Farewell, Chuck E. Cheese Animatronic Band

Farewell, Chuck E. Cheese Animatronic Band

For decades, Munch’s Make Believe Band at Chuck E. Cheese has performed for countless birthdays, end-of-season Little League parties and other celebrations. There’s been Chuck E. Cheese and Helen Henny on vocals, Mr. Munch on keys, Jasper T. Jowls on guitar, and Pasqually on drums.

The band of robot puppets has been a mainstay at the colorful pizzeria-arcade chain where children run amok and play games for prizes in between bites of pizza slices.

Their final curtain call is coming soon.

By the end of 2024, the animatronic performances — endearing and nostalgia-inducing, if perhaps slightly creepy to their audiences — will be phased out at all but two of the chain’s more than 400 locations in the United States: one in Los Angeles and another in Nanuet, N.Y. The departure of the band comes as Chuck E. Cheese undergoes what its chief executive, David McKillips, recently described as its largest and “most aggressive transformation.”

Out: Animatronic bands.

In: More screens, digital dance floors and trampoline gyms.

The coronavirus pandemic forced hundreds of Chuck E. Cheese locations to shutter, and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the summer of 2020. Since then, its leaders have tried to adapt Chuck E. Cheese to a modern era — and children who might be more excited by screens than an old animatronic band with limited movement and shifty eyes.

“Kids are consuming entertainment differently than they were 10, 20 years ago,” Mr. McKillips said sitting in a booth at the Chuck E. Cheese in Hicksville, N.Y., on Long Island. “Kids, really of all ages, are consuming their entertainment on a screen.”

For now, Munch’s Make Believe Band still performs every day at the Hicksville location, which sometimes hosts as many as 20 birthday parties on a weekend day, starting as early at 8 a.m. But by the end of the summer, the band will have played its last show there.

Then the band will be removed and replaced by a Jumbotron-size TV, more seating and a digital dance floor. (Chuck E. Cheese declined to say what will happen to the animatronic figures after they are removed from hundreds of locations across the country.)

Not everyone wants more screens, trampolines and new games. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Kendall Maldonado, 12, of Queens, was dancing next to the band dressed in his own Chuck E. Cheese costume, taking in one of the final performances in Hicksville.

“I grew up on tickets and tokens,” said Kendall, a self-described “super fan,” who has visited dozens of Chuck E. Cheese locations across the New York area and one in Puerto Rico.

Kendall’s mother, Jennifer Molina, 43, said she brought Kendall to his first Chuck E. Cheese when he was 3. Like many young children, Kendall was initially slightly scared of Chuck E., but he later warmed up to the giant mouse.

“He’s been a fan ever since,” she said.

Ms. Molina said that Kendall wished the bands could stay.

“The band is in perfect condition,” Kendall said. “Sometimes kids hit them, which is mad disrespectful because they’re just doing their job and performing.”

Since Chuck E. Cheese announced in November that it would phase out Munch’s Make Believe Band, some parents have scrambled to take their children to the final performances.

Kaitlin Rubenstein, 30, the general manager of the Hicksville location and another in Hempstead, N.Y., said that some recorded videos of the band to preserve the memory.

Ms. Rubinstein said it was “bittersweet” to watch the band that had been a part of her childhood being retired.

“To go to Chuck E. Cheese on a Friday night,” she said, “that was a treat.”

Chuck E. Cheese was started by Nolan Bushnell, a co-founder of the pioneering video game company Atari. In an interview with the Smithsonian Institution in 2017, Mr. Bushnell said his background in arcade games, which sold for about $1,500 to $2,000 per machine, sparked his desire to open a pizza joint with the games, each of which would collect up to $50,000 in coins in their lifetime.

Mr. Bushnell said he was also inspired by a family trip to Disneyland, and particularly the Tiki Room, an attraction with animatronic birds, tiki gods and flowers.

“We can do that,” Mr. Bushnell recalled thinking at the time. “But it’d be nice to have a mascot.”

At first, the mascot was supposed to be a coyote, and Mr. Bushnell was going to call his new business Coyote Pizza. Mr. Bushnell, who declined to be interviewed, told the Smithsonian that he went out and bought a costume of what he thought was a coyote.

“I took it to my engineers,” Mr. Bushnell said. “I said, ‘Make this guy talk.’”

But a problem arose: The costume Mr. Bushnell bought was not a coyote, but a rat with a tail.

“I’d never seen it below the waist,” he said.

Mr. Bushnell thought about keeping the rat costume, and changing the name of his restaurant and arcade to Rick’s Rat Pizza, but he was persuaded to avoid the optics of having “rat” in the name. Mr. Bushnell decided to name the place Chuck E. Cheese. (Charles Entertainment Cheese, according to the company.)

The first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre opened on May 17, 1977, in San Jose, Calif. It was conceived as a place “where you could go and eat and play and have family time together,” Mr. McKillips said.

“The animatronics,” he added, “were a band that was playing cover songs and original music.”

The band has had different iterations, but Chuck E. Cheese, Helen Henny, Mr. Munch, Jasper T. Jowls and Pasqually have been mainstays. Some locations have had versions of the band called Studio C, with just Chuck E. playing solo.

The Chuck E. Cheese in the Northridge section of Los Angeles will retain its five-member band, while the location in Nanuet, N.Y., has a Studio C.

Today, Chuck E. Cheese has more than 600 locations in 16 countries, with more to come. The chain’s popularity drifted into pop culture, drawing loose references in video games, films and TV shows, including in an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in which the gang visits Risk E. Rat’s Pizza and Amusement Center.

The horror movie “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” released last year, follows a night security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza as he battles a vengeful group of animatronic characters. The film was released a few weeks before Chuck E. Cheese announced the end of its animatronic bands, leading many to speculate that the horror movie spurred the company’s decision. The company said at the time that this was not the case.

For anyone born since about the mid-1970s, visiting a Chuck E. Cheese has felt like part of an American childhood. As the chain modernizes and ushers out its animatronic band, Kristy Linares, 33, the general manager of the Chuck E. Cheese in Paramus, N.J., said not much had changed.

The Paramus location no longer has an animatronic band and was recently renovated with more TVs, a digital dance floor and a trampoline gym, but Ms. Linares, who sometimes takes her children there, said that children still eat pizza and play games as always. “Chuck E. Cheese is still the same,” she said.

Employees said they had seen children shift their attention to screen-based games in recent years. Leana Gil, 17, a birthday party coordinator at the Paramus location, said she had noticed that children “gravitate toward things of their time,” citing a much-loved Paw Patrol game as an example.

Ms. Rubenstein, the general manager in Hempstead, said interactive screen games were a hit.

“That’s where the future is moving,” she said.

In another adaptation for the digital era, the chain is doing away with numbered hand stamp for visitors, which are checked at the exit to stop kids from wandering off or leaving with someone they did not arrive with. Instead, a family selfie will be taken at the entrance and checked at the exit.

On a recent Wednesday, Maricel de los Reyes took her son Sam to the Chuck E. Cheese in Paramus. It was their first visit there since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and the first one without the band.

Did they miss it?

“No, I don’t think that was a big thing for us,” she said, as Sam walked off to play a game. “It was more the games, the food and just hanging out here.”

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