The show part of ShowBiz Pizza Place was a group of animatronic performers, known as The Rock-afire Explosion. What made up the biz of ShowBiz was what seemed like acres, from a 5 year old child’s perspective, of arcade cabinets and ticket spitting games. It was within this church, dedicated to the worship of pizza and video games, that I was indoctrined with a belief in gaming. With unique marketing tactics targeted at children and parents’ wallets, Showbiz was my Neverland.
In the mid 80s, school days for me were a difficult time, consisting of frustration and confusion, due to my parents’ recent divorce and my mother’s new marriage. I had a lot on my mind but not the capacity, at the time, to sort it all out. School structure was brand new to me and my prior preschool experiences were, let’s say, urine soaked. What brought me out of the fuzz and opened my eyes to learning was a mix of organized sports (soccer) and motivation for good grades. ShowBiz was a beacon of bliss in my mind and when they started rewarding good grades with tokens for games, I settled in and learned.
Living in the same state that ShowBiz was founded didn’t hurt the amount of marketing exposure my folks and I received. “ShowBiz Pizza, where a kid could be a kid!” was a simple but true slogan when paired with self-serve fountain drinks, pizza and arcade cabinets flashing colors that would create pure childhood ecstasy – it was like a rave for young adults. With an improvement in my grades came an increase in tokens, which transferred over to even more trips to ShowBiz. Birthday parties for me, or anyone in my immediate family, were to be held in the palace of pizza. The amount of excuses to go to ShowBiz pizza started to pile up like the tokens in my pocket. ShowBiz had figured out the formula for getting kids in the building but sadly, hadn’t figured how to capitalize on it.
The Rock-afire Explosion, a band made up of animatronic gorillas, bears and mice, were ahead of its time from a technology and presentation standpoint. For a kid, seeing your first Rock-afire Explosion show was similar to a first encounter with an alien. They were frightening yet fascinating, a curiosity. They were also very expensive to create and operate, which eventually lead to the downfall of ShowBiz in its original state. As awe inducing as the Rock-afire were, my little legs, fueled with an endless supply of caffeine and sugar, always took me away from the stage and straight to the arcade cabinets.
The lights and sounds I saw on the screens of these armoire sized gaming hangars fascinated me more than anything in the building, or in any other building. The Rock-afire Explosion were technically ahead of their time, but it was the rows of arcade games that had a future. I grew older; ShowBiz and variations of it were no longer my Neverland, but the games that grew out of arcades still allowed me to believe in fairies.
Interested in more about ShowBiz and its history? Check out the documentary (now streaming on Netflix) entitled The Rock-afire Explosion and the fan site www.showbizpizza.com.