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The rise and fall of the Chuck E. Cheese animatronic band

Munch’s Make Believe Band has been together for four decades. Longer than Green Day. Longer than Public Enemy. Madonna first performed as Madonna in 1982. But Munch’s played its first show in 1977, at a San Jose, Calif., pizza parlor, and from day one the band was news, the main attraction, more popular than the pizza, heralded as a pioneer and impossible to ignore. Despite being a fabricated pop act, Munch’s proved durable, tireless, performing seven days a week, night and day. And now, after 41 years of playing mostly children’s birthday parties, the band is breaking up. It will be a slow goodbye, show by show, venue by venue. Elton John recently announced a three-year-long farewell tour; Munch’s could take much longer. As its members collapse onstage, they may or may not be replaced — the people pulling the strings are being cagey about Munch’s future.

But farewell is inevitable.

Daniel Day-Lewis just said farewell to acting. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges’ upcoming book promises “America: The Farewell Tour.” Paul Simon, the balding bard of Queens, announced his own farewell to performing. Even in decline, Munch’s Make Believe Band will not be outdone: Depending on where you see the band, its fur may also be patchy. Everything falls apart. Age catches up, and joints creak, backs crack and, little by little, for even the sturdiest of entertainers, the times change.

I recently attended a show by Munch’s, in a strip mall on Fullerton Avenue. It’s the house band at a Chuck E. Cheese there — actually, it’s the house band at most Chuck E. Cheese amusement centers around the country. Most, because in some Chuck E. Cheese’s, Munch’s has already been downsized or fired. Perhaps you’ve heard: Last summer, the Texas-based Chuck E. Cheese chain, which operates 512 locations (including 17 in the Chicago area), announced that the animatronic group of musicians that perform as Munch’s were being shown the door. Though the band was once the reason that anyone even bothered to visit Chuck E. Cheese, now it is being replaced, with larger dance floors and live employees in animal costumes.

It was a quirky little news item, quickly forgotten.

But lost in the chuckles was this: Seeing the Chuck E. Cheese band had been many Americans’ first brush with social robotics. However modestly, Munch’s was a precursor to our future, one already partly arrived, in which you work alongside robots, invite droids into your home, grow comfortable with having robot companions. Silly as it sounds, Munch’s marked a rudimentary, evolutionary step in mainstreaming that idea.

Said Garner Holt, a pioneer of animatronic creations who developed the Chuck E. Cheese band (as well as many robotic characters for Disney and Universal theme parks): “We built 500 of them for the restaurants and from an attendance standpoint, the number of Americans who saw that band exceeds the number who went to Disney parks. So, yes, in a strange way, yes: The (Chuck E. Cheese) band were forerunners. They prepped a lot of people to get ready for a society clearly moving in the direction of robots who’ll attend to their daily needs. In this case, it’s entertainment — but for robotics to be integrated into society, to some extent they will need to show off their personalities.”

Out of historical necessity then, before their limbs grind to a halt and heads are decommissioned, it seemed important to visit the Chuck E. Cheese band on its long goodbye. I was one of those people who were once wowed by Munch’s, who found it difficult to comprehend at first that there were no puppet masters present, that C-3PO came wrapped in fur, articulating fluid gestures. They weren’t sentient. Or even utilitarian. But they were robots. So lately, whenever I was in the neighborhood of a Chuck E. Cheese, I stopped by to watch Munch’s perform again, to say my farewells.

Often I was the audience, the only human in attendance.

At the Fullerton location, the band stood in the dark much of the time, waiting to perform. Chuck, with his lifeless green eyes, on vocals. Helen Henny the hen on backup vocals. Jasper T. Jowls the cowboy dog on guitars. Mr. Munch, the hunched dinosaur keyboardist. Pasqually P. Pieplate, an Italian stereotype with a Jheri curl, barely playing drums. Like a progressive rock band, they got through about four songs an hour. The rest of the time, they waited before long empty rows of chairs, swiveling their heads, clacking their eyelids, opening their mouths to sing, but saying nothing, as if it didn’t really matter anymore if they played or not — who were they playing to anyway?

A small child toddled over.

The band started up. Pasqually said it was his favorite time of the year! He began a song about wanting to celebrate Halloween! And Christmas! And every holiday! All at once! The band watched him uncertainly and asked him to stop, stop, but you know Pasqually — can’t stop, won’t stop. It was part of the shtick. But joyless, the band, once able to swivel and wave and strum with ease, groaned hydraulically. The child, whose face never brightened or revealed the smallest spark of curiosity, eventually turned around and walked away, looking bored. She walked back to her parents. They pulled out a toy for the child to play with, a blue elephant with animatronic ears, which did everything Munch’s did and more. And unlike Jasper T. Jowls, its jowls were clean.

The Chuck E. Cheese on Kedzie Avenue in Gage Park has the musty smell of a basement. It’s next to a Chinatown Buffet, in a strip mall that wouldn’t be out of place in a zombie apocalypse. Munch’s stage is larger and more colorful here than at other locations I visited; their wardrobes are a lot less soiled. But Jasper’s eyes are so misaligned you can see the metal plate in his head, and whenever Pasqually attempts to drum, the pistons in his blood sigh and gasp — sigh, gasp, sigh, gasp — then his head lolls so far back you expect a John Carpenter monster to claw its way out of his neck. Kellie Wyatt, 25, of Chicago, had been riding her bike through the neighborhood and stopped in, more out of nostalgia than excitement. She watched with a mounting horror:

“It’s like they just gave up.”

The restaurant?

“The band — it’s like they don’t want to be here anymore.”

Indeed, Munch’s members had wide, alarmed eyes that shifted back and forth in their furry heads, like scared university cheerleaders trapped inside mascot costumes, unable to escape. “Such a bummer,” Wyatt said. “I used to be so impressed with this. And it’s still kind of cool. ... But it’s not the way I remember. I just feel bad for them.”

The truth is, as ambitious as it was for a restaurant to host a robotic house band in the ’70s and ’80s, even then Munch’s wasn’t considered Grade-A animatronics by many animatronic creators. Matt Winston, co-founder of the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, said his legendary father, the school’s namesake and creator of the T. rex in “Jurassic Park” and the robot assassin in James Cameron’s original 1984 “Terminator” movie, was far more impressed with the animatronics at Disney’s theme parks: “Chuck E. Cheese animatronics were animatronics as its cheapest, most stripped down.” Even Holt said Munch’s “could have been more sophisticated 30 years ago, but (the restaurant) wanted a certain level of animatronic — it wasn’t Disney-level even then.”

Talk to animatronics creators, and Disney comes up often.

Depending on the definition, animatronics — that is, the smooth, induced movements of artificial creations, intending to mimic the free-flowing movement of real life — dates back centuries, some say to the mechanical animals built by da Vinci in the 16th century, some say to the mechanical musicians popular among 18th-century French elite. But the term “animatronics” is itself a Disney invention, used to describe its early experiments in drawing lifelike movement from inanimate objects. The timeline of animatronic breakthroughs is relatively brief — Disney’s Hall of Presidents, “Jurassic Park,” Jabba the Hutt — but the cornerstone is always Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room, which starred four animatronic macaws and debuted in the theme park in 1963.

“I got into this business because of that,” Holt said. “I had a mechanical mind and was enamored at 13 with Disney and the concept of simulating an illusion of life. People take it for granted that robots are machines and computers, that it’s a challenge to turn all of that into a character — one that you subconsciously understand should not be alive.”

That said, for Robert Veach of Naperville, the original Chuck E. Cheese band — and later, homegrown variations, often the work of amateur animatronic tinkerers — was a revelation, the suburbanization of animatronics, however flawed. Veach is a retired electrical engineer from Bell Labs, known in the western suburbs of Chicago for his elaborate homemade animatronic Halloween displays. He said: “People forget, if you couldn’t get to Disney for its Hall of Presidents, there was always a Chuck E. Cheese.”

Still, as any student of pop music will remind you, every band has a dark tale.

Munch’s, along with the Chuck E. Cheese chain itself, was a creation of Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. He was enamored of the Tiki Room at Disneyland, but he also wanted a showcase for Atari’s arcade games. The combo was such a hit that, within a few years, he had a competitor, ShowBiz Pizza Place, which had its own animatronic house band. To connoisseurs of animatronics, Rock-afire Explosion was the Rolling Stones to Munch’s Beatles, edgier, and to many fans, savvier and hipper. Its creator was Aaron Fechter, an engineer who both developed a fuel-efficient car and invented the arcade classic Whac-A-Mole. To make a convoluted business story short: ShowBiz bought Chuck E. Cheese, and, according to Fechter, “animatronics were set back decades.” He said he had been working on next-generation robot musicians (who would play instruments, rather than pantomime to recorded tracks), but by the ’90s, Rock-afire’s Stones were literally torn to pieces, to provide parts for Munch’s milder Beatles.

“Today, (Munch’s) is just window dressing,” Fechter said. “Without heart or soul.”

To be fair, Munch’s and Rock-afire both created a comfort with animatronics that demanded even better animatronics. About 20 years ago, Veach started an Illinois-based animatronics studio, he said, which never took off because “what people don’t understand is as you scale this stuff upwards, it’s so much harder to make anything move believably. But toys — they’re small, they’re easier.” Indeed, as Hollywood fell in love with relatively cheaper and less labor-intensive computer-generated special effects, some of the best-known developments in animatronics went into toys — think of Teddy Ruxpin, and the Furby, a blockbuster for (now-defunct) Tiger Electronics of Vernon Hills.

Remember their grace, their eeriness.

Before Stan Winston died in 2008, he worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Personal Robots Group on developing Leonardo, a charming, lifelike robot with computer-based artificial intelligence capabilities. Today, 16 years since he debuted, Leo resembles a toy. Or a Gremlin. He shrugs, reaches for things, gets excited, shy. You can believe, if for an instant, a robot can want. The Stan Winston School that Matt Winston started a decade ago teaches character creation in many forms — felt puppets, CGI — but he pictures the future of animatronics as ubiquitous, applied to sociable robots like Leonardo. “There’s major crossover in the skills it takes to create characters for entertainment and the aesthetically approachable robots of the future.” It will mean more than window dressing. “(Munch’s) didn’t have to pass muster with anyone but 5-year-olds, but they get one thing right — before human beings can get comfortable in the presence of robots, they are going to need us to care about them.”

However inadvertently, it’s hard to not relate these days to the house band at Chuck E. Cheese. Depending where you see the musicians, they look either exhausted or simply terrible, worn down, overworked, hustling nonstop for ever-smaller crowds of the unimpressed.

Their bosses, included.

“If you go back to the ’70s and ’80s, (Munch’s) was largely there to entertain parents while their kids played (video games),” said Tom Leverton, Chuck E. Cheese CEO. “But today, parents look at them more like nostalgia than entertainment. Which can date us.” Not even the kids pay attention, he said. The plan is to remove the physical band gradually, to remodel, adding muted tones and more wooden surfaces and more open kitchens. Munch’s, in other words, will become a victim of gentrification.

Not surprisingly, after the company announced the band’s fate, superfans comforted themselves. On the online Retro Pizza Zone forum, one said that though the outcome is certain, “we should cherish the remaining time we have with them.” Ryan Thomas Colla, a former Chicago-area Chuck E. Cheese manager and major fan, told me: “From a business standpoint, I get it. But as a fan, there aren’t many things that haven’t changed since you were a kid — except the Chuck E. Cheese band, which hasn’t changed at all.”

Actually, like many arena acts, Munch’s show is augmented with screens now; sometimes, a screen sits onstage, like a sixth member. Which really it is: The band performs in sync with music videos starring their puppet doppelgangers. And yet, as is the fate of many bands that refuse to die, they play reduced circumstances — not county fairs, but storefronts, alongside dentist offices and Panda Express. Their hydraulics sigh and gasp loudly over the din of their instruments, and their fur is often ripped in places. One manager told me that she dreads weekends, when the kids punch band members and steal their shoes.

So, good news, robopocalypse-wise:

Humans: 1

Animatronic bands: 0

The bad news is, if you want to remember the musicians of Munch’s Make Believe Band the way you did when you were child, don’t go see them now. Don’t look into their eyes. They will never know the future that they themselves had a hand in creating. The playing is mechanical and lifeless. They’re going through the motions, waiting for the replacements.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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