The Chuck E. Cheese restaurants of today bear little resemblance to the one I knew from my childhood in the 1980s. Today the inside of a Chuck E. Cheese is wide open so you can easily see everyone and everything from wall to wall. The tables where you eat your pizza, the video games, the rides, and the tiny little stage with one single animatronic singing Chuck E. are well within anyone’s view no matter where you are.
In the 1980s Chuck E. Cheese was the kid equivalent of the wild west. As a parent it was a nightmare because it was nearly impossible to keep an eye on your kid at all times. As a kid it was awesome because it was nearly impossible for your parents to keep an eye on you.
The Chuck E. Cheese of the 1980s was split up into three or four different rooms or areas. There was the main dining room where you could sit down, eat pizza, and watch as six or seven animatronic characters sang and danced for your entertainment (each one appeared in their own little “window” – Chuck E. was one of them of course, along with a bird, a dog, a purple monster, and an Italian chef who I presume was the one who allegedly made the pizza you were eating). Then there was another, smaller dining room that featured a full size animatronic character that was some kind of Elvis knockoff cat or something. Outside that dining room was a hallway with row upon row of arcade-style video games that led into an even bigger game room, with more arcade games, some small rides, and then the big train that you could ride on as well (into a tunnel, where, again, your parents couldn’t see you). So if you were a parent out with a group of kids, unless there was a 1 adult to 1 kid ratio in your group you were pretty much guaranteed to lose track of someone at some point.
As a kid it was pretty much the most exciting place you could possibly go. It seemed huge, and the multiple rooms just added to the sense of mystery and wonder about it. As much fun as your were having, you were always kind of wondering if maybe there was something even more fun you could be doing elsewhere. It was the only place you could sit down with the absolute best kid-food in the world – pizza – right in front of you, and you barely even cared about it because you were so eager to go dive into the ball crawl or ride the little Chuck E. merry-go-round. So you inhaled your pizza, guzzled down a glass or two of sugary soda, then darted off at full speed into a world of fun and games.
There was always kind of a feeling like you shouldn’t be there. It was dark, it was loud, there were flashing lights, and those robots that were so cool were also at least a little bit scary. It was like you were on Pleasure Island from Pinocchio. If you stayed there long enough you were probably going to turn into a jackass.
At one point, in one of the most ill-conceived ideas ever, there was a small “mouse hole” under the stage in the main dining room. I know I have said several times already in this blog that one of the thrills of Chuck E. Cheese was losing your parents, but this took it to the extreme. The mouse hole was a little crawl-space area that was only big enough for kids to enter. Not only could your parents not see you, but they couldn’t get to you if your life depended on it. And one time, for me and my cousin Nick, it wasn’t far off. We couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old when we crawled into the mouse hole one time to find that two other little kids were already inside holding sharp sticks. They told us that this was their mouse hole, and if we didn’t get out of there right now they were going to stab us. (I am dead serious about this, and it is probably one of my earliest clear memories. I remember being scared and wanting to get out right away, and I remember Nick with a really angry and determined look on his face. I think if it had come down to it Nick would have opted to fight for the mouse hole, but I probably convinced him we should run away and tell our parents.) The next time we came to Chuck E. Cheese the mouse hole was closed up.
That Chuck E. Cheese closed down sometime in the 1990s. Years later they tore down most of that plaza and then built a Lowe’s on that spot. Then, just a year or two after that, they tore down the old Cine 8 movie theater and built one of the new-style, lame Chuck E. Cheese’s where you can see everyone and everything.
But during those years when the original Chuck E. Cheese was closed down but still standing, I would often drive past it and wonder what it would be like if you could go inside. Suppose you could break the locks off the door and sneak into that closed down Chuck E. Cheese. How much had they cleaned the place out, and how much was still standing? Were the old animatronic robots still there, frozen and lifeless in their darkened windows? What about the giant Elvis cat? Would there be balls in the ball crawl, or would it just be a big empty mesh cage? Was the big train still there, or would you just find empty tracks leading into that dark tunnel? The strange, skeletal remains of the wondrous childhood Pleasure Island, the 1980s Chuck E. Cheese.