As mentioned in the last post, I love researching the SHIT out of things on the internet. It usually starts with something that I remember from years past, usually from childhood (where I don't remember much other than popular culture).
My name is Jessica, and I've spent a lot of time reading about and watching documentaries about mechanical bands. It's a logical choice; I was a kid obsessed with The Muppets and Sesame Street. The jump from puppets to robots isn't that long, y'all.
I am a child of the eighties. Born in the late seventies, I was a kid during the time of the pizza places with mechanical bands and carnival games. My dad took us to Chuck E. Cheese after every report card came out, because good grades = free tokens, and I was a kid who did her homework to reap those great spoils quarterly. But I only have vague recollections of Showbiz Pizza.
According to this website somehow still hosted on Tripod, there was a Showbiz Pizza at 2525 Romig Rd. in Akron. I knew I was right about this. I got in a fight with a dude in a Facebook group about Rolling Acres Mall; he was convinced that Showbiz was in where Egg Castle used to be (which is now a titty bar, and one of the only businesses active on Romig Rd.). I took him with a grain of salt, as you do with people who want to argue on the internet.
Chuck E. Cheese has always been in the front of my mind. We used to go to the one that was located in the back of Chapel Hill Mall (voted Akron's next dead mall by every racist dad in the comments sections on Cleveland.com). My grandfather was a drunk, so it was easy for him to take us to Chuck E. Cheese, because he could sit and get drunk in the main showroom while the kids ran around. I usually played Skeeball, or would go into the smaller showroom and put a token in the machine to watch The King do an Elvis song. I hated Elvis, but I loved that smaller showroom. There was barely anyone ever in it. It was a reprieve from the adults, and from the chaos that was the video game/ride area.
Fun fact: there is still a King located at Jungle Jim's, a gigantic specialty grocery store in Cincinnati, Ohio. I want to go to there.
I had largely forgotten about my affinity for animatronic bands until a few years ago, when I saw the documentary about the Rock-afire Explosion. If you haven't seen it yet, please go here and watch it immediately. In this movie, we are not only given the entire history of The Rock-afire Explosion, and their eventual demise and rebuild into the Chuck E. Cheese band that we know now, but we're also exposed to my favorite side of everything: the superfans.
Superfans are the best source of information; they're living historians of whatever they're super into. And then you cross into places like Chris Thrash, a guy who lives in Alabama, owns his very own Rock-afire Explosion show, and programs them to play current music (the rockafire youtube page is brilliant to turn on in the background at parties). He rebuilt his happiest childhood memories in a garage on his property, and I fully respect him for that.
And then, there's the guy who invented the Rock-afire Explosion (and apparently whac-a-mole), Aaron Fechter. In the documentary, he takes the crew on a tour of Creative Engineering, where the band was invented. You would expect sleek warehouses, but nope; the viewer gets to tour a hot ass warehouse in Orlando, Florida, and see shows in various forms of disarray and decay; this article from the DCist has some rad photos from their tour). There was also an explosion at Creative Engineering in 2013, but Fechter just keeps on keepin' on, melting masks and ramshackle surroundings be damned.
The documentary is great, and paired with Chris Thrash's videos, sparked interest in the Rock-afire Explosion again; the band was even supposed to play at Riot Fest in 2015, but ended up not playing. I had considered buying tickets that year, but I consider buying tickets every year.
And now, in 2017, Chuck E. Cheese is going to be phasing out their remaining bands. As much as nostalgia would love for me to go and experience their show one last time, I am a 40 year old woman who has never had children for a reason. I was in a Chuck E. Cheese's in 2012, pretty ripped for a weekday afternoon, and it was a nightmare. Kids are so loud, so sticky, and ask so many questions!
However, I drive by that location at night, and see the band through the window, motionless, eyes closed, and it's so fucking fascinating. I want to try and take a photo through the window before (like most things from my childhood) they're gone. I actually would rather make the 4 or so hour drive to Barboursville, West Virginia and go to Billy Bob's Wonderland, and see one of the remaining Rock-afire Explosion bands for myself. I figure I travel around all the time seeing bands; why not travel and see a mechanical band?
BONUS CONTENT: I found out last night that Aaron Fechter has been developing new Billy Bob dolls. I urge you to go back and watch all of the prototype videos, but this one is the jackpot. Fechter's excitement slowly turns into rage; I hope Harry is alright out there, wherever he is.