Earlier tonight, I had to attend a birthday party for a five-year-old on the woman's side of the family. Usually, I'd come up with some form of faux flu to get out of going to such a thing, but tonight was special: His birthday party was being held at Chuck E. Cheese's.
This Chuck E. Cheese's has stood tall in my city for over a decade, but I'd never gone into it until tonight. Actually, I don't think I've ever been to Chuck E. Cheese's before tonight. The closest I came was this place called "Razzmatazz" over in Jersey, which had the same kind of audio-animatronic stageshow, but with a far larger arcade and an all-around surreal floorplan. (Picture a well-lit Lazer Tag arena filled with pizza and video games -- that was Razzmatazz.) So, while I wasn't unwise to the ways of such places, I admit to being pretty excited to see Chuck in action for the very first time. Despite this probably being one of the smaller establishments in the chain, the rat did not disappoint.
The stageshow was creepy and hilarious, and just about completely ignored by every kid in the place. I spent an hour or so reading various Chuck E. Cheese's fansites (they exist!) when I got home, and from what I'm gathering, the animatronic bands are being phased out of many of the restaurants, because they are CREEPY, and because kids are just 100% more interested in playing various games of chance than watching electronic nightmares sing showtune spoofs.
Tonight, Chuck and friends were all singing Christmas songs, complete with corresponding videos playing on old, grainy televisions mounted on nearby walls. Regardless of the kids' apathy, I couldn't help but appreciate the sights I was seeing, because if nothing else, these were not sights a person gets to see everyday. I was particularly interested in the purple dude in the middle, at least in part because his "instrument" looked like a spaceship. I took him as nothing more than a McDonald's Grimace ripoff at first, but now that I've done my homework, I know that he's in fact "Mr. Munch," a storied showman who's gone through seventeen names, roles and voice levels before settling in as the band's resident jive soul bro.
Pizza is the standard at all Chuck E. Cheese's, but it's not the kind of pizza you'd order on a Friday night from Uncle Tom's down the street. Hell, it's not even like the pizza you'd get from a Domino's or Pizza Hut. I'm hesitant to call it "bad," but calling it "good" is contingent on liking Chef Boyardee-esque tomato sauce mixed with cheese that seems to serve a purpose more along the lines of Thompson's Water Seal than a flavorful additive. This isn't to say that it's not edible pizza, because it is. In fact, because the pie slices are cut so small, you can eat about twenty of them before feeling like you've done anything wrong at all. There was also a salad bar, but for me, salad bars and rooms swelling with sneezing children rarely mix. I stuck with the pizza, and now the pizza is stuck in me.
This place was pretty small for a Chuck E. Cheese's, so there weren't a lot of great arcade games or anything. Since the chain caters more towards young kids than older ones, what's left is a bunch of ticket-bearing "casino" games that depend more on luck than skill. The tickets, worth a point each, can be redeemed for a bunch of really rotten prizes -- and some not-so-rotten prizes, assuming you can amass thousands of them.
We started playing a few games just for the hell of it, but stopped once we were informed that you can actually buy points for a penny a pop. It didn't take long for me to do the math: We spent ten bucks on tokens to play games, and we got around a hundred tickets for our efforts. I realize that a 90% loss is par for the course in casino arcades, but I really hated having the plain facts right there in front of me. Especially when the best prize in the damn place was a plush doll in the shape of a Tootsie Roll.
More positively, I was extremely fond of the mirrored pizza slice wall art seen in the picture above. If someone had cast Donatello instead of Tom Hanks in Big, that so would've been on the loft wall.
Getting back to the stageshow, we spent most of the night in awe of Pasquale, one of the animatronic band members who looked like a cross between Super Mario and Cap'n Lou Albano, which was even more incredible when you realize that he looked nothing at all like Lou Albano as Super Mario. The reason? His mustache had come unglued and was completely sideways. Pasquale lacked the chutzpah to fix it himself, so later in the evening, one of the workers had the unfortunate task of hopping onstage to try to right a wrong mustache. I'm not kidding when I tell you that it took the poor woman a solid five minutes to do this, and even at that, she couldn't get it completely straight. I hope this doesn't mean that Pasquale's gonna get axed from the show, because the only thing better than a band starring a rat, duck and purple monster is a band starring a rat, duck, purple monster and a dude who looks like Cap'n Lou Albano. I'm pulling for you, Pasquale.
In the surprise of the night if not the entire century, a costumed character version of Chuck E. Cheese burst forth from the backstage area to sing, dance and take pictures with all of the kids. Some cried, but most went wild. Me? I was a little confused. Didn't the children care that there was already a "real" Chuck E. Cheese onstage? Did they believe that there were two Chuck E. Cheeses? Did they comprehend the concept of breaking the fourth wall?
I thought I was going to give the woman a lot of shit for making me go to this, but since I'm a two-year-old, I left smiling. I can't help believing that what I saw tonight is a dying fad, and that like-styled establishments that pop up in the future will probably do away with the dated stageshow entirely. I'm not saying that I don't understand why that would happen, but I'm not sure I like it. Everyone needs to be creeped out by ginormous dolls that occasionally come alive to sing and crash cymbals once in their life.Posted by Matt on 12/29/2006. E-mail me!