The Rock-afire Explosion (Johnsonverse)
The Rock-afire Explosion is a fictional animatronic character band that played in ShowBiz Pizza Place from 1980 to 1992, and again since 2015. The characters in the band were various anthropomorphized animals, including a brown bear, a grey wolf, a silverback gorilla, and other species. They perform medleys of classic rock, pop, and country music, as well as original compositions and comedic skits.
The show was created and manufactured by inventor Aaron Fechter through his company Creative Engineering in Orlando, Florida; in addition to overseeing the production of the animatronics, Fechter also provided the voices for several characters. When ShowBiz Pizza rebranded in 1992, the band was replaced by Chuck E. Cheese's characters. The Rock-afire Explosion show was then sold to other restaurants and entertainment centers, such as Looney Bird's, Circus Pizza, Pistol Pete's Pizza, and Billy Bob's Wonderland.
The show was pioneering in many respects to other animatronics shows of the early 1980s, featuring life-sized characters capable of facial expression; some were even programmed in such a way that they could actually play simple melodies on musical instruments. At the end of the show's tenure, Chuck E. Cheese's marketing director Jul Kamen credited Rock-afire with being largely responsible for ShowBiz's financial success.
In 2008, original Rock-afire Explosion creator and technical engineer Aaron Fechter, along with Chris Thrash, reintroduced the ensemble as a cover band for a variety of pop, rock, and hip-hop groups. Beginning in 2015, the band has been internationally reintroduced at the revived ShowBiz, and in 2016, the band received an animated series on Netflix known as The Rock-afire Explosion Show.
The Rock-afire Explosion operates using four tracks, two for audio and two for data. The data tracks were encoded using Biphase mark code produced during the programming process by two Apple IIe computers. During the days when ShowBiz was uninvolved in programming, the circuitry of the RAE was purchased by Creative Engineering from Superscope, the makers of Pianocorder. Eventually, as technology evolved and ShowBiz became involved in programming, a new programming system called "APS" (Animation Programming System) designed by Dave Philipsen was used. A new controller designed by Bill Synhorst of Triad Productions called "Cyberstar" was implemented in the restaurants which added video playback capability. This controller eliminated the need of the Pianocorder playback board and communicated directly with the existing driver boards.
Production of the show
Production of the programming and audio for the show is done in-house by Creative Engineering, Inc. in Orlando, Florida. Almost all Rock-afire shows are produced completely in-house, with Creative Engineering employees not only manufacturing the characters, but also writing and performing their songs and skits.
Later, as ShowBiz Pizza Place began to take over programming, they used a system inherited from their acquisition of Pizza Time Theatre called "Songcode". A few years later a more modern system called "APS" designed by Dave Philipsen became the programming system for all shows.
Unlike other animatronic shows of the early 1980s, the Rock-afire Explosion was designed to be life-sized, with most of the performers being about the size of an average adult human. Additionally, Fechter implemented the use of latex masks for the characters' faces, as opposed to the rubber and Styrofoam masks common in animatronics of the time. The latex masks were designed to fit over various movable parts on the characters' faces, permitting them a range of facial expressions, including smiling and the raising of eyebrows. Fechter also implemented computer programming that permitted some of the characters to move in rhythm with music.
In November 2015, a "2nd Generation" version that was worked on in the early 1980s prior to financial troubles at ShowBiz was finally realized. Mitzi Jr. is capable of doing movements such as hip twists, as well as the ability to actually "dance", while Dook can play a full set of drums, swivel his waist, play drums that surround him, raise his arms to hit cymbals above him, and even reach one arm across the other while playing, and Beach Bear can stand up off of his surfboard, among other upgrades. Beginning in 2020, the animatronics were given the ability to walk unassisted, using some technology from Johnson's own AnimeTronics, which CEI had worked on. Fechter has stated that he eventually plans to have the band be able to actually play their own instruments.
- Billy Bob Brockali – Bass / Vocals. A brown bear from Tennessee who wears yellow and red overalls and plays a wooden bass. He was the mascot for ShowBiz Pizza Place throughout its existence, and his image was on most of the chain's merchandise. Sweet and naive, Billy Bob is usually a mediator to the band's minor on-stage squabbles. Voice: Aaron Fechter
- Looney Bird – Vocals. Looney Bird shares Billy Bob's stage, as they are close friends. His head is the only thing ever seen, the rest of him hiding in an oil drum. Some shows feature a segment where Looney Bird would answer fan mail. For this, the robot is retrofitted to include a pair of hands that hold a piece of paper for him to read. Looney Bird was portrayed as an alcoholic, who used Gasohol, a cheaper form of gas Billy Bob invented, to become intoxicated, but became more interested in technology as years progressed. Voice: Aaron Fechter
- Dook LaRue – Drums / Vocals. A mongrel who aspired space travel and wore a space themed suit. Slightly dimwitted, Dook would often lose focus during shows and miss his cues. The character is unique in that, when set up properly, he has the ability to actually play a 4 piece drum kit in time with the music. Voice: Duke Chauppetta
- Fatz Geronimo – Keyboards / Vocals. A silverback gorilla. He is a parody of real-life entertainers Fats Domino and Ray Charles. Unofficial band front man, Fatz had a tendency to ramble. He introduced the most shows and ordered other band members around, leading him and Rolfe DeWolfe into many arguments. In The New Rock-afire Explosion, Fatz plays the keytar instead. Voice: Burt Wilson (July 1980, singing voice; 1981-2007; 2015-present), Aaron Fechter (July 1980, speaking voice; 2007-2015)
- Beach Bear – Guitar / Vocals. A polar bear with a laid back attitude and a smooth singing voice. When voiced by Aaron Fechter, his personality was more erratic, to fit with the voice he had provided. Beach Bear would usually make sarcastic comments or ask other characters questions to throw off their act in the name of fun. Voice: Aaron Fechter (1980-1982), Rick Bailey (1982-present)
- Mitzi Mozzarella Sr. – Vocals. Mitzi Sr. is a mouse and a former cheerleader. A typical teenager, Mitzi was considered "loose" by the rest of the Rock-afire Explosion, and was obsessed with gossip, boyfriends, pop music, and (appropriate for the time) Michael Jackson. Voice: Aaron Fechter (1980-1982), Monique Danielle (1982), Shalisa Sloan James (1982-present)
- Mitzi Mozzarella Jr. - Vocals. Introduced in 2015, Mitzi Jr. is the daughter and successor of the original Mitzi. She wears a ponytail instead of pigtails and has a more independent personality; she also shares her mother's obsession with a specific musician or group; in this case, it is Steam Powered Giraffe. Voice: Sarah Locke
- Rolfe DeWolfe and Earl Schemerle – A ventriloquist/comedy act. Nominally a stand-up comedy act performed in between musical sets; Rolfe is a wolf, and Earl is his sentient ventriloquist puppet. Rolfe is portrayed as sarcastic and abrasive, with a tendency to be incredibly rude to both the band and the employees that work at Showbiz. He has a fondness for disco music, Kmart, and the works of Frank Sinatra. Earl was there to "set him straight" by calling his behaviors out, and by turning Rolfe into a joke. When Rolfe was set up properly, he could raise his arm to hit a cymbal. Voice: Aaron Fechter
- Uncle Klunk - A backup singer and talk show act. Originally a human character who replaced Rolfe in thirty stores and hosted talk-show segments with his bird sidekick, Click, Klunk was brought back as a full-time member in 2015, serving as the band's backup singer. A spare Klunk is also retrofitted into a Santa Claus during the holidays. Voice: Jeff Howell (1982, 2015-present), unknown voice actor (1982), Shawn Fernandez (1985)
The show also has several smaller prop characters, many of which do not have speaking roles. These included an animated Sun and Moon (who provided background vocals from time to time), Antioch the birthday spider (who spoke in garbles), Choo-Choo the baby bear, who hides in a small tree stump in front of Dook's drums, and Birthday Bird, who sat on Billy Bob's guitar. On Dook's stage originally, there was an owl, who was brought back when ShowBiz Pizza Place was revived. He is just a prop who does not move or speak.
Later years at ShowBiz and Concept Unification
ShowBiz Pizza Place was similar to (and competed with) Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre, another restaurant chain that was popular in the United States. In the mid-1980s, both venues began to suffer financial difficulties, partially due to the video game crash of 1983 and also due to both companies having opened more restaurants than they could afford to maintain. When Pizza Time Theatre filed for bankruptcy in 1984, ShowBiz bought the company, hoping that new talent and merchandising opportunities could save both companies.
By 1985, Richard M. Frank had joined the company as CEO and chairman. The corporation maintained the two restaurant chains simultaneously for several years. Each continued its own stage shows and sold different merchandise. However, in the latter part of the decade, relations between Creative Engineering and ShowBiz began to sour. Aaron Fechter, the founder of Creative Engineering and creator of the Rock-afire Explosion, claimed that the fallout between his company and ShowBiz arose when ShowBiz asked him to sign away the licensing and copyrights to the Rock-afire Explosion, which would have allowed ShowBiz to cut production costs on the show, such as manufacture of future shows and royalty payments to Creative Engineering. Fechter refused, on the grounds that Showbiz offered no monetary compensation for the rights.
ShowBiz began toying with the idea of adding licensed characters such as Spider-Man or Garfield to the Rock-afire show, and three locations actually replaced Billy Bob and Looney Bird (both at stage left) with Yogi Bear and Boo Boo in 1987.
An experiment of Paul Linden and Dave Philipsen using JVC BR-7000 VHS Hi-Fi tape decks which integrated two stereo audio tracks, two longitudinal data tracks, and video led to a system in 1988 where television screens were installed above the Rock-afire stage as the company introduced their new Cyberstar TV screen system. During showtime, the characters were finally shown performing in video, as reel-to-reel formatted tapes began to be used less often. A reel-to-reel version of Cyberstar called "Cybervision" was tested at two restaurants in Austin, TX; Cybervision can be distinguished from Cyberstar by the fact that they only feature the animatronics, and no graphics or walkaround characters. Cyberstar was also implemented at Pizza Time Theatre, and remains in use at all Chuck E. Cheese's locations, albeit using DVDs rather than VHS tapes.
The changes to the Rock-afire stage were very minor, as the company later decided to enact a process called "Concept Unification," in which all ShowBiz Pizza locations would be remodeled into Chuck E. Cheese's. The remodel included the elimination of all Rock-afire characters from merchandise and advertising and retrofitting/reprogramming the Rock-afire Explosion animatronics into a new show called Munch's Make Believe Band featuring the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre characters. Dook LaRue was moved to Billy Bob's place and became Pasqually The Chef, Looney Bird became PizzaCam, Beach Bear became Jasper T. Jowls, Fatz Geromimo became Mr. Munch, Mitzi Mozzarella was moved to Dook's place and became Helen Henny, The Sun became The Building, Choo-Choo became Munch Junior, and Rolfe DeWolfe became Chuck E. Cheese; The Moon was the only character carried over unchanged, and Antioch's computer and air lines were reused for the Wink, an animated Chuck E. Cheese head over the stage that would wink at the end of each segment. Unused animatronics (which included Billy Bob, Earl Schmerle, and Antioch) and props were either sold off or destroyed.
After ties between Creative Engineering and ShowBiz were completely severed, owing to Aaron Fechter's refusal to sign over the rights of the band completely, "Concept Unification" began in September 1990 and occurred sporadically at ShowBiz locations for the next two years, with the final ShowBiz being converted in 1992. As concept unification began at each location, the right and center stages of the Rock-afire show were shut down, leaving only the Rolfe and Earl characters operational. The two performed "The Rolfe and Earle Show" (Earl's name was unintentionally misspelled), featuring the voices of Showbiz employees imitating Fechter's voice; the two ran a highlights reel of old Rock-afire Cyberstar segments and wondered aloud what the band would do now, and hinted at the coming Chuck E. Cheese-themed show. "The Rolfe and Earle Show" was the final Rock-afire show; after concept unification had been completed on the center and right stages, Rolfe and Earl were ready to be removed. Rolfe's animatronic was converted into Chuck E. Cheese, while Earl was scrapped.
Creative Engineering began to design the New Rock-afire Explosion introduced in 1994 featuring smaller, redesigned Rock-afire characters. These smaller, more advanced animatronics were dubbed "mijjins" due to their small size. This show also featured a rotating stage allowing a more advanced and versatile show. They were put in spinoff restaurant Looney Bird's. All Looney Bird's locations were converted to ShowBiz locations by the end of 2015. Many of the mijjin shows were sold to other restaurants and family fun centers, though all miijin shows at Looney Bird's locations were retained.
Although Fechter attempted to keep Creative Engineering afloat after being pushed out of the ShowBiz operation, he was ultimately forced to terminate almost all of his employees, a process he dragged out over the course of several years as he struggled to find new venues for the show. Using parts from the old animatronics, he created different shows, in the hope to sell to other establishments. Most of these were never sold. One of these was the Moon Rockers, which represented a group of aliens from a city in the moon. There was Princess Haley (a female vocalist that used Mitzi's animatronics), Quazar (a guitar player that used Beach Bear's animatronics), Orc (a keyboardist that used Fatz's animatronics), and Ozone (a drummer that used Dook's animatronics). The stage also got a new look; it had a night sky and a large moon for the new background. It also had a floor that looked like they were on a planet. Only Looney Bird's is known to have bought this show, which was used in the Albuquerque, New Mexico location (which also had a Rock-afire Explosion show).
In the 2000s, spurred by the growing online Rock-afire fan community, Fechter reunited some of the Rock-afire performers and began to program shows set to fan-requested songs. Videos of the performances—posted to YouTube upon completion—are credited with helping to further revive interest in the group and ShowBiz pizza, and spurred individuals who owned their own Rock-afire bands to begin programming new shows themselves.
Several Rock-afire performers went on to careers of their own: Shalisa James is currently a member of the a cappella group Toxic Audio, while Burt Wilson was better known as Bubba "Whoop-Ass" Wilson, a member of The Monsters in the Morning radio show. Both Rick Bailey and Jeff Howell have been active as musicians in the Orlando area. Duke Chauppetta helped sing with Adam Kent-Isaac on a song called Divina.
The New Rock-afire
A redone show was made in 1994, shortly after concept unification. This show featured smaller, yet more advanced animatronics. These robots were dubbed 'mijjins', as a reference to their smaller, shorter size. It also featured a spinning stage, used to simulate characters dancing, and new side stages, one featuring a scientist Looney Bird in a lab setting. The stage would then rotate to reveal Beach Bear and another Looney Bird (just his head). The other side stage would feature a pink TV with animated bunny ears on top. The stage would also then rotate to reveal Dook LaRue. There are only a few New Rock-afire's left in the public.
Independent shows A Rock-afire Explosion performed at Rock-afire, an arcade bar in Kansas City, Missouri. However, the bar was converted to a ShowBiz Pizza Place in February 2019.
Smitty's Super Service Station has an almost fully functional show in Sandy Hook, Mississippi.
Billy Bob's Wonderland in Barboursville, WV had a Rock-afire Explosion show, but in very poor condition. It was converted into a ShowBiz Pizza Place location in 2017, with its Rock-afire show being restored throughout early-to-mid 2018.
Scandia Golf and Games located in Kelowna, BC has a Rock-afire Explosion show in its restaurant.
Odyssey Fun World, an indoor amusement park located in Naperville, Illinois (closed), and Tinley Park, Illinois, operated the New Rock-afire show in its Restaurant, but as of January 4, 2019, both shows have been removed and moved to other ShowBiz locations.
The Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois received a Rock-afire Explosion show and was placed on exhibit in the summer of 2020.
On December 10, 2014, Johnson Industries closed a deal to acquire CEC Entertainment, Inc. On December 28, it was announced that the band would return, along with the ShowBiz Pizza Place name. Later in the day, Fechter released a video on his YouTube channel officially confirming that CEI would be involved in the band's return; he also revealed that he managed to get Wilson, Bailey, Chauppetta, and Howell to reprise their roles as Fatz, Beach Bear, Dook, and Klunk, respectively, while James (the voice of Mitzi), who saw herself as "too old" to voice a role model for young girls convincingly, was replaced by 10-year-old Sarah Locke as part of a nationwide contest launched by Johnson. Locke voices Mitzi's daughter, Mitzi Jr.
The Rock-afire Explosion, a documentary about Chris Thrash, Aaron Fechter and the remaining Rock-afire Explosion fan base, was released at film festivals and special screenings around the United States in the fall of 2008. Written and directed by Houston filmmakers Brett Whitcomb (director) and Bradford Thomason (writer), and produced by Jason Connell, the film has been featured on Last Call with Carson Daly. It was released on DVD in 2009. In 2011, it was released on iTunes.
In January 2021, Rock-afire Replay, a fan-made game by The 64th Gamer, was granted an official license. The game will eventually feature stages from the Rock-afire Explosion's history, including obscure stages, along with Chuck E. Cheese's former and current stages; it also features characters such as Klunk, the Moonrockers stage, and Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, as well as a video archive, and the ability to walk around the restaurant and buy souvenirs. Showtapes can be downloaded and shared via cloud storage.