Thursday, September 23, 2004

a place to go....

So for some reason, i've recently renewed my obsession with the old pizza places I used to go to as a kid, looking at pictures and clips on the internet, and reminscing. Most of these visits were for birthdays and other special occasions, introduced to me first by my grandparents. The first one I went to was a Chuck E Cheese somewhere near Dearborn, I assume, as that's where my grandparents lived. This was a brand new concept to the world, the idea of a pizza parlor with video games and animatronic characters that would play songs and do skits. This would have been in 1981 or 82, when I was 6 or 7, that this obsession would start. Though the pizza was obviously very good, and the games kind of fun, what really got me was the animatronics. I'd been to DisneyWorld and liked puppets & cartoon characters in general, so this kind of thing has always amazed me. The original Chuck E Cheese had a main dining room with characters that were only shown from the waist up sitting in overhead balconies. There was Chuck E Cheese, Jasper T Jowls, Harmony Howlette, Mr Munch, Pasqually, and the Warblettes. Underneath them was a cheese-house play area with holes and tunnels you could crawl through. Different 'cabaret' style rooms had more characters: a hippo named Dolli Dimples, an Elvis lion, and the Beagles (dogs playing Beatles songs). This place, like all the others, does not exist anymore, though the franchise still does, and it's not the same.

A year or so later, another place opened: Major Magics. This place stayed around the longest...the last time I went there I was in college, and it hadn't really changed at all. The animatronics were better at this one, plus they were on a stage that was at ground level, so kids could reach out and touch their feet, a naughty thing we weren't supposed to do, of course. Major Magic's starred the Rock N Roll Rebellion, two country bears and a Dixie-land-style band of instruments with faces, and of course Major Magic himself. They had a red curtain that would open and close for each act, and we used to peek behind them between sets.

In 1983, Showbiz Pizza Place opened up, and this was the best one by far. The animatronics were smoother and the characters funnier, the music was better....this show featured the Rock-a-Fire Explosion (Dook, Fatz, Beach Bear, and Mitzi), Billy Bob & Looney Bird, and Rolfe & Earl. All of these stages would automatically play a song or two, then the curtains would close for intervals between them. As a kid, I remember the disappointment when a song would end and the feeling of excitement when the lights would dim and the shows would start. If you were in another room playing video games or something, and you saw the lights go down by the stage, you would grab your friends and make a mad dash to catch the show! At least I did...most of my friends at birthday parties were more preoccupied with the video games, but I was always more into these animatronic things. To this day, most of my friends are way more into video games, which is more of an active pastime...while I would rather passively sit back and be entertained by puppets. My dad snuck a tape recorder in a few times to make recordings of the Showbiz songs for me, and I would listen to them at home. I wish I still had those tapes...they got lost somehow (but I'm currently waiting for a CD in the mail that has the songs I remember, from the webmaster of the only major site dedicated to Showbiz). There are still a few Rock-a-Fire shows installed throughout the US, but the original Showbiz back home is no more.

So why do I still reminisce and obsess over this? What is it about these memories that linger? Some of it I think is because I often relate it to memories of Grandma Priebe, who I miss dearly and used to take me to these places. I think it also relates to my obsession with animation & puppets in general; this was like watching the Muppets, but it was LIVE! Another interesting thing is that while I may wax nostalgic about movies or music from my childhood, the difference is that those things I can still experience and apply to my present life. This kind of thing, I cannot... even if I still lived in Michigan, I couldn't. It's gone, and shall never repeat, unless I happen to travel to a place where a show is installed. So that in itself creates the intrigue in retracting as much as possible through memory, like a time period or person you cannot be with any more. So it's related to the same reason we think about loved ones who have passed on.

I just loved the feeling, the atmosphere that was in those places; the sounds, the was pure childhood. Kids today don't have anything like this, at least I don't think they do. Back then, most of us didn't have every Disney movie ever made on video, we didn't have arcade games at home, and cartoons were only on after school and on Saturday morning. Everything was an event, which made it more exciting. Now everything is so accessible or downloadable it's almost impossible to have anything be an 'event' without getting lost or losing its lasting significance. Or maybe this is exactly what our parents thought, and our kids today DO have 'events' in their lives like this. I'm not sure. All I know is that this whole concept of a physical place to go where you have all of these things, games, 'cartoons' which you knew were robotic but somehow magically had a life of their own after you left.....this concept does not seem to exist now.

Perhaps that's why we sometimes need to go back to the things which are gone. Perhaps that's why I love and appreciate it so much.

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