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Food & Drink

Why I Celebrate My Birthday at Chuck E. Cheese's as an Adult

No, it's not because I just love animatronic bands and bad pizza.

For the past two years -- as an adult in my early thirties -- I have celebrated my birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Yes, the the hybrid entertainment and restaurant chain featuring an anthropomorphic pizza-loving mouse. “Do you get adults coming to celebrate their birthday here?” I asked the cashier as she rang me for a BBQ chicken pizza on my most recent visit. “It’s very rare,” she said, grinning. But for me, it’s a reminder of how I formed my American identity.

Between the ages of 5 and 15, nothing whipped me into all out frenzy more than getting a birthday invitation to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Sure, the restaurant was tinged with the musk of burnt cheese and overly energetic children who bounced from one end of the carpeted room to the other. They were loaded up on soda and the ill-fated assumption that the wads of tickets in their sticky hands extracted from arcade games would amount to something significant -- and I wanted to be just like them.  

Chuck E. Cheese’s tagline was “Where a kid can be a kid.” Growing up in an immigrant household where the lines of culture and identity were deeply defined between home and the streets, it was where I went to be an American.

Its appeal extended to virtually any child coming of age in the '80s and '90s during the heyday of indoor entertainment venues, but the dizzying neon lights and the clinking of gold tokens embossed with Chuck E. Cheese’s profile as they poured out of the dispenser became the soundtrack to which I picked up Western idiosyncrasies that did not exist in any other part of my life. It was a place where first generation kids and immigrant children were inducted into American culture, thrown head first into the ball pit of birthday cake-coated consumerism.

With no processed or pre-packaged foods allowed at home, my mom focused her energy into cooking hearty, elaborate Middle Eastern meals daily, while working a full-time job. This had ripple effect into adulthood -- to this day, there are many major American fast food chains I still have never tried.

But Chuck E. Cheese’s was my secret club where I went to indulge in all American junk food my system could handle -- greasy pepperoni pizza that burned my tongue, high fructose-laden soda I gulped down by the cup full and dense chocolate cake with frosting in colors I never even knew existed. My tastebuds remained in overdrive for hours. I often used tickets to buy Airheads and Ring Pops instead of toys and revelled in my rapidly developing sweet tooth.

I traded parent-mandated hobbies like piano lessons meant to develop an appreciation for classical music and Armenian hymns for games played purely for fun -- not learning. I was especially charmed by Skee Ball and Whack-a-Mole. Music from “Munch’s Make-Believe Band,” the animatronic band featuring various wide-eyed and often frightening Chuck E. Cheese's characters replaced sounds of The Gypsy Kings and Yanni permeating through my house.

Chuck E. Cheese’s was the ultimate tangible force that informed my sense of American identity -- an experience shared among children of working class immigrant parents, who were re-assembling their lives in a new country and often could not afford lavish backyard birthday parties or bank breaking trips to Disneyland.

Instead there was Chuck E. Cheese’s, a portal tapping into the desires of their American born or rapidly assimilating immigrant children, who saw the restaurant as a way to dip into and learn about how “true” American children behaved as they straddled multiple identities.

Born in Iran, Ghazal Rahmanpanah was one of those kids. She grew up in Washington DC, as an only child, isolated from cousins who remained overseas, and attended spent her weekends at Farsi language school. Chuck E. Cheese’s was a rare opportunity for socialization into mainstream culture.

“My parents were quite protective of me, but I could run free at the Cheese,” she says. “Everything American was a no-go back then, but the only exception was when I’d go to Chuck E. [Cheese's]. I could just be a kid honestly -- and it was freeing.”

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Chuck E. Cheese’s integration of cake and pizza with music and games was, of course, intentional. To find the origins of a fun-loving, grey rat with a New Jersey accent interested in hosting your birthday party means examining the glory days of the video game industry and good old fashioned American capitalism.

The brainchild of Atari creator Nolan Bushnell, Chuck E. Cheese’s was essentially devised as a path into the highly profitable arcade business. Instead of selling coin-operated games as a one off, Bushnell wanted to cash in on their entire life cycle. He would bring the people to the machines, instead of the other way around. It was his way of vertically integrating the market.

He came up with “Pizza Time Theatre,” a concept which incorporated pizza, games and entertainment under one roof. Chuck E. Cheese's, otherwise known by his full name, Charles Entertainment Cheese's, was the star of the show with a slightly tragic backstory. An orphaned mouse who does not know his birthday, Chuck moves to New York to work as a singer in an Italian restaurant, where he meets a music-loving chef named Pasqually. He moves to California to start his own restaurant franchise and recruits Pasqually to join him. Chuck hosts birthday parties for children as a way to make up for never having one himself.

The first location opened in San Jose, Calif., in 1977 and was known as “Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre.” For almost 10 years, it competed with rival “Showbiz Pizza,” founded by a Robert Brock, an investor who backed out of his agreement to franchise “Pizza Time Theatre” after teaming up with animatronics designer Aaron Fletcher of Creative Engineering, Inc. But after the video game crash (called “Atari shock” in Japan), Pizza Time Theatre declared bankruptcy and was bought by ShowBiz Pizza. The merger led to the creation of “Showbiz Pizza Time Inc,” and by 1990, all locations were renamed “Chuck E. Cheese’s.”

Older generations who frequented ShowBiz Pizza have a cult-like obsession with chain’s animatronic band, “The Rockafire Explosion.” (The band was horrifyingly stripped of their fuzzy parts and re-outfitted as Munch’s Make-Believe Band in what was known as “concept unification.”)

But by the time I became acquainted with Chuck E. Cheese’s, the mouse reigned supreme. At home, “Doug” and “Saved by the Bell” were opportunities to pick up on American cultural queues, from socializing in diners to hallway bullying. Chuck E. Cheese’s was experiencing it all first hand.

“It felt as close to a Nickelodeon game show as were going to get in real life,” says Sara Leana, an Iraqi-American who grew up in LA’s diverse San Fernando Valley.This hotbed for cultural intersectionality was not always pleasant, however. For Leana, it became an intense training ground for code-switching.
 
“At Chuck E. [Cheese's] I remember this being particularly uncomfortable somehow, maybe because it was my early experiments in figuring out these two worlds,” she says. “I remember observing quietly how the white American kids acted, especially the boys. I think because I had brothers and so many of my parents’ friends had boys, I was not only trying to fit into mainstream culture but also trying to fit in with the boys who left me out a lot.”
 
Along with its affordability, Chuck E Cheese’s, with no need for reservations and free of the space limitations for larger parties in restaurants, accommodated the extended family and friend structures common in immigrant communities, which appealed to parents like Leana’s.
 
In 2009, the Brooklyn Paper reported how the Chuck E. Cheese’s in New York City’s Atlantic Terminal Mall became a gathering place for Muslim families from “Beirut and Bangladesh to Khartoum and Kuala Lumpur” who crammed into the eatery on Eid, the day which marks the end of the Ramadan fast.
 
Purbita Saha, whose parents emigrated from Kolkata, India, grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, about 20 miles outside of New York City and remembers Chuck E. Cheese's as a place she would go with other Indian kids for birthdays, hoarding tickets in between receiving coveted party invitations.
 
"All the white kids in my classes had their parties at bougier places like Sports World, which has laser tag, go karts, and simulators, or pottery-making classes, which were boring as hell."
 
While the attraction to Chuck E. Cheese's for minorities has been organic, in the last several years the company has consciously marketing to ethnic populations directly -- particularly the Latinx community -- recognizing their growing buying power, estimated at $1.2 trillion in the US.

They’ve also created bilingual commercials in English and Spanish and sponsor the Spanish-language series Maya & Miguel.

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But catering to certain segments of America’s population was came after Chuck E. Cheese’s realized the hunger customers abroad might have for Americana and American pizza. Beginning in 1986, the chain went international, opening locations in Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, modifying their “concept to cater to local cultures and customs.” In 2012, the company signed an agreement to open 39 international restaurants.
 
Since then, Chuck E. Cheese’s has gone through several major changes as it struggled to keep afloat after years of declines in sales. In an era of rapid technological change, where family entertainment centers like “Discovery Zone” or the ill-fated Club Disney are remembered only through nostalgic tales, Chuck E. Cheese’s is hanging on by its ears.
 
The most significant change was Charles Entertainment Cheese himself -- the singing mascot was revamped into an electric guitar-playing, sneaker-wearing mouse. His voice was also replaced having remained the same since 1993. In 2014, Apollo Global Management acquired CEC Entertainment for $1.3 billion. The next year, it unveiled a new menu adding pizza options like BBQ Chicken, Cali Alfredo as well as sandwiches, wraps, churros and even wine to appeal to the broadening taste of kids, but also the palates of their parents. It now even delivers its pizza via apps like GrubHub, Door Dash and Uber Eats.
 
The chain’s most valuable customer today might be the nostalgia marketer’s dream: millennials who are hungry for the comfort of their childhoods in an increasingly chaotic America and eager to share the experience with their own young children.

In some ways, going as an adult is less about the pizza and more about self realization. As I forced my adult body into a child-size booth amongst screaming and barefoot children, I was exposing the mechanics of my assimilation, too. I shoved a slice of pizza into my mouth and all of my feelings came back. It was that distinct, overwhelming taste of America.

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Liana Aghajanian is an Armenian-American journalist from Iran currently based in Detroit. Her work often covers the intersection of immigration, identity, and diaspora in national and international publications. She once drank fermented camel milk in Mongolia and was totally OK with it. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.