Showbiz Pizza was one of the most important cultural institutions of the 1980’s. That is, if you were a kid.
It was part pizza place, part arcade, and part live concert. The game room was divided with one wall being skee ball, the other being the light gun games and the rest all video games. (Later they added a little kids section with whack a mole and rides).
Showbiz was around during the height of video game mania. This was the era of Pac Man and Dig Dug, when games only cost a quarter and were fun. They survived through the introduction of Dragon’s Lair (the Don Bluth animated game played on laserdiscs) and even had commercials advertising the fact that they now had the game.
Friday and Saturday nights, I would often go with my family and I loved it. We’d order the pizza and wait in the dining room. There, they had a stage show with audio animatronic animals playing music. The band was known as THE ROCK-AFIRE EXPLOSION. I always loved Fats, the gorilla on keyboards.
Watching Billy Bob, the bear, and his friends in the stage show we would look at the monitors for our number to be called telling us the pizza (that was actually good) was ready. After we ate, we would be allowed to run off to the game room, only returning to get more money for tokens.
We would go regularly up until I was in middle school in the mid 80’s. By that time, I had grown out of it. Plus, the multiple token games had taken over. Arcades were slowly dying out.
That Showbiz I visited was eventually converted into a Chuck E. Cheese. It is still there today in the same location, over twenty five years later. In fact, after my sister had her first child, we couldn’t wait for her to be old enough to take there. Unfortunately, when we went, it wasn’t the same. While the dining room and stage show were still similar, the game room was cut in a fifth, sold off to another store in the strip mall. There were less than a dozen games, and only three skee ball lanes. And the pizza? Terrible.
The new documentary THE ROCK-AFIRE EXPLOSION brings all this back to me. This is a look at Showbiz and the fans of the restaurant that try to keep the magic of the house band alive.
Chris Thrash loved the band enough that he has bought an entire stage show and set them up in a builidng behind his Alabama house. He programs new shows for the band, and posts them on Youtube. This brought the memories to life for many around the world and created a new fan base for the band and characters.
The Rock-afire Explosion was created by an inventor by the name of Aaron Fechtner. Fechtner had previously created the Whack A Mole game in the mid 70's, only to have it stolen from him. After experimenting with audio animatronic characters, he developed Billy Bob and friends. With a group of developers, Showbiz Pizza was born in the early 80’s, and by 1983, there were 200 restaurants across the country. And then the company ran out of money.
THE ROCK-AFIRE EXPLOSION follows these characters and others, talking about their love of Showbiz. The fans long for the simpler time of the 80’s, where they could look forward to their trips to the restaurant.
In recent years, there has been a new genre of films, the “obsessive fan” documentary. From AMERICAN MOVIE, TREKKIES, CINEMANIA, CHASING GHOSTS and THE KING OF KONG, these have become some of my favorite films of recent years. THE ROCK-AFIRE EXPLOSION is a worthy entry into this genre.
This is a surprisingly moving documentary, with an extremely effective music score. There is a sequence toward the end where Fechtner gives a tour of the now abandoned warehouse where his designers, fired decades before, created the characters, that is just heartbreaking. Tools have remained in the same place for years, molds for the characters are still on the shelf. There are even crates containing unopened Rock-afire Explosion shows that have been unsold since 1983.
Will this film appeal to those that have no memory of Showbiz Pizza? I can’t answer that. Showbiz was such a big part of the early 80’s for me that I may be more of its target audience than most.
If you know the restaurant and remember Billy Bob, this is a wonderful film.
WHAT IS ON THE DVD?
The DVD contains forty minutes of deleted scenes. All of these are worthwhile. There is a lengthy and fascinating bit with Thrash giving a behind the scenes tour of how the band is set up, showing how the air compressors work and how he programs the shows. Also Fechtner tells the story behind Whack A Mole and how it was stolen from him.
SHOULD I BUY IT?
If you remember Showbiz, you must see this film.
THE ROCK-AFIRE EXPLOSION is available on DVD exclusively from their website, www.rockafiremovie.com.