Band of Puppets
A CultureMap®
by Nicholas DeRenzo
Published on 3/31/14

For one glorious moment in the 1970s and ’80s, after the era of Walt Disney’s animated classics and before the unholy rise of computer-generated imaging in films and TV, puppets dominated American family entertainment. Call it the golden age of felt, led by Jim Henson’s Muppets and the wonders at Disneyland, when the animatronic house bands at Chuck E. Cheese’s and ShowBiz Pizza Place, the Rock-afire Explosion, fought for kids’ attention—and musical supremacy.

Start reading >>

Chuck E. Cheese’s  (American restaurant chain | est. 1977)
to  ShowBiz Pizza Place  (American restaurant chain | 1980–1992)

Mention Chuck E. Cheese to a Rock-afire Explosion fan and don’t be surprised if you see tears: For kids of the 1980s, the alliteratively named rat’s corporate takeover of ShowBiz Pizza Place’s animatronic band is one of the most traumatizing events in arcade history. So how did it all go down? Created in 1980 by Whac-A-Mole inventor Aaron Fechter, the Rock-afire Explosion was the house band at ShowBiz, a Southern-fried rival to the rockin’ rat, featuring the same mix of generic pizza, caffeinated kids and blinking arcade games. Fechter’s Orlando-based Creative Engineering churned out hundreds of band setups throughout the 1980s, but production, operation and maintenance of the robots proved too costly. After merging with bankrupt Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, the ShowBiz brand underwent a downright dystopian transformation in the name of “concept unification”; starting in 1990, the faux-fur skins and rubber faces of the Rock-afire bandmates were replaced with those of Chuck E. Cheese and the Munch’s Make Believe Band. The Rock-afire Explosion all but disappeared, save for a few sets that lived on in unofficial theme parks, international fairs, loyalists’ basements and even some holdout ShowBiz Pizza Places in destinations as far-flung as Lebanon and Kuwait.

Chuck E. Cheese’s  (American restaurant chain | est. 1977)
to  Disneyland  (American theme park | est. 1955)

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s, holds a special place in the pantheon of arcade game designers: In 1972, he founded Atari, which developed such early classics as Pong, Asteroids, Missile Command and Centipede. Though Atari’s home gaming consoles eventually kept kids glued to their TVs, Bushnell got his start working outdoors—at Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington, Utah, where he began as a carnival weight guesser and moved up to park games manager. After graduating from engineering school, Bushnell dreamed of working in Disneyland’s research department, which he felt was on the cutting edge of technology even though the park was famed for what could be thought of as frivolous entertainment. But Disneyland wasn’t hiring recent graduates, so he packed up and moved to pre–Silicon Valley Santa Clara. He opened the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose in 1977, with a vaudeville-style animatronic revue directly influenced by Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree. In fact, Chuck E. Cheese’s president Gene Landrum insisted his company’s pizza parlors bring the Disneyland experience directly to American families in their own neighborhoods. Is it any coincidence they chose an anthropomorphic rodent as their mascot?

The Muppets  (American puppets | est. 1955)
to  Disneyland  (American theme park | est. 1955)

In the eyes of hard-core Rock-afire Explosion fans, Chuck E. Cheese’s unceremoniously conquered ShowBiz Pizza Place through the “concept unification” of the companies, which merged in 1984. A significantly friendlier prospect was the temporary “Muppetization” of Disneyland, proposed the following year. The park’s then president, Jack Lindquist, envisioned a grand marketing stunt to announce Disney’s acquisition of the Muppets. The plan was for Mickey Mouse and friends to hand over the keys to the kingdom to Kermit the Frog, following Disneyland’s elaborate 35th anniversary celebrations in 1990, and take a much-needed vacation. The newly minted Muppetland would’ve seen many Kermit-approved changes: the Matterhorn roller coaster painted green, Muppets appearing on rides along with other animatronic characters, Miss Piggy replacing Cleopatra in the It’s a Small World ride and Animal becoming a pillager and plunderer in Pirates of the Caribbean. A 3-D Muppet movie was to replace the audio-animatronic stage show “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” permanently. Negotiations were underway when Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990, and the plan was officially scrapped later that year. Though the Walt Disney Company partnered on projects with the Muppets throughout the 1990s, Disney didn’t put a ring on it until 2004.

The Muppets  (American puppets | est. 1955)
to  Jim Henson  (1936–1990 | American puppeteer)

Walt Disney and Jim Henson were the defining voices in 20th-century family entertainment, though Henson told his tales using the centuries-old art of puppetry instead of cartoons. What set Henson apart from the Punches, Judys and Howdy Doodys of the world were his subtly brilliant design breakthroughs. Henson’s ventriloquistic creations—beloved in such shows as Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Show—are, quite frankly, no dummies. Compared with talking, handheld puppets of yore, the Muppets are infinitely more expressive. For one, Henson’s puppeteers work offscreen, so characters function as independent beings rather than props. And the Muppets’ faces are molded from foam rubber (rather than carved from wood), which allows a wider range of emotions as well as the ability to “pronounce” words rather than simply clamping their mouths open and closed. Several puppeteers often work in tandem to control a single Muppet, allowing for intricate, complex movements. Some Muppets’ hands, for example, are worn by the puppeteers like gloves, while the Muppets’ fuzzy arms are controlled with sticks instead of marionette strings. The result is a set of characters that are at once wholly fantastical yet also believably alive.

The Muppets  (American puppets | est. 1955)
to  Labyrinth  (Jim Henson (dir.) | film | 1986)

David Bowie may get top billing, and young star Jennifer Connelly would grow up to win an Oscar, but ask any fan who the real stars of Jim Henson’s fantasy Labyrinth are and the obvious answer is the enormous cast of goblins, dwarves, mechanical guards, a talking worm, a doglike knight and the mischievous Fireys. But these puppets are far from Muppet-like. They’re dark, creepy and utterly bizarre, yet somehow more realistic than Kermit and Co. Though the Muppets and the Labyrinth dwellers all come from the brain of Jim Henson, they fall into two distinct branches of the puppet taxonomic chart. On one side: goofy, colorful Muppets. On the other: so-called Creatures, crafted by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and often much more representational than their cartoonish cousins. Famous Creature examples include the barnyard animals in the Babe films (1995, 1998), the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in their first two live-action movies (1990, 1991) and the Sinclair family from the sitcom Dinosaurs (1991–1994). The Henson Creatures don’t have to be real animals, but they quite often look so convincingly organic that you could almost believe they really exist—if on some weird, undiscovered planet.

Labyrinth  (Jim Henson (dir.) | film | 1986)
to  Jim Henson  (1936–1990 | American puppeteer)

After his 1982 fantasy The Dark Crystal was considered too, well, dark for kids, Jim Henson returned to more well-trodden territory. In Labyrinth, a teenager named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must make her way through a magical maze filled with goblins to rescue her baby half brother from Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie). Despite a mythical setting similar to that of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth borrows more from Henson’s Muppet roots. Like Sesame Street, Labyrinth revolves around interactions between puppets and people (The Dark Crystal had no human characters). And just as each week’s Muppet Show relied heavily on the star power of its Hollywood host, Henson’s film needed an over-the-top presence to anchor it. Henson considered Michael Jackson and Sting before eventually hiring Bowie. The tone of the film is light and fun, buoyed by goofy humor and elaborate musical numbers. But to Henson’s disbelief and despair, Labyrinth opened to mixed reviews and made back only half of its $25 million budget at the domestic box office. The movie was Henson’s last—and his biggest commercial and critical flop. The silver lining? A whole new generation of fans later adopted Labyrinth as a beloved cult classic.

The Muppets  (American puppets | est. 1955)
to  Chuck E. Cheese’s  (American restaurant chain | est. 1977)

On the faux-fur surface, the house bands of The Muppet Show (Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem) and Chuck E. Cheese’s (Munch’s Make Believe Band) look awfully similar, but they represent opposite ends of the musical spectrum. The Electric Mayhem brims with classic rock references: Bassist Sgt. Floyd Pepper, for example, is pink (get it?) and wears a military-inspired uniform reminiscent of those on the Beatles’ iconic album cover, while saxophonist Zoot resembles Argentine jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri. As Valley girl guitarist Janice might say, “It’s all about the music, man.”

Munch’s Make Believe Band is the prepackaged boy band of puppet music—a callous marketing gimmick cobbled together for peak popularity. Take, for instance, the sad case of Helen Henny, who debuted spoofing 1970s singing star Helen Reddy, then became a Broadway singer, then Chuck’s pigtailed girlfriend, all before getting tarted up in a cheerleading uniform. Even the Big Cheese himself wasn’t safe from the changing winds of pop tastes. Over the years, he has morphed from a cigar-chomping wiseguy to a tuxedoed MC to a skater (!) and eventually a cartoon rock star. Not even his species was sacred: Today the old rat is a cute, cuddly mouse.

ShowBiz Pizza Place  (American restaurant chain | 1980–1992)
to  The Muppets  (American puppets | est. 1955)

After Chuck E. Cheese’s acquired ShowBiz Pizza Place, in 1990, the Rock-afire Explosion robots sat lifeless in crates for almost 20 years. Then superfan Chris Thrash found a complete set, dusted them off and, as they say, got the band back together. In a series of popular YouTube videos, he meticulously reprogrammed the Rock-afires to perform songs by Bubba Sparxxx and Usher, leading to 2008’s Rock-afire Explosion, a rock doc charting the band’s rise, fall and dramatic resurgence. Thrash’s videos attracted the attention of indie songsters MGMT and Mayer Hawthorne, and CeeLo Green even used the Rock-afires as a backing band during the finale of his Las Vegas residency.

The Muppets enjoyed their own indie renaissance with 2011’s Muppets: The Green Album (no relation to CeeLo). Buoyed by OK Go’s version of the Muppet Show theme (and its subsequent viral video), the album featured Weezer’s cover of “The Rainbow Connection” and Andrew Bird’s rendition of “Bein’ Green.” Later that year the Muppet team released a Grammy-nominated, Oscar-winning soundtrack for Jason Segel’s feature relaunch The Muppets, with original music by Flight of the Conchords’s Bret McKenzie and backing vocals by indie darlings Feist and Joanna Newsom. Miss Piggy should be jealous.