Creative Engineering (Johnsonverse)
Creative Engineering, Inc. is an American engineering company based in Orlando, Florida. Founded in 1975 by inventor Aaron Fechter, the company is most famous for creating The Rock-afire Explosion for ShowBiz Pizza Place in 1980.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the company had a number of employees creating animatronics, before downsizing in the 1990s to only having a handful of employees, including Fechter himself, although more were hired in the late 2000s to work on the AnimeTronic technology. Since the revival of ShowBiz in 2015, however, the company has grown to have more employees than in the 1980s.
In 1975, aspiring inventor Aaron Fechter and his father Melvin founded Creative Engineering to market a three-wheeled car known as the Jutta, which would get approximately 90 miles on a gallon of gas. When he was unable to find investors, the younger Fechter turned to producing animatronics. The first animatronic Fechter invented was a rabbit named Willie Wabbit, who was built in 1976 to advertise for Mystery Fun House at an airport in Orlando, Florida. Fechter and a team of employees later created other animatronics such as Friendly Freddy (CEI's first fully-animated character), The Confederate Critter Show, Hard Luck Bears, and Wolf Pack 5.
ShowBiz Pizza Place and early success
In November 1979, Fechter met businessman Robert L. Brock, owner of Topeka Inn Management, which at the time was the largest franchisee for the Holiday Inn chain of motels and hotels. Brock had cut ties with Pizza Time Theatre, Inc. (which owned the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre franchise) after discovering Fechter's animatronics, and ShowBiz Pizza Place, Inc. was formed in December 1979. The first location opened at the Antioch Center in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3, 1980. Originally, the restaurant was to use Pizza Time Theatre's animatronics until CEI could provide a custom show, but once the company expressed its intentions to sue Brock for breach of contract, CEI was forced to provide the Wolf Pack 5 show, changing the character Queenie Fox to a mouse named Mini Mozzarella at ShowBiz's request.
Later in 1980, the second ShowBiz Pizza location opened in Jacksonville, Florida, as the first location to feature a new band, The Rock-afire Explosion, which featured three stages; the left side contained an overall-clad brown bear named Billy Bob Brockali, who only existed as a walkaround character when the first ShowBiz opened, and his sidekick Looney Bird. The center stage was the most active, featuring four characters: a brown mongrel named Duke LaRue, who served as the drummer, a silverback gorilla named Fats Geronimo, who played the keyboard, a surfer polar bear, Beach Bear (the only character to be carried over from The Wolf Pack 5), serving as the guitar player, and Mitzi Mozzarella, a cheerleading teenage mouse who was the female vocalist; the right stage featured comedian Rolfe DeWolfe and his puppet sidekick Earl Schmerle. In 1981, Duke and Fats' names were changed to Dook LaRoo (although the new surname was only used once, resulting in the "LaRue" name continuing to be used) and Fatz, respectively.
In 1982, work began on a planned "2nd Generation" version of the animatronics. The most notable changes were to Dook, who could actually play the drums rather than tap a single drum and cymbal, Mitzi, who had the ability to dance rather than flailing her pom-poms around, and Beach Bear, who could actually stand up off his surfboard; Fechter announced that there were plans to one day have the characters be able to actually walk. At that time, a guest character named Uncle Klunk was created. The character was designed to pick up objects, and was accompanied by his bird sidekick Click. He only received a mild public response, and was short-lived. An animatronic Paul McCartney was in the works as well, before work was stopped due to ShowBiz's financial issues at the time; the chain would buy out and merge with competitor Pizza Time Theatre, Inc. (owner of the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre franchise), which had been affected significantly by the Great Video Game Crash of 1983, to create ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. in 1984.
Split with ShowBiz and later years
When ShowBiz Pizza Time went public in 1989, the company began work on unifying the two chains; Fechter stated in 2008 that the company wanted Fechter to hand over the rights to The Rock-afire Explosion; he refused, saying the company offered little-to-no monetary compensation, and that he had aspirations to make a Rock-afire Explosion cartoon (which was eventually released on Netflix in 2016 as The Rock-afire Explosion Show). A process called Concept Unification began, with the intent of converting all Rock-afire Explosion shows at ShowBiz locations to a new band, known as Munch's Make-Believe Band, which combined the Rock-afire Explosion and Pizza Time Theatre's band, the Pizza Time Players. Fechter, disgusted, cut ties with SPT in September 1990, and by 1992, all ShowBiz locations were converted to Chuck E. Cheese's.
Having lost their biggest customer, CEI attempted to find other clients, most notably forming a somewhat successful restaurant chain with Johnson Foods called Looney Bird's, selling surplus shows and continuing to create new shows in the 1990s. The company created a new version of the band, known as The New Rock-afire Explosion, which featured smaller, articulated animatronics known as "miijins". Outside of Looney Bird's, however, very few customers purchased these shows. In 1993, Johnson CEO Sheldon Johnson, Jr. convinced Fechter to create a user-friendly program to create new Rock-afire Explosion shows. The program, named Looney Bird's Lab, was released in September 1995 and has been continually updated ever since.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the company downsized significantly, being reduced to Fechter and a handful of other employees by 2008; those employees stayed at CEI to help Fechter work on Looney Bird's Lab, which became popular among Rock-afire Explosion fans. After a video of a privately-owned show went viral in 2007, a documentary about the band was released the following year.
Reunion with ShowBiz and resurgence
In December 2014, Johnson acquired CEC Entertainment, Inc. and rebranded it back to ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc. days later. CEI also announced that they would be involved in the reanimated ShowBiz Pizza Place, and would renovate their building to accommodate their anticipated workload; engineer David Ferguson, owner of Goofy Gas Fillin' Station, was hired as a consultant, along with Rock-afire Explosion fan Damon Breland. Ferguson's signature BlueBox is currently used as a secondary controller for all revived Rock-afire Explosion shows. Another Rock-afire Explosion fan, Chris Thrash (who owned a restaurant called ShowBiz Pizza Zone in Phenix City, Alabama between 2008 and 2010, and became a franchisee for the revived ShowBiz) was hired as a lead programmer. Beginning in 2019, 16-year-old Braylon Giles and fellow Rock-afire Explosion fan Anthony Ybarra were also hired as assistant programmers.
The CEI building space was expanded to incorporate the building next to it, which was acquired by Johnson in December 2013 to save it from demolition and handed to CEI shortly after, while an expansion was constructed as a CEI museum. The existing CEI building was renovated inside and out throughout 2015, as it was in a dilapidated state. The renovations included new paint and signage, a modernized interior, the addition of a Rock-afire Explosion mural on the building next to it, a recording booth, and an underground floor for storage. The last operating Hard Luck Bears show, in Fantasilandia, Chile as "Show De Osos", was reacquired and heavily restored by CEI in 2017 and is now on display at CEI's museum; in exchange, CEI supplied the animatronics for its replacement, "The Robotoons".
The Rock-afire Explosion
The Rock-afire Explosion is CEI's most well-known creation. It was created for ShowBiz Pizza Place in 1980, and was
For more, see Hydrillium (Johnsonverse).