Nolan Bushnell’s Chuck E. Cheese, Silicon Valley Startup: The Origins of the Best Pizza Chain Ever – The Atlantic
This great American franchise, and by extension, childhood itself, almost never existed.
You may not know this, but Chuck E. Cheese’s — yes, the pizza place — has its origins as firmly planted in the soil of Silicon Valley as Apple, HP, or Intel. In fact, it sprang from Nolan Bushnell’s Atari like Athena to the videogame company’s Zeus.
Which is to say two things: one, if you grew up in the 1980s, the same guy — Bushnell — is basically responsible for a good portion of your childhood longings; and two, WHAT! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! THAT’S CRAZY.
This connection got me thinking wild thoughts. I got very excited about the hypothetical secret history of Chuck E. Cheese’s. Perhaps Bushnell used an early computer to calculate precisely how to burrow Chuck E. Cheese’s brand into the very soul of every 7-year-old in America! And did he imagine that the animatronic rat mascot and his friends were going to be the leading edge of a personality-infused robotic future? (iChuckECheese!)
I had to talk to Bushnell. Desperately. Finally someone would understand his vision for the animatronic revolution. Luckily, a colleague put us in touch, and we spoke yesterday. And he revealed the hilarious origins of Chuck E. Cheese’s, the Silicon Valley pizza joint startup.
I’m just going to walk us through what he said, interjecting where appropriate.
“It was my pet project. I started it inside Atari. My objective was to vertically integrate the market. We were selling coin-operated games at about $1,500 or $2,000 a pop. In their life, they’d make $15 to 20k. It didn’t take rocket science to say I’m on the wrong side of the equation,” he told me. “I didn’t want to compete with the people I was selling to, but the game operating business is all about securing locations. So the way to not compete with them was to secure my own locations. The original genesis was to create a big arcade with food as a support structure, almost as an ancillary service.”
Why pizza? Good question.
“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.”
Who describes food in terms of a “build schedule”? I told you Chuck E. Cheese’s was a Silicon Valley startup. Bushnell wanted the minimal viable restaurant platform on which to offer his game services.
But why did he need all the entertainment stuff?
“The reason for doing the animals, believe it or not, was not for the kids. It was meant to be a head fake for the parents. Kids are really smart at knowing how to play their parents. and the kids knew that if they said, ‘I want to go to Chuck E. Cheese and play the games’ the parents would just see themselves spending money. But if they said, ‘I want to go see Chuck E. Cheese entertainment — and it’s free,’ they’d be good to go,” Bushnell said. “The other thing was that we wanted the parents to have something to amuse themselves while the kids were in the game room. If you listened to the dialogue, it was fun, edgy stuff, kinda like Toy Story, written as much for the parents as the kids.”
But why choose giant singing robotic animals for your entertainment?
It seemed crazy to me, even as a kid. Turns out it was, roughly, chance. Several things Bushnell happened to see hybridized in his imagination into a monstrous and wonderful new pizza joint chimera.
“The synthesis came along because there was a pizza parlor called Pizza and Pipes. It basically resurrected a Wurlitzer theater organ and the place was packed when they had an organist that actually played on the thing. And I thought, there is a demand for some kind of entertainment to go along with the pizza. But I’m not going to have something that heeds a player and I’m not going to do something that requires finding and restoring an antique. And 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.'”
The synthesis, then, is entertainment pizza theater minus the humans. How about that for “labor efficiency”?
Assuming animatronic control, the real problem, Bushnell imagined, was getting characters that looked good. But that worked out happily.
“As the project got close to being green-lighted, I happened to be at a trade show in Orlando. The IAAPA. The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. There was a group there selling walkaround costumes.”
What’s a walkaround costume? It’s the kind of enormous wearable costume that sports mascots and Sesame Street characters get into. Here are some from a recent IAAPA expo.
“The operating name for the project, the codename, was Coyote Pizza,” he said. “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.”
OR SO HE THOUGHT. DUN DUN DUN.
“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.'”
YES, Chuck E. Cheese, the most-famous rodent in American childhood branding not in the Mickey Mouse clan, was supposed to be a coyote. And then, the first choice for Chuck E. Cheese’s name was Rick Rat’s Pizza. Luckily, Bushnell’s marketing angels convinced him Rick Rat’s Pizza (!) wasn’t such a good name for an establishment that had to go before a health inspector.
“My marketing department just had a shitfit: ‘You can’t call a restaurant a rat place! People think rats are dirty. It’s not going to work,'” he said. “But what if he is a rat but you don’t call him a rat, I suggested. ‘You name it,’ I told them. ‘I don’t give a shit what it is. But it has to be happy.’ A week later, they said, we got the name. And not only is it happy, it’s triple happy: Chuck E. Cheese, you can’t say each one of those without smiling.”
No, seriously, isn’t that the best possible way that Chuck E. Cheese could have been dreamed up by a marketing department? And it’s triple happy. Take that, character from Mad Men!
Listening to all this, I had a terrifying thought: the creation of Chuck E. Cheese’s was completely contingent. The pizza time theater may never have been founded. All historical narratives are a lie, basically. And furthermore, given that Chuck E. Cheese’s was a necessary component of childhood, in the many alternate universes in which Chuck E. Cheese’s never came into being (remaining Coyote Pizza or Rick Rat’s Pizza), could childhood even exist?
Or perhaps at least the structural features of Chuck E. Cheese were more likely than Bushnell’s telling reveals. Our resident Chuck E. Cheese expert, Georgia Tech professor and Atlantic Tech contributor Ian Bogost, argued in a 2007 paper that Cheese’s is a logical recombination of Bushnell’s prior interests and market forces.
As tavern culture gave way to the video arcade of the late 1970s and early 1980s, secondary pursuits like ordering food gave way to the primary pursuit of additional gameplay. Arcades had more in common with casinos than taverns, and Bushnell, ever the entrepreneur, recognized this as a market opportunity: he would create an arcade space with the additional social and gastronomical goals of a tavern. While still at Atari, he founded Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theaters, a place for kids and families to eat pizza and play games. Here Bushnell combined all of his prior influences. Chuck E. Cheese’s was an arcade: its games encouraged continued play and cross-cabinet play. It was a restaurant: food and drink drew players to the locale and kept them there longer. And it was a midway: players collected tickets from games of skill and chance like skeeball in the hopes of exchanging them for prizes.
Phew. History is saved!
In any case, who dreamed up the all the little skits that the characters had to do?
“Mike Hatcher. He was a really good programmer, a puppeteer, and a screenwriter. He wrote and designed the authoring system that programmed the units,” Bushnell said. “He’d sit back with the impresario and program the movements one at a time, basically to coordinate with a tape.”
The San Jose Mercury News ran a short story about Hatcher in 1979that revealed the following facts: 1. It took him three hours of programming for every one minute of animation. 2. There were often 200 movements going on at once during the shows. 3. Poor Hatcher had to work the graveyard shift.
But how’d the characters actually move? Did they have motors?
“No, they were all pneumatic,” Bushnell explained. “Factories are run on pneumatic. The [components] are cheap and they never wear out. They just run and run and run. It’s probably the most robust motion technology in the world.”
Yes, pneumatic as in pneumatic tubes! And how’d they build the animatrons?
“You start with the armature and then you dress it. Pretty much they were the same inside. There were two different jaws, if you’re a dog versus Mr. Bunch. If you were a snout animal, you had a different jaw. We also had one for beaks.”
I wanted to know, though: did Bushnell take the animatronic bits seriously? Like, did he see them having their own trajectory, one with lots of potential?
“We saw them as being our advertisement and our freebie,” he said. “We tried to assume that if people came back every month, they’d want to see something different. So we tried to change the skit every month.”
That’s not to say that they didn’t work hard at improving the acts.
“We went through a phase where we would have separate rooms with lounge acts. The cabaret, for example. We had an Elvis impersonator. We had a Dolly Dimples, which was a piano torch singer,” he said. “They had personalities and you know, Chuck E. Cheese was a wise guy, kind of abusing the other people. The hound dog was stupid as shit, so it was a great thing for Chuck E. to be describing something really slowly and dumbed down. Mr. Munch who loved to eat everything. He was kind of our Cookie Monster, and we took the Cookie Monster and turned him into a garbage can with a vacuum to suck stuff out of your hand.”
But did he truly see it as interactive entertainment or just some hokie crap? Despite his answer below, I’m not sure I truly know how he feels about his creations.
“I saw it absolutely as interactive entertainment. Understand the timeline. I started Chuck E. just before I sold Atari to Warner and Warner didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They said ‘Sell it,’ and I said, ‘I’ll buy it,’ and they sold it to me. I was still CEO of Atari and building the restaurants on the side. I had a president of the restaurants and he got the technology and the licensing. Then restaurants started just coining money and then after the sale, [Warner’s people got] tired of me and I was tired of them, so it was very easy for me to spend full time working on Chuck E. Cheese. We built it up to about 250 restaurants before I sold out.”
It got a messy towards the end of Bushnell’s involvement with Chuck E. Cheese in the mid-1980s. I don’t want to get into the details, which are dizzyingly complex and contested, but suffice to say: the chain’s fortunes went up and down, and there was a splinter chain, an IPO and a bankruptcy. It’s complicated. In the end, Bushnell says that he cleared maybe $35 million from his pizza entrepreneurship.
“$35 million isn’t bad,” I offered.
“It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t $200 million,” he replied.
But hadn’t he helped animatronics escape the truly strange confines of the amusement park? Wasn’t that something?
“If you really try to stack up the entertainment that was delivered by our animals: It was not great. You know? It was amusing to a captive audience, and you can kind of pull it off in 15-20 minute increments at Disneyland, but …”
You take that back, Bushnell! Chuck E. Cheese’s was a work of genius!
Perhaps, I ventured, it was time for an animatronic renaissance. I told him about Skylanders, the newish billion dollar franchise for Activision that roughly merges real world toys with digital characters. And then there is the company Anki, a robotics and gaming company that wants to bring physical characters to life. “We’re giving physical characters the ability to know where they’re located in an environment and what’s around them and to be able to come to life and execute a person, intention, a personality,” Anki’s CEO told me.
Weren’t all these things pointers to a revival of the vision, or at least some derivative of this strange merging of software and physical characters? Maybe Teddy Ruxpin and his ilk were just false starts and now the real animatronic revolution could begin!
“I don’t think I’d back that venture,” he said.
Childhood dreams die, I guess.