Monday, October 17, 2005

Smile, America

One of the things I like about being a dad is sharing things from my childhood with my son.

My brother and I took Brody to Chuck E. Cheese's last week.

I hadn't been to one in a long time. Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre was, at one point in my youth, the place to go for birthday celebrations. If you were lucky, you might go there and the roller rink.

It was one of the first places I'd been to that was so geared for kids. Yeah, there were playgrounds at McDonald's and stuff like that, but this was a restaurant, arcade and show all rolled up in one place.

The first time I went to Las Vegas, it was Chuck E. Cheese that it reminded me of: lots of attention-getting machines, food and beverage as a secondary draw, often cheesy entertainment and artificial lighting that made it seem like night no matter what the real time was.

I remember walking in through the kid-sized door out front and being almost assaulted by the sights and sounds: the clinking of tokens in receptacles, children shouting in excitement and the k-thunk-thunk-thunk of the wooden balls dropping at the skee ball lanes.

And if you timed it right, you might've caught part of the show. In fact, the show often sounded better from a distance; up close, the movement of the giant Teddy Ruxpin-like players was louder than the songs they were ostensibly performing.

All the CECs I visited were dimly lit almost to the point of being murky and dank, especially the arcade area.

Instead of blaming MTV or video games for my sometimes short attention span, I blame the Pizza Time Theatre. Birthday parties were particularly chaotic. First, you have a pack of children in close proximity to presents, which is enough of a distraction. Then, while the birthday kid is opening his presents, he's interrupted by the sporadic performances of the Pizza Time Players.

One minute, you're watching the unveiling of a G.I. Joe Dragonfly Assault Helicopter (with pilot Wild Bill), and then it's a giant rat singing a bad parody of a Beach Boys song. And, oh, the pizza's ready. This pitcher is Coke, and this one's root beer, and...

And if you ever wanted to see a land speed record, you should've seen us bolt from the table once the game tokens were distributed. You didn't want to have to wait to play Star Wars or Crystal Castles. Or maybe you wanted the skee ball lane with the sweet spot that made it easier to land the ball in the 50-point hole.

My visits to Chuck E. Cheese were mostly birthday-related (although we once went to competitor Showbiz Pizza for my birthday, which was like getting Loc Blocs instead of Legos), but we ended up living very close to one when I was in fifth grade.

That was the CEC that hosted my eighth-grade graduation dinner (relatively eventless except for a kid who had to go to the hospital for some reason near the end of the night). By this time, though, the luster was just about gone.

All the hard kids would hang out in the little mouseholes in the arcade to cop a smoke or make out. Pretty soon, the mouseholes were blocked by new (well, new to the arcade) video games.

A few years after that, we avoided going there, as there wasn't much to you could do. The skee ball games were dominated by unattended youngsters who, apparently lacking sufficient skee ball skills, decided to just walk up the ramp and deposit the balls in the 50-point spots. The games that we'd enjoyed playing years before were still there; some of the monitors were etched permanently from years of play.

A couple of friends of mine worked there in high school. They told me what horrors they faced having to dress up in the "rat suit" for parties. Kids yanked the tail off regularly or punched Chuck in the, uh, cheese wheels.

Once, after they'd closed, they sewed the tail back on the costume -- in the front -- and did a dance routine that would've been a hit at someone's birthday party.

So when we went to the local CEC, I really didn't know what to expect.

We walked in, and instead of having to adjust to the darkness, I had to adjust to the light. It was bright and friendly, and the layout wasn't as segmented as it used to be. There was seating surrounding the game area.

And by game area, I'm referring mostly to the redemption games, which outnumber the video games by a hefty margin.

We all got our hands stamped as we were let in. I was almost half expecting to be issued a Red Party Cup™, but I didn't see any.

There was another seating area that was the main showroom, and that's where we sat. When the show started and Chuck and friends started jerking around to the music, Brody smiled.

We weren't sitting right up front, so we heard more of the music that the whirring and clicking of the musicbots.

It wasn't the same kind of show I watched so many times as a kid -- there were no waving flags on the walls, and the lights didn't dim -- but Brody seemed to enjoy it.

The one part that killed me was when the band decided to perform "a song from the 80s," making it sound as though it was an ancient era. The song was "Forever Your Girl," by Paula Abdul. I think I was in high school when that one came out.

After the pizza, we hit the floor for entertainment. Brody is not a big fan of rides so far. Even the one that looked like a dump truck or a grader was not something he wanted to be near.

He liked skee ball and a few of the other redemption games; he would hand me the balls and I'd roll them up the ramp. He would smile if I made a good shot.

There was no visit from the big rat, which I guess was good; I don't know how that would go over.

Above everything else, he liked the toy truck that we cashed in our tickets for. He's been playing with it nonstop since he got it.

I asked him when we left, "Brody, did you have fun?"

He held out his truck.

"Truck! Vrooom!" he beamed.

That was good enough for me.

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