Did you know that the restaurant and entertainment chain Chuck E. Cheese’s was originally part of the video game company Atari? While today we know the chain for kids’ parties and occasional adult drunken brawls, the chain had its origins in the carnival summer jobs of Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. It helped to make video games mainstream, and fueled the animatronic nightmares of multiple generations of children.
How did the original party begin? To celebrate the chain’s 40th birthday, Fast Company looked back at its origins.
1. Founder Bushnell was talking to friends and colleagues about starting a restaurant with a carnival-like atmosphere before he ever thought about making video games.
2. One early purpose for the chain was to let families and kids play arcade games — you know, the kind Atari made — in an environment other than a teenager-infested arcade. News reports at the time told of scary things that happened at regular arcades, like marijuana use and interracial dancing.
3. The character Chuck E. Cheese began as a gray rat named Rick Rat or Big Cheese, and served as an Atari mascot for a time. Bushnell claims that the character was supposed to be a coyote, but he kept the rat costume anyway.
4. Rick/Chuck became a mouse once plans for a pizza restaurant became real. Gene Landrum, the marketing executive who developed the restaurant concept and was in charge for the first few years, had pointed out that a rat wasn’t really approriate for a family restaurant mascot.
“We can’t have a rat,” he said. “A rat is too predatory and too lethal.”
5. Bushnell left Atari a few years after Warner purchased the company and he was unhappy. and the restaurant idea, by then called Pizza Time Theatre, gave him a project to work on that didn’t violate his non-compete clause.
6. The animatronic characters were mounted in living “portraits” on the walls, and the show ran in an 8-minute loop. The original idea was for the show to entertain adults while they waited for pizza, and the jokes verged into PG territory for that reason. Kids, of course, would be playing the arcade games.
7. Pizza Time Theatre began under Atari, and Bushnell bought the intellectual property and the first restaurant from Warner for $500,000. In 1979, he left the company and began developing it as a business that could expand and be franchised.
8. Knockoff restaurants proliferated across the country, including a Rocky and Bullwinkle-themed one. That craze mostly died out, but Showbiz Pizza, a chain started by a franchisee who developed his own similar characters and concept instead, thrived. It was still doing fine even after a legal fight with Pizza Time Theatre meant it had to share profits with its competitor.
9. An over-expanded Chuck E. Cheese’s filed for bankruptcy in 1984, and the following year, Showbiz Pizza purchased the chain, and the more dominant Chuck E. Cheese’s brand won out. The restaurants adopted that name. The company still survives with around 500 restaurants.