.House of Mouse

Driving through East Side San Jose near the Tully Road overpass, a trio of red turrets juts up through white smog. Beneath the center dome, a 30-foot anthropomorphic rodent in a bowler hat waves his four-fingered paw. I learn, with some alarm, that I can drive straight up to the towering rat and park in a slim row of stalls at his feet.

Less astonishing, owing to its remote, highway-adjacent location, are the plumes of pot smoke that enshroud me when I exit the car. Young adults huddle by the pizza-filled dumpsters, passing a lighter between them. Perhaps they are steeling themselves for flashing bulbs and the din of buzzers, bells and shrieks that await them inside.

Up close, the creature betrays a grim reality. If not for the padlocks on his tall windowed cage, he might be a king overlooking his dominion.

In the early 1980s, when artist Jeff Tritel first brought the sky-scraping sculpture to life, this may have been a fitting metaphor. Pizza Time Theatre, as the chain was once called, was then at the height of its power. Described in 1981 by a Sunnyvale journalist as “enormously successful and profitable,” the family entertainment restaurant then outperformed both Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.

By 1983, there were over 200 franchises in 35 states and overseas. While Pizza Time Theatre declared bankruptcy in 1984, Chuck E. Cheese would survive against many tribulations over the ensuing decades—including, most recently, the travails of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ushered in another bankruptcy filing and the gutting of the second-ever location on Kooser Road.

Though his statue still stands, it appears that Charles Entertainment Cheese—known to his familiars as Chuck E.—has been festering in isolation for eons. Garlands of cobwebs string from his calves to his haunches. Dried brown drippings cascade down his cupped palm, lending a stigmatic effect. A pile of pigeon feathers in one corner suggests he may have once served as a roost.

The statue’s eerily untended look reflects the company’s current status in the public imagination. Recent years have seen Chuck E. Cheese-inspired pizza venues become a recurring site of horror narratives, their mascots stalking players in the video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s and Nicolas Cage in the 2021 film Willy’s Wonderland.

At five foot five, I come up to Chuck E.’s furred shin. There is something humbling about approaching the mammoth vermin, and I fall to my knees like a supplicant.

“You’d think they could power wash the guy,” my partner remarks when we eyeball the filth from spitting range. “What’s the point of keeping him in a glass cage if they’re not going to treat him as precious?”

30-FOOT RAT

It was the early 1980s when, armed with his sculpture portfolio, artist Jeff Tritel visited the Pizza Time Theatre headquarters in Sunnyvale. Despite a dearth of engineering experience, he aimed to land a gig designing audio animatronic characters. After an interview, the lead engineer pronounced that Tritel lacked the requisite skill set. His act of gumption, however, paid off.

The corporation had just acquired its third San Jose location, a former toy store turned discotheque on Fontaine Road. The colossal toy soldiers that once stood in the building’s tall windows had been displaced to a warehouse in Stockton. As such, the windows were in want of a tenant.

“The next thing I knew, I was sitting down with the Pizza Time Theatre executives,” Tritel writes in a 2010 blog post. The hotshots then offered him a sizable chance: to build a 30-foot-tall Chuck E. Cheese. Tritel had no clue how to pull off a feat at such scale. What the sculptor lacked in experience he made up for in audacity.

“Six months and 5,000 pounds of polyurethane foam and fiberglass later,” he writes, “I had the dubious distinction of building the largest pizza-eating rat in the world.”

In 2010, Tritel and his wife, Bonnie, were promoting his artwork via complementary his-and-hers blogs. The duo campaigned for Tritel to one day sculpt “Eye of the Creator,” a behemoth monument they hoped to house at an Olympic venue, World’s Exposition, or theme park. At 200 feet, the length of the proposed sculpture is that of seven Chuck E. Cheese statues laid out heel to head. In her final entry, Bonnie writes: “It’s time that Jeff is known outside of our little circle. It’s time that he takes his place with the other masters of our time.”

Today the couple are tough to track down on the internet. Links to Tritel’s website are no longer functional, and emails inquiring about interviews bounce back unread.

ARCHIVING AN ICON

If anyone has given the Big Cheese the icon treatment, it’s Travis Schafer, the webmaster of ShowBizPizza.com, an impressive and exhaustive online repository of all things Chuck E. Cheese. Ten years ago, he was in town for an annual event he then organized called Cheese Mansion. Fans journeyed far and wide to San Jose to congregate at the Fontaine Road location.

“Some of us that are a bit more hardcore were there ahead of time,” he recalls.

Their aim: to hit the local archives in search of grand opening ads or newspaper articles about the chain’s early history.

“We were basically scouring the microfilm in the basement of the San Jose Library,” he says, “going through anything within a certain date range, trying to prune whatever we could. There’s really not a lot, which we thought was kinda weird.”

As a high schooler in the 1990s, Schafer was astonished that a search online for his favorite pizza joint likewise yielded few results

“It was as if it didn’t exist,” he reflects.

With help from his HTML-savvy brother, Schafer took charge. He created a no-frills website featuring his own memorabilia: a couple of mugs, some vinyl records, and “whatever little scraps” he could dig up in his parents’ cupboards. Soon, fellow fans emailed him with photos or scanned documents to add to a growing public stash. Passionate former employees helped stock his trove of newsletters, corporate materials, and employee handbooks.

“They held onto all these old documents for 30 or 40 years,” Schafer says. “The only reason they exist is because they cared so much.”

With the addition of the site’s first message board, a community began to coalesce. Schafer describes how, in its early years, ShowBizPizza.com was “the hub where the fandom existed for this little niche hobby.”

Though it may appear antiquated in the era of social media, the site is convenient and easy to search. In the flurry of social media feeds, posts can get lost in the sauce.

“It’s nice to still have these little independent websites that have a neat and organized layout,” he remarks.

Now an inveterate expert, Schafer is currently penning a book called The Unauthorized History of Chuck E. Cheese

E. FOR EMPIRE

That history began over 40 years ago, when (as the story goes) entrepreneur Nolan K. Bushnell grew antsy while awaiting his pizza order. It was then that he conceived a new brainchild: a food joint where restless diners could do more than just twiddle their thumbs.

By then, Bushnell had made a fortune as the inventor of Atari, and saw in his business plan an opportunity to bring video games to the playschool set. The concept combined three key amusements: popular food products, arcade games and an animatronic cabaret show.

The US, at the time, was in a national recession. Gas shortages had 1970s San Joseans in legendary queues to fill up their tanks. Such circumstances, Bushnell bragged, would only boost his sales. In a 1980 interview, he cites how the coin machine business was born of the Great Depression. His suburban strip mall operations, he speculated, could compete with much grander locales.

“We’ve done something Disney should have thought of years ago,” he said. The idea was, with American families forgoing long road trips and costly motel stays, they would seek audio-animatronics closer to home. “Pizza Time Theatre is really Disneyland carried to American families at the local level,” Bushnell boasted.

Bushnell is a famed figure in Silicon Valley lore. He credits himself as being the first to take a chance on a young Steve Jobs. Known as the “father of the video game industry,” he was once slated to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic that never materialized.

However, there are also suggestions that Chuck E.’s troubles began at the top. A clipping file in the San Jose Public Library’s California Room encloses a pile of lengthy profiles that chart Bushnell’s storied career. Sandwiched between these hagiographies: a teensier, troubling Mercury News article from 1985. In it, Bushnell lobs ableist insults at a former employee who then accused him of sexual misconduct. In 2018, the Game Developers Conference revoked his Pioneer Award due to allegations that he fostered a sexist working environment at Atari.

CHUCK E.’S DEBUT

The first-ever Pizza Time Theatre opened on May 17, 1977, in a converted brokerage office where Santana Row now stands. It was there that Chuck E. Cheese made his corporate-mascot debut.

The Big C of yore was a touch more rough-and-tumble than the goofier present-day mouse. His features were undeniably rat-like, with protruding teeth and a long snout. Like many humans of his era, Chuck E. Cheese was a smoker. That is, until 1980, when he joined the Great American Smoke-Out campaign.

“His ever-present cigar is no more,” reads the announcement in the corporation’s newsletter, The Pizza Times.

Chuck E. also had his own currency—aka game tokens—emblazoned with the hedonistic maxim IN PIZZA WE TRUST. (There’s good news for readers who have rogue vintage tokens in a junk drawer somewhere. On eBay today, a single 1981 coin from San Jose vends for about $20 a pop.)

The only known footage of the Winchester location is from a 1979 segment of Four Corners, an Australian news program, and it’s housed on ShowBizPizza.com. Schafer lights up when he regales me with the tale of how he and a dedicated crew of fans came to acquire it.

“The minute I started watching it, my jaw just freaking dropped,” he enthuses. “Here’s all these animatronics we knew existed. We’d never seen them in motion before. It was worth every penny to finally get that footage in hand.”

While I agree that the robots are electrifying, another detail thrills me even more: the vintage San Joseans. Crowds of unsupervised children in bell bottoms and yarn-adorned pigtails jab at buttons and yank on joysticks in the game parlor

“Chuck E. Cheese researchers say the idea is very popular with workaholic dads who are suffering from what they call YEG: Young Executive Guilt,” says the newscaster, who describes the games as “electronic babysitters.” Guilt-addled local parents could reproach themselves by plying their kids with more game tokens, all while taking a much-needed load off nearby.

Despite its family-friendly focus, the initial concept was staunchly anti-teen. In an effort to repel the riff-raff, pinball was banned and signs were posted forbidding children to enter without an adult. “If another teenager never sets foot in our stores,” cautioned a marketing director in 1982, “that would be just fine with us.”

This anti-teen sensibility went well beyond the boardroom. Some city councils objected to the chain’s concept, fearing that coin-operated games would attract a bad element—specifically, kids ages 13 to 17.

In an effort to obtain the necessary use permits, the company deployed an unorthodox persuasion tactic. They sent a person dressed up as Chuck E. Cheese into the city council chambers. The notion that the original Chuck E. Cheese—a fast-talking, cigar-smoking rat with a New Jersey accent—would reassure local officials of the chain’s knee-high demographic seems bizarre from today’s vantage. Then again, so does electing vermin as your food chain’s mascot.

To publicize the grand opening, local papers ran an advertisement touting the joint as a “pizza nightclub for kids.” Pictured atop the text: Chuck E. Cheese, his uncouth tee reading BITE ME. The first thousand families who snipped out the ad’s coupon would get a child-size profane t-shirt at the door. (“I actually have one of those,” Schafer reveals, reporting how he scored it on eBay.)

When the chain opened a four-times-larger second location in a former grocery store on Kooser Road, it featured a piano bar, originally envisioned as a parents-only zone. There, Dolli Dimples, a hippopotamus with computer-animated breasts, tickled the ivories. Whenever she hit a high note, her bosom would rise.

ICONS & ICONOGRAPHY

A program, handed to guests upon entry, introduced the Pizza Time Players, a line-up of animatronic characters with ™ after their names. This ragtag bunch included a chef and would-be opera singer, a girl group of crows, a banjo-strummin’ hound, and an alley cat comedian named Crusty. Corporate executives boasted of plans to make the characters as well-known as Smokey the Bear, Superman and Mickey Mouse.

At the Winchester location, guests had to look up to spot this coterie of computer-operated celebrities. Spread high around the room’s perimeter were a series of 4-foot-tall gilt frames. Each displayed the three-dimensional torso of a different performer. Every eight minutes on a loop, Chuck E. would introduce a new act. Frozen half-bodies would jerk to life, dazzling audiences for a minute and a half with jokes and songs before going lifeless again. At the press of a secret button, managers could will the characters to croon happy birthday in unison. They emitted taped human voices, all while blinking and flailing their arms in sync with a musical score.

One 1979 article describes Chuck E. Cheese’s demeanor as rude, and a synopsis of his original act notes several raunchy sequences. In one, the emcee bemoans how a dolled-up crow spurned his attempt at some cross-species heavy-petting in the backseat of a car. The cabaret breaks into a parody of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in which the crow sings, “just cause you bought me some Cracker Jack, that doesn’t mean you’re gonna get me in the sack!”

In addition to his role as webmaster, Schafer is a collector. He houses a private museum of artifacts in his Colorado basement. There, he displays the only two remaining portrait animatronics from the original Winchester Boulevard location.

“It’s a miracle that either of these survived,” he states. He sends me a photograph of the pair—Chuck E. and Crusty—looking stately on his wood-paneled wall.

“The animatronics are probably the most sought-after collectible that you can get,” Schafer explains. “A lot of them are still out there. It’s just a matter of finding them all.”

In addition to the animal cabaret, early locations had computerized flags that waved as if of their own accord. Strangely, alongside California and American flags, confederate flags were displayed. In a 2015 Mercury News article, local journalist David Early recounts how he helped oust the racist flags. Early found himself on assignment at a mountain retreat attended by leaders of the then budding Internet industry. Over a campfire, he told Nolan Bushnell that the flags unsettled him. Another high-tech leader jumped in to “absolutely torch” Bushnell, explaining that the confederate flag had no place anywhere, let alone in Chuck E. Cheese’s. When Early returned to the restaurant with his kids a week later, no white-supremacist symbols remained.

BETWEEN PAST & FUTURE

When I enter the parlor in the present day, I am dismayed to see nary an animatronic. Instead, a projector splashes video clips onto a wall. A posse of middle schoolers in multicolor party store wigs congregate around a sheet cake. Younger children in Disney pajamas rock out in the projector’s glow. Kids shout the same call-and-response birthday song that I recall from the ’90s, led by a human costumed as Chuck E.

It has been 27 years since I last visited the Fontaine Road location, a fact I confirm with Jody Lopez, a childhood best friend with whom I once shimmied in unison at East Side San Jose’s Sheri’s Born to Dance.

“I have photos of me crying at it,” Lopez says, of the birthday party we then sulked through.

Lopez’s family frequented the Fontaine Road location throughout the ’80s and ’90s. She reminisces about the glee she felt while punching the buttons that reanimated a pair of dormant crooners.

“I remember I would hit the button of the King—the animatronic lion dressed as Elvis—and squeal like a fanatic while it sang! I’d also pretend to be drunk while the Chicken lady sang behind her bar. I would say ‘Play it again, Sam!’ and hit the button again.”

My own memories are shadowy by contrast, but I suspect pint-size me was off on the arcade’s periphery, ruining the vibe with social awkwardness and a dour wet-blanket energy. As a kid, the chaotic environment overstimulated me. Despite this, I achieved boredom when my frugal parents clenched to their wallets. I preferred Bullwinkle’s, a competing pizza chain in Santa Clara with an indoor “Fantasy Fountain Show” featuring 278 computer-animated water jets squirting along to popular Muzak.

Today’s Chuck E. is mouse-like and gangly, with large perked-up ears and wide eyes. He wears skinny jeans and pun-based footwear: Chuck Taylors. Through the sorcery of rebranding, he has aged backwards and transmuted into a new species with a new maudlin backstory: reared in an orphanage called St. Marinara’s, this new emcee never knew his own birthday.

This is not Chuck E.’s first act of shapeshifting. He was originally envisioned as a coyote, and his inventors had to think fast when they made an unsettling discovery. The mascot costume they purchased did not have a poofy fur tail. Instead, it was long, pink and unmistakably rat-like.

“The store off Tully just got done being converted into a 2.0,” Schafer says. “That’s what they call the new ones. They remove all the animatronics and everything’s tokenless and ticketless. It’s all run on cards now,” he explains.

In 2017, the company’s former CEO released a statement about the plan to successively phase out the electronic characters after a decades-long run. Though the animatronics are fabled and nostalgic, he claimed, today’s kids have “higher expectations of both realism and special effects.”

HAUNTING THE IMAGINATION

This point is complicated by the success of the nine-part horror video game series, Five Nights at Freddy’s, with its enormous millennial and gen z fanbase. First released in 2014, the game’s setting is a Chuck-E-Cheese-esque family entertainment restaurant in the off hours. The player assumes the role of a night watchperson who must ward off a host of encroaching and hostile animatronics. Adding to the game’s creep factor, the robots are reanimated by the poltergeists of vengeful murdered children.

“I like to think that this game was inspired [by] the haunted Chuck E. Cheese in San Jose, because the first Chuck E. Cheese ever was created here,” says Manuel Ávalos in the first-ever episode of San Hauntse, a podcast he cohosts about local legends and lore.

And it’s not just the game series. In 2021, Screen Media, the company behind many cult horror films like The Void and Djinn, released Willy’s Wonderland, a film centering around a haunted animatronic entertainment theater where the machines come to life.

When asked why the imagery of Chuck E. Cheese continues to resonate with fans of the horror genre—many too young to have encountered the robots in their heyday—Ávalos reflects, “There’s just something eerie about the over-cheery nature of the environment, which definitely isn’t helped by the animatronics that seemed to really fuel nightmares. Because so many people can relate to visiting Chuck E. Cheese, there seems to be something playing on our collective experiences.

While his fame has yet to outrank that of Superman or Mickey Mouse, the spirit of Chuck E. Cheese lives on

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