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The Little-Known History of Chuck E. Cheese's Animatronic Theater

By Wesley Fenlon

Ah, the power of cheese.

You never knew exactly what was missing from your life, but it was this: a first-hand account of the history of Chuck E. Cheese's, greasy home to a million childhood memories. If you're at all in the know about the history of video games stretching back to the Atari days, you may recall that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell also founded the pizza-and-games-and-animatronic-animals joint. If not, surprise! Chuck E. Cheese's and Atari sprang from the same mind.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal recently put these facts together and went on a crusade to uncover Chuck's history. After talking to Bushnell, he ended up finding some real similarities between the pizza parlor and other Silicon Valley startups. He ended up with some gems of information from Bushness, like this quote explaining why Chuck E. Cheese's was a pizza place:

"I chose pizza because of the wait time and the build schedule: very few components and not too many ways to screw it up. If the dough is good, the cheese is good, and the sauce is good, the pizza is good. I didn't have any preconceived idea that I knew how to run a restaurant, but I knew simple was better."

Photo via Inside Scoop SF.

And this quote, explaining how they happened upon the idea of animatronic theater:

"...Some time as I was doing this, I went to Disneyland and went to the Tiki Room. It was Disney's animatronics. I said, 'That's pretty simple. I bet I can get my engineers to knock that out.' "

Perhaps the best nugget of them all--Chuck E. Cheese was never meant to be a rat.

"The operating name for the project, the codename, was Coyote Pizza. And I saw this Coyote costume. I went over, gave them my credit card, and had them ship it to the restaurant. I knew my guys could make him talk. I didn't know if they could make anything that looked like a coyote. Now I had my coyote...I went to where they were working and said, 'How's the coyote coming?' And they said, 'What coyote? You sent us a rat costume. I said, 'I'll just change the name to Rick Rat's Pizza.' "

The rest of the piece dives into how the animatronic figures were build and programmed, how Rick Rat's Pizza became Chuck E. Cheese's, and how Bushnell eventually got out of the pizza business. Give it a read if you can reach back into your memory and taste, smell or hear the Chuck E. Cheese's of your youth.