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.