From Bankruptcies to Backstabbing, the Story of Chuck E. Cheese Has It All
Nolan Bushnell, creator of Chuck E. Cheese, poses in one of the company's franchises in 1985. Image: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

From Bankruptcies to Backstabbing, the Story of Chuck E. Cheese Has It All

An Atari founder came up with the Chuck E. Cheese concept to promote Atari games, and it only got weirder from there.
January 5, 2017, 5:15pm

Re-Exposure is an occasional Motherboard feature where we look back on delightful old tech photos from wire service archives.

It's not too common these days to see an arcade exist separately from another kind of entertainment—that is, there's usually some kind of dining experience that comes with the video games in 2017. We have the guy behind some of the earliest video games to credit for that.

Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, came up with the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre concept in 1977, initially as an effort to promote Atari's own games. After Bushnell left the Warner-owned Atari, he bought out the rights to the concept and it became his primary meal ticket for a time. (Above, Bushnell is shown in an 1980s-era promotional photo.)

Read more: The Founder of Atari Wants You to Embrace Our Robotic Future

Pizza Time was noted for its ability to mesh food, animatronic characters, and video games into a single experience. (It was also, with its mascot Chuck E. Cheese, ahead of the pizza rat meme by more than 35 years.) But it could be a bit of sensory overload for people not used to computers—usually parents more than kids.

"Pizza Time is a whirling combination of garish lights and nonstop electronic noise that is quite unlike any other pizza parlor or video game arcade. It is part Star Wars, part Disneyland, and part social phenomenon," InfoWorld's Scott Mace wrote in 1981, in an special section titled "Countering Computerphobia."

The concept of Pizza Time was an important one, and set the stage for similar concepts like Dave & Busters, which was founded in 1982. But fast expansion and financial losses caused the firm to default on a $50 million bond in early 1984, forcing the chain's bankruptcy. Bushnell bailed out just before that happened.

Fortunately, another chain with a similar concept was ready to help. Showbiz Pizza Place—which came about in 1980 after a planned Pizza Time franchisee abruptly backed out of a contract due to concerns that competing animatronic technology would outpace what Bushnell had created—had quickly grown into major competitor of Pizza Time. The rivalry, for a time, was strong. And when Pizza Time went bankrupt, Showbiz, with its mascot bear Billy Bob Brockali, was ready to save the day.

The chains eventually merged, and that's how we got the modern day Chuck E. Cheese.