The Mouse That Whored
Chuck E. Cheese has hung his hat in Brooklyn, but is it the borough's newest fun spot or the latest scar of gentrification
As the stadium-shaped brick-and-glass edifice gradually rose at the Flatbush/Atlantic intersection, local residents hoped for exciting and convenient new shopping opportunities, even as we bemoaned gentrification. But when the Chuck E. Cheese logo first peeked from a third-story window, one thought came to my mind: Isn't Chuck more of a Midwest thing? That thought was closely followed by a second: Am I an elitist for thinking that?
Well, maybe. But think about it. What evokes Brooklyn more than a small, family-owned pizzeria? Just a few blocks up Flatbush from the newly-constructed Atlantic Terminal, Antonio's--like any number of local Italian pizzerias--has been serving up slices for over 50 years, its handcrafted neon sign a monument to longevity. The chain pizzerias like Pizza Hut and Sbarro are few and far-between for such a populated area; it's as though they have the decorum to lay low in one of the world's pizza capitals. On the other hand, if chain pizza in Brooklyn is inevitable, Chuck may be the one chain with the spunk and creativity to pull it off.
Chuck E. Cheese has the same father as the video games he provides: Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell, who invented Pong in the early 1970s and went on to found Atari, parlayed some of his fortune into an ambitious one-spot family fun emporium offering pizza, a game arcade, and an automated floorshow. Passed over by Disney as a younger man, he channeled his disappointment into creating his own mouse mascot to serve as figurehead.
The early Chucks, then called "Pizza Time Theater," were groovy places, filled to the rafters with singing robots, a revolving cast of characters with a dash of sly humor. (Four dogs with Liverpool accents were called "The Beagles"; a lion in a gold jumpsuit was "The King.") The overall experience was like seeing The Muppet Show live. Chuck himself was more Kermit than Mickey, a vest-and-derby-wearing vaudevillian with an actual personality. The chain borrowed as much from Depression-era Coney Island as from Disney. Chuck even had a trace of a Brooklyn accent. Maybe it's only fitting that he set up shop on Flatbush. Could Chuck E. be the large corporation that breaks the mold and is actually pretty good for the community?
No, of course it couldn't. Chuck has grown to 500 locations across North America, and in the new millennium you don't get that big without thorough experience in cost-cutting and, all too often, customer-soaking.
The first noticeable example of bottom-line economizing is the severely stripped-down stage area. In the entire restaurant (which the Park Slope Courier described as the largest in existence), there is a grand total of one robot--of Chuck E. Cheese himself--and over the years he's apparently been focus-grouped down to a bland "big kid" archetype wearing a baseball cap and jersey. Any character traits that might set him apart from the herd of vacuous pop-cultural doofuses have been squeezed and sifted out by the demeaning mass-marketing instinct that kids won't accept anything even remotely unfamiliar or challenging. In a bizarre quirk of design, Chuck appears to be wearing breezy summer shorts made from his own fur, and this is more attention-grabbing than anything coming out of his mouth.
The remaining show space is rounded out by large TV screens showing music videos of Chuck and his supporting cast, now performed by actors in suits. Between songs, the Chuckbot engages in shtick (mostly jokes of the Laffy Taffy variety) with his pre-taped pals, who now appear in puppet form. There's Jasper T. Jowls, a redneck dog stealing his voice from Green Acres' Pat Butram; Pasqually, a mustachioed pizza chef with a borderline-offensive Italian accent and whose association with video games dooms him to be confused with Mario; and some goddamned bird.
There's an irony here: Bushnell's first great brainchild, Pong, revolutionized coin-op gaming partly because a video screen allows far more gaming possibilities than a pinball table. But another advantage, perhaps unintended by Bushnell, made it a billion-dollar industry: video consoles drastically cut down on the number of moving parts, reducing mass-production and maintenance to grunt work. The screen, the motherboard, and the controls are the only parts that might need to be replaced over the life of the machine.
Many pinball aficionados sneered at video games as they started to displace vintage pinball at their local game halls. The tactile jitteriness of real metal and rubber colliding was far preferable to the synthesized beeps and buzzes of the new bastard child, and the specialized skill of pinball repair made it a nobler thing, a subculture unto itself. To this older generation of gamers, it was like seeing custom Les Paul guitars gradually replaced by Casio keyboards.
[ NOTE: Images for this article appear only in the print version of Stay Free!, which you can purchase right here. ]
Now, years after Bushnell sold Chuck E. Cheese and moved on, his original innovation has returned to compromise his second. Replacing a video screen is much easier than servicing a Pasqually automaton, and you can tell one of the hourly-wage kids to do it rather than fly in a specially trained technician. But this robs Chuck's place of its magic; we all have video screens in our homes. Making a special trip to watch TV doesn't have the same exciting ring as going to see the singing robot show--in fact it's rather depressing. (But smart business: I'm sure customers enthralled by an exciting show spend less on games.) The crowning insult comes between the mixed-media performances: As a curtain conceals Chuck, the video screens show humanoid puppets performing threadbare skits in praise of Hi-C Sour Blast fruit drink. In other words, paying customers are subjected to commercials. I guess it's supposed to be a mitigating factor that Chuck himself doesn't endorse products.
If the Chuck management had invested more in the floor show, it would help offset Chuck's other major sin: mediocre pizza at exorbitant prices. A thick Sicilian-style crust is drizzled stingily with tomato sauce and lightly sprinkled with cheese--it may very well represent the legal minimum that one can put on bread and still advertise it as pizza. Slices are not available; the closest menu item is an individual-size pie at roughly the same size--but triple the cost--of a slice at Antonio's.
The game room is a mixed bag. On the plus side, there's Centipede, Qix, and Missile Command for fans of golden-age arcade games, and a big selling point in the chain's ads is that all games cost a single token--even the giant sit-inside, 18-wheeler racing game. But by far the most floor space is reserved for the carnival-style, ticket-awarding games--Skee-Ball and its cousins. The chain has ingeniously placed three stages between cash and prizes to help cloud the amount of money dropped to obtain that Spider-Man sticker. Cash is exchanged for sheet-metal tokens, then converted into tickets at a rate dependent on the customer's skill. These tickets are then exchanged for prizes at predictably confiscatory rates. In the Atlantic Center restaurant, a new intermediary step saves precious employee man-hours that were once spent weighing bowls of tickets: big winners can now feed their pasteboard strips into a mechanical, ticket-eating monster, which dispenses a paper chit bearing the number of tickets offered. One can view this with admiration (a clever, efficient way to give the customer added fun) or cynicism (making the kids do the work).
Some of the ticket games recall the kinetic, contraptional quality that's missing from the floorshow. There's a charmingly retro mechanical baseball game where tiny sheet-metal men run the bases, and a wacky game of slapping plastic eggs onto a conveyor belt. But the larger and more complex a game is, the stingier it seems to be with the ticket payout. Skee-Ball may offer the lowest payout in the house; to make things worse, the whole restaurant may see you playing it on a video screen.
The less skill a game requires, the closer it comes to a form of gambling, and there's a genre of ticket game that not only devours tokens but puts the kid's winnings largely in fate's hands: the token pusher. The player drops in tokens in hope of pushing other tokens, which push other tokens, which eventually plunge into the payout chute. One must play these to understand the appeal of ripe, juicy overhangs of tokens ready to collapse if only nudged another millimeter. These games devour tokens at roughly one every ten seconds and seem especially cruel. Worse, the player doesn't retrieve the tokens from the bottom but receives the equivalent in tickets in a baffling standard of double forms of fiat currency.
As I cruised the game room, two kids who had apparently run out of tokens panhandled me. A third was eager to operate the shift stick for me on the 18-wheeler game. (I guess he wasn't spellbound by the one-robot show, either.)
On the wall farthest from the stage, there's a single pinball machine: the new and hi-tech "Simpsons Pinball Party," loaded with moving plastic props and digitized character voices. It's the only reminder in the restaurant that Pong didn't actually kill pinball but pushed it to adapt in order to compete. And that motivation is what's missing from Chuck's new world order. Fun-seeking families would probably reject Chuck for nobler chains that cut fewer costs, if there were any. But Chuck merged with its prime competitor, ShowBiz Pizza, in the 1980s and helped drive competitors like Discovery Zone out of business. When you're the most fun pizzeria available, there's simply no need to be the most fun pizzeria imaginable.