) mostly separate; Bushnell's Cabaret and balcony characters entertained at Pizza Time Theatre, and the Rock-afire Explosion continued at ShowBiz.

After Fechter refused to sign over the rights to the Rock-afire Explosion to ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc., "Concept Unification" was undertaken beginning in September 1990 and continuing through 1992, to eliminate Fechter's characters from ShowBiz locations. The animatronics used for ShowBiz's Rock-afire Explosion band were redressed as "Munch's Make Believe Band", with Chuck E., Jasper, Helen Henny, Munch, and Pasqually costumes replacing Fechter's Rock-afire characters. In the mid-1990s, the character Chuck E. Cheese began to see significant design changes. The vest (or suit), and derby hat he'd worn from the beginning was ditched for a baseball cap, casual shirt, and optional sneakers in an attempt to appeal to a younger audience.

Beginning in 1998, the animatronics show installed into new stores, referred to as "Studio C", consisted of a single animated Chuck E. Cheese character created by Garner Holt alongside large television monitors, lighting effects, and interactive elements. The other characters appear as puppets on the TV screens. The control system dubbed "Cyberstar" was re-designed from the ground up and produced by Dave Philipsen. The "Circles of Light" animatronic stage premiered in early 2012.

In July 2012, the longstanding rat mascot was rebranded, changing to a slimmer rock star mouse who plays electric guitar. Voice actor Duncan Brannan, who for 19 years had characterized Chuck E. Cheese as a wise-cracking rat from New Jersey, was replaced with Jaret Reddick, the frontman and guitarist for the pop punk band Bowling for Soup.

Once Johnson acquired the chain, the Studio C and Circles of Light stages were earmarked for immediate replacement as part of a restructuring of Department 18; Johnson CEO Tim Johnson identified the Studio C and Circles of Light stages as "sacrilege", as they only had one animatronic or, in some cases, no animatronics at all. Over half of them were replaced by a new stage called the "Rockstar Stage", featuring all of the Munch's Make-Believe Band characters, updated to their modern "Rockstar" appearances introduced in 2012 for Chuck E. and 2014 for the other characters; the animatronics on these stages are manufactured by Garner Holt in the same style as the Chuck E. animatronic on the Studio C and Circles of Light stages, though unlike those, the new animatronics have much more fluid, upgraded motions, as Garner Holt collaborated with Walt Disney Imagineering and CEI to engineer brand-new animatronics; their proportions are also closer to the CEI animatronics. The remaining stages were replaced by the Rock-afire Explosion (as in several cases, the 3-Stages were put behind walls left intact for the conversion to the Circles of Light stages) and rebranded to ShowBiz Pizza Place. The CU-1 Stages were also converted back into 3-Stages, and became Rock-afire Explosion shows. All walkarounds now have fur sleeves for improved accuracy, as well as technology that allows their faces to move; they are also allowed to speak using Johnson's VoxMutatio technology that allows them to sound like their characters. Johnson has stated that the company would keep one stage for each Studio C setup and a Circles of Light stage (in addition to a replica 3-Stage) for the ShowBiz Pizza Time Museum in Irving, Texas, the rest being sold to collectors or outright destroyed.

All other existing stages (1-Stage, 2-Stage, and Road Stage) were refurbished to the "Rockstar" designs but otherwise untouched, and the last remaining Rocker Stage (at the location in Rockford, Illinois) was moved to the ShowBiz Pizza Time Museum prior to its replacement by a Rockstar Stage. Finally, beginning in June 2016, Harmony Howlette, a former Cabaret character, was brought back, with a new design and a new voice actress (Kate Bristol); her instrument is the tambourine. Harmony was added to all Rockstar Stages and 1-Stage, 2-Stage and Road Stage setups, using the original Cyberamic design for the latter three stages.

Following the Johnson acquisition, showtape production was greatly changed. Production of all future showtapes starting in the June 2015 showtape was moved to Johnson Studios, though the principal voices are still recorded in Texas. The puppets were restricted to the intermission segments (such as CEC TV News, Helen Henny's Hollywood, and Geography Rap, all segments from the 1990s showtapes that were revived), with the emphasis placed back on the animatronics for the show segments. To this end, all locations had the walls in the showrooms rebuilt, and all curtains on existing stages not earmarked for removal were either reinstalled or repaired. Separate Studio C/Circles of Light versions of the showtapes with the puppets talking to a Chuck E. Cheese animatronic were still produced until the last Studio C stage was decommissioned in January 2021 in favor of a 3-Stage Rock-afire Explosion show.

Food

Pizza is the main focus of the restaurant portion of the business, but the menu features other items as well including cold-cut sandwiches, chicken wings, salad bar access, and desserts. In addition, some Chuck E. Cheese's locations offer alcoholic beverages.

In March 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant began selling pizza, wings, desserts and more through food delivery services.

See Also