The Rock-afire Explosion

Fatz Geronimo

The Rock-afire Explosion is an animatronic robot band that played in Showbiz Pizza Place from 1980 to 1990, and in various Showbiz Pizza locations between 1990 and 1992 as Showbiz rebranded and the band was steadily replaced by Chuck E. Cheese characters. The characters in The Rock-afire Explosion were various animals ranging from a dog to a gorilla. They would perform medleys of classic rock, pop, and country music, as well as original compositions.

The show was a pioneer in commercial animatronics in the 1980s, featuring life-sized characters capable of facial expression; some were even programmed in such a way that they could actually play simple melodies on musical instruments. The show was created and manufactured by noted inventor Aaron Fechter, through his company Creative Engineering, Inc. in Orlando, Florida; in addition to overseeing the production of the animatronics, Fechter also provided the voices for several characters.

In 2008, Aaron Fechter reintroduced the ensemble as a cover band for a variety of pop, rock, and hip-hop groups, including acts ranging from the mid 20th century to the present. Reprogramming the tried and true Rock-afire characters to lay down new beats and vocals, Fechter reached new and younger audiences and also reconnected with the older audience the band had originally entertained in Showbiz Pizza restaurants nationwide.

Production of the programming and audio for the show was done in-house by Creative Engineering. All Rock-afire shows were produced completely in-house, with Creative Engineering employees not only manufacturing the characters, but also writing and performing their songs and skits.

Unlike other animatronic shows of the early 1980s, the Rock-afire Explosion was designed to be life-sized, with most of the performers being about the size of an average adult human. Additionally, Fechter implemented the use of latex masks for the characters’ faces, as opposed to the rubber and styrofoam masks common in animatronics of the time. The latex masks were designed to fit over various movable parts, permitting them a range of facial expressions, including smiling and the raising of eyebrows. Fechter also implemented computer programming that permitted some of the characters to move in rhythm with music.

ShowBiz Pizza Place was similar to (and competed with) Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, another restaurant chain that was popular in other parts of the United States. In the mid-1980s, both venues began to suffer financial difficulties, partially due to the video game crash of 1983 and also due to Showbiz Pizza’s having opened more restaurants than they could afford to maintain. When ‘Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre’ filed for bankruptcy in 1984, Showbiz Pizza bought the company, hoping that new talent and merchandising opportunities could save both companies.

The corporation maintained the two restaurant chains simultaneously for several years. Each continued its own stage shows and sold different merchandise. However, in the latter part of the decade, relations between Creative Engineering and Showbiz began to cool. In 1988, Aaron Fechter claimed that the fallout between his company and Showbiz arose when they asked him to sign away the licensing and copyrights to the Rock-afire Explosion, which would have allowed Showbiz to cut production costs on the show, such as manufacture of future shows and royalty payments to Creative Engineering. Fechter refused, both on the grounds that Showbiz offered no monetary compensation for the rights, and because Fechter had hoped to franchise Rock-afire out as a cartoon series.

Showbiz began toying with the idea of replacing The Rock-afire Explosion with licensed characters, such as Spider-Man or Garfield, and three locations actually retrofitted the robots at stage left into Yogi Bear and Boo Boo. Ultimately, the company decided to enact a process called ‘concept unification,’ in which all Showbiz Pizza locations would be remodeled into Chuck E. Cheeses. The remodel included the elimination of all Rock-afire characters from merchandise and advertising and retrofitting/reprogramming the Rock-afire Explosion robots into a new show called ‘Munch’s Make Believe Band’ featuring the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre characters. Unused animatronics and props were either sold off to other restaurants or destroyed.

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