Goodbye, Chuck E. Cheese’s animatronic band

For decades, Munch’s Make Believe Band at Chuck E. Cheese has performed at countless birthdays, end-of-season Little League parties and other celebrations. There was Chuck E. Cheese and Helen Henny on vocals, Mr. Munch on keys, Jasper T. Jowls on guitar and Pasqually on drums.

The band of robot puppets has been a mainstay in the colorful chain of pizzerias and arcades, where children run wild and play for prizes between bites of pizza slices.

The final curtain call will take place soon.

By the end of 2024, the animatronic performances – captivating and nostalgic, though perhaps a little scary for audiences – will be phased out, except for two of the more than 400 of the chain’s locations across the United States: one in Los Angeles and another in Nanuet, N.Y. The band’s departure comes as Chuck E. Cheese undergoes what its chief executive, David McKillips, recently described as its biggest and “more aggressive transformation.”

Outside: Animatronic bands.

In: More screens, digital dance floors and trampoline gyms.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of hundreds of Chuck E. Cheese stores, and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the summer of 2020. Since then, its leaders have tried to adapt Chuck E. Cheese to modern era – and to children who might be more excited by screens than by an old animatronic band with limited movements and shifty eyes.

“Kids are consuming entertainment differently than they did 10, 20 years ago,” McKillips said while sitting in a booth at Chuck E. Cheese in Hicksville, New York, on Long Island. “Kids, of all ages, are consuming their entertainment on a screen.”

For now, Munch’s Make Believe Band still performs every day in Hicksville, which sometimes hosts as many as 20 birthday parties in a weekend, starting at 8 a.m. last show there.

Then the band will be removed and replaced with a Jumbotron-sized TV, more seats and a digital dance floor. (Chuck E. Cheese declined to say what will happen to the animatronic figures after they are removed from hundreds of locations across the country.)

Not everyone wants more screens, trampolines and new games. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Kendall Maldonado, 12, of Queens, was dancing alongside the band dressed in his own Chuck E. Cheese costume, watching one of the last performances in Hicksville.

“I grew up with tickets and tokens,” said Kendall, a self-described “superfan” who has visited dozens of Chuck E. Cheese locations in the New York area and one in Puerto Rico.

Kendall’s mother, Jennifer Molina, 43, said she took Kendall to his first Chuck E. Cheese when he was 3 years old. Like many young children, Kendall was initially a little scared of Chuck E., but later warmed up to the giant mouse.

“He’s been a fan ever since,” she said.

Molina said Kendall wishes the bands could stay.

“The band is in perfect condition,” Kendall said. “Sometimes kids hit them, which is completely disrespectful because they are just doing their job and acting.”

Since Chuck E. Cheese announced in November that it would phase out Munch’s Make Believe Band, some parents have scrambled to get their kids to the final performances.

Kaitlin Rubenstein, 30, general manager of the Hicksville location and another in Hempstead, N.Y., said some took videos of the band to preserve the memory.

Rubinstein said it was “bittersweet” to see the band that was a part of his childhood retire.

“Going to Chuck E. Cheese on a Friday night,” she said, “was delightful.”

Chuck E. Cheese was founded by Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of the pioneering video game company Atari. In an interview with the Smithsonian Institution in 2017, Bushnell said that his experience with arcade games, which sell for about $1,500 to $2,000 per machine, sparked his desire to open a pizzeria featuring the games, each of which would gross up to $50,000. in coins during his lifetime.

Bushnell said she was also inspired by a family trip to Disneyland, and particularly the Tiki Room, an attraction featuring animatronic birds, tiki gods and flowers.

“We can do this,” Bushnell remembers thinking at the time. “But it would be nice to have a mascot.”

At first, the mascot was supposed to be a coyote, and Mr. Bushnell was going to call his new business Coyote Pizza. Bushnell, who declined to be interviewed, told Smithsonian that he went out and bought a costume of what he thought was a coyote.

“I took this to my engineers,” Bushnell said. “I said, ‘Make this guy talk.’”

But a problem arose: the costume Bushnell bought was not a coyote, but a mouse with a tail.

“I had never seen it below the waist,” he said.

Bushnell considered keeping the rat costume and changing the name of his restaurant and arcade to Rick’s Rat Pizza, but was persuaded to avoid the optics of having “rat” in the name. Bushnell decided to name the place Chuck E. Cheese. (Charles Entertainment Cheese, according to the company.)

The first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater opened on May 17, 1977, in San Jose, California. It was designed as a place “where you could go, eat, play and spend family time together,” McKillips said.

“The Animatronics,” he added, “were a band that played covers and original songs.”

The band had different iterations, but Chuck E. Cheese, Helen Henny, Mr. Munch, Jasper T. Jowls and Pasqually were the mainstays. Some locations had versions of the band called Studio C, with only Chuck E. playing solo.

Chuck E. Cheese in Los Angeles’ Northridge neighborhood will keep its five-piece band, while the Nanuet, NY location will have a Studio C.

Today, Chuck E. Cheese has more than 600 locations in 16 countries, with more to come. The network’s popularity spilled over into pop culture, attracting loose references in video games, films and TV shows, including an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in which the gang visits Risk E. Rat’s Pizza and Amusement Center.

The horror film “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” released last year, follows a night security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza as he battles a vengeful group of animatronic characters. The film was released a few weeks before Chuck E. Cheese announced the end of its animatronic bands, leading many to speculate that the horror film spurred the company’s decision. The company said at the time that this was not the case.

For anyone born since the mid-1970s, visiting a Chuck E. Cheese seems like part of American childhood. As the chain modernizes and launches its animatronic band, Kristy Linares, 33, general manager of Chuck E. Cheese in Paramus, NJ, said little has changed.

The Paramus location no longer has an animatronic band and was recently renovated with more TVs, a digital dance floor and a trampoline gym, but Linares, who sometimes takes her children there, said the kids still eat pizza and play as they always do. “Chuck E. Cheese is still the same,” she said.

Officials said they have seen children shift their attention to screen-based games in recent years. Leana Gil, 17, a birthday party coordinator in Paramus, said she noticed that children “gravitate towards the things of their time”, citing a much-loved Paw Patrol game as an example.

Rubenstein, general manager at Hempstead, said the interactive on-screen games were a success.

“That’s where the future is moving,” she said.

In yet another adaptation for the digital age, the chain is eliminating numbered manual stamps for visitors, which are checked upon departure to prevent children from moving away or leaving with someone they did not arrive with. Instead, a family selfie will be taken on entry and checked on exit.

On a recent Wednesday, Maricel de los Reyes took her son Sam to Chuck E. Cheese in Paramus. It was their first visit since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and the first without the band.

Did they miss it?

“No, I don’t think it was a big deal for us,” she said, as Sam went off to play. “It was more the games, the food and just spending time here.”