Chuck E. Cheese was a magical place when I was a kid. It combined the arcade mania of the 80's with kids' unending love of pizza, and threw in an animatronic band to create the ultimate destination for kids' entertainment. But Chuck E. Cheese wasn't one of those restaurants in active rotation in my household, it was reserved mainly for special events. Maybe it was more expensive than normal restaurants... maybe my parents found it annoying (although I'd have fun in a place like that regardless of age)... maybe it was just a convenient card for my mom to play to keep us in line. Regardless, Chuck E. Cheese was up there with Dinosaur Land as one of the happiest places on Earth. Although the arcade games were fun, the big draw for me was the Pizza Time Theatre.
While you took a break from playing Tron, animatronic characters sang for you as you scarfed your pizza. As I remember, they were compartmentalized in their own booths, gyrating to and fro in those jerky movements that animatronic robots are wont to do. The principle characters seem to have changed over time, but the ones I remember were Chuck E. Cheese, Jasper T. Jowls, Pasqually, and my main man Mr. Munch. Check out the promo video below to see the puppets in action.
So do any Chuck E. Cheese restaurants still showcase animatronic singers? I guess so. YouTube has quite a few videos that look pretty modern so it seems like there are at least some locations that have robots. But if you have the nostalgia itch, there are also lots of YouTube videos featuring the classic Chuck E. Cheese and the Pizza Time Players performing. The robots in the video below are actually from a private collection. Here I am collecting 25-cent tokens and this dude has the actual animatronic band. Incredible. But speaking of tokens...
The TokensI managed to score a few auctions with numerous tokens from different eras so we can see the evolution of the token (as well as Chuck E. himself) over time. As far as I can tell, there were four basic types of Chuck E. Cheese tokens. There were variations on the text, font, locations, dates, and color, but only 4 versions of the Chuck E. Cheese head. Considering how much the designs overlapped, the dates below are probably approximate (based on the dates reported at Showbizpizza.com).
The Type A and B designs had two sides with Chuck E. on the heads side and a 25-cent "play value" on the tails. Later tokens had the heads on both sides. Maybe they didn't want to be locked into the 25-cent equivalence so that they could easily increase the play value of a token. Or maybe kids just liked the tokens with Chuck E. on the front and back better.
Type A: Long Nose Derby Hat (1977-1982)
Type B: Front-facing Derby Hat (1983-2000)
Type C: Right-looking Cap (1995-2000) and Type D: Forward-looking C-Cap (2001+)
Unlike most arcade chains, Chuck E. Cheese is still going strong. Maybe I'll drop by sometime and see how Chuck's doing these days.