In the early 70s, if you wanted to find some coin-operated arcade games, they were almost exclusively set up in dive bars, truck stops, and arcade venues alongside peep-show machines. These kind of spots were popular among teens, who, at the time had a bad reputation for drugs and breaking the rules, rendering arcades to be seen as seedy.
The idea of having a family-friendly arcade plus restaurant was completely new at the time, completely altering the image associated with arcades and video games.
When the idea for Pizza Time Theatre was in its early stages, its founder and the founder of Atari, Noah Bushnell, was making waves with their new hit arcade game, Pong. The success of the game delayed Bushnell's restaurant plans.
Influenced by working in amusement park industry through his college years and a love of Disney, Bushnell recruited Gene Landrum for the project.
The first Pizza Time Theatre opened in San Jose 1977, introducing video games to an entire new and younger audience in an environment the whole family could experience. The pizza joint contained over 100 video games, pinball machines, arcade games,with a loud and boisterous atmosphere.
In the beginning the mascot was called Rick Rat, but soon after Chuck E. Cheese came to fruition, as a "three-smile name," echoing the rhythm of Mickey Mouse.
Pizza Time provided an environment to distribute Atari games with no outside competition, operating on custom gold coins with "In Pizza We Trust," emblazoned on the back. The games were a huge selling point, but there was nowhere else you could witness an animatronic show quite like these. The creepy element of the robots added to their appeal in the early years, similar to the appeal of freak shows at carnivals.
The animatronic chorus originally included the Warblettes, a trio of singing crows, Jasper T. Jowls, a guitar-playing hound, Pasqually P. Pieplate, an Italian chef, Crusty the Cat, pal to Chuck, Dolli Dimples, a seductive hippo, and of course Chuck E. Cheese. Back then, you would find Chuck E. smoking a cigar through his buck teeth and thick Jersey accent.
The restaurant quickly made waves in San Jose and beyond, and Bushnell decided to fully invest in the franchise. By 1978 he leaves behind Atari and buys out Pizza Time.
But as Pizza Time gained popularity, competing businesses began popping up. Its biggest competitor, ShowBiz Pizza, with the help from former Pizza Time co-founder Landrum, became the most successful of the numerous knock-offs that emerged in the 80s. Some other competitors included Bullwinkle's Family Restaurant, Celebration Station, Fair Play Pizza Theater, Major Magic's All Star Pizza Review, and Razz-Ma-Tazz.
Business became precarious, and Bushnell began investing in new ventures. By the summer of '83, Pizza Time was falling. The novelty of the concept had played out, and in '84 he resigned as chairman and CEO and the firm filed for bankruptcy.
Showbiz Pizza also suffered, but managed to survive. They purchased Pizza Time Theatre Inc. and merged the two competing businesses, combining the animatronic stage shows into one act and taking on the more favorable Chuck E. Cheese name.
As the years went on, Chuck E. Cheese and his friends underwent changes to be much slimmer, younger, and animated in CGI. Today, he's a skateboarding adolescent, reminiscent of the image Bushnell originally wanted to distance from the business.
But there is a dark side to the rise of Chuck E. Cheese, and it surrounds founder Bushnell. In recent years, former employees, mostly women, at Atari, Pizza Time, and Chuck E. Cheese have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment by the company's founder, citing company meetings that would be held in his personal hot tub. The gaming industry's responded by revoking Bushnell's Pioneer Award at the 2018 Game Developer's Conference.
The history of the franchise brings to light the changes in how young people and teenagers are represented in popular culture and the spaces designed to keep them separate from family-friendly spaces. Today, Chuck E. Cheese remains a birthday party staple for kids across the country.