In the empty dining area of Chuck E. Cheese’s, a woman is yelling into her phone. “I will beat you up and kick your child down the stairs.” I hope she’s joking, but it doesn’t sound like it. The woman paces beside a long table decked out with birthday plates and cups. On the nearby stage, Chuck E. Cheese’s animatronic band stands frozen in midgesture, like one of those ’80s sitcom intros where characters can stop time. When the animals finally groan back to life, they sing an old chestnut about magical children’s gifts: “Toyland, toyland, beautiful girl- and boy-land.” It’s impossibly creepy. Like, I think this may be what you see before you die.
I have come to the Airport Freeway location of the fabled children’s entertainment complex in Irving, which for much of its 34 years has been run from the nearby headquarters. This de facto flagship location is nothing fancy—tucked away beside the Irving Mall, boasting the drab carpet and fluorescent lighting of an industrial office space. It’s kind of a drag to see this place as an adult. Then again, seeing this place as an adult misses the point entirely.
It was 1 pm on Sunday when I arrived to pick up my friend Mary. “Good, you don’t look like a pedophile,” she said, glancing at my wool skirt and sweater. We’d been warned by friends who have kids that showing up to Chuck E. Cheese’s without our own munchkins could look suspicious. Both single women in our 30s, we were feeling self-conscious as we headed out. What would this place be like after all these years? “I have my Xanax and my earplugs,” Mary said. “Let’s go.”
As we drove out toward 183, I couldn’t shake a familiar swell of anticipation. It was some helpless callback to a moment when there was no more exciting destination than the bleeping, blooping paradise of Chuck E. Cheese’s. Well, maybe there was one: Crystal’s Pizza, a glittering Victorian fun house whose last standing location is blocks away on Airport Freeway. (Time has not been kind to it.) This was back in the early 1980s, when arcade games had exploded in popularity and places like Chuck E. Cheese’s had just been introduced as a trendy alternative to the old-school Americana of bumper cars and carousels. For a kid back then, it was mind blowing, as though some crazy genius had bottled up all the frenzy and possibility of Disney World, and plopped it down on a slice of Texas asphalt.
Actually, it was a crazy genius who created Chuck E. Cheese’s—Nolan Bushnell, though history may remember him better for inventing a little thing called the Atari. Bushnell wanted a wholesome environment in which his pixilated galaxies could be enjoyed. Thus, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre was born, opening in San Jose, California, in 1977. The concept—later copied by Bushnell’s former business partner when he opened Showbiz Pizza—made a natural addition to Reagan-era concrete sprawl. And despite several reinventions, the inside of Chuck E. Cheese’s still feels so ’80s—with its wild neon and the clunky animatronics and kitschy games like The Price Is Right’s Plinko or a life-size version of the board game Operation.
Still, like walking into your childhood home after decades of being gone, it’s hard not to zero in exclusively on what’s changed. Classic arcades like Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man and Asteroids have been booted in favor of brand tie-ins from The Simpsons, Jurassic Park, and Deal or No Deal.
“This used to be Pop-a-Shot,” Mary said, slipping a token into NBA Hoops and starting to drop shots through the net. The change is depressing, because everyone believes his childhood was the best and feels a low-down sadness that kids won’t experience the world as he did. But to walk into Chuck E. Cheese’s is also to wrestle with the irrational potency of your own nostalgia: was it really all that better when we were younger? And why? Sniffing about the one-time authenticity of a restaurant engineered to sell product sounds like an Onion satire. “Back when I was a kid, we had to walk a mile in the snow to play Q*bert.”
Anyway, NBA Hoops turned out to be equally as entertaining as Pop-a-Shot, based on Mary’s inability to walk away from it. “Hold on, one more,” she said, as yet another token went cha-chunk.
Honestly, what struck me most about the games was how addictive they were. While I was playing Skee-Ball, the pleasure centers of my brain lit up, and my focus narrowed in on that 500-point hole like I was saving a cat from a burning building. My adrenaline jacked up as tickets spit out, and, soon, I was ravenous for them. What games would give me the most tickets? I needed more. When I spied two strays sticking out of a machine, I ripped them off for myself. I stole tickets from children. What the hell was wrong with me? I’m that desperate for, like, a plastic bookmark?
A parent friend of mine complains that Chuck E. Cheese’s whips kids into a frenzy. It’s hard to argue with that. One of the restaurant’s trademarks is a life-size booth into which the birthday child steps while tickets swirl around madly. It’s a rush just watching it.
But in the past five years, it’s the adults, not the kids, who have made headlines for crazy behavior at Chuck E. Cheese’s. A 2008 Wall Street Journal article detailed a series of violent skirmishes. And later, in 2010, there was even a shooting at a location in the Midwest. It’s hard to deny this noisy, ever-crowded place is overstimulating for everyone. And in December 2011, adult misconduct at Chuck E. Cheese’s took on new meaning when nine locations in San Francisco were fined for child labor violations.
The previous night, at a bar, a friend of mine had floated his theory that Chuck E. Cheese’s inspired hipster spots like Barcadia on Henderson Avenue, where classic games share space with import beer, a can’t-miss concept that has popped up in most urban areas from Brooklyn to Seattle. He’s got a point. But what Chuck E. Cheese’s really looks and feels like is Las Vegas—the constant distraction, the coin-guzzling machines, the 24-hour party patter that masks anything underneath. In May 2011, one woman even sued the company for instilling gambling habits in children.
But I don’t think Chuck E. Cheese’s turns our kids into gamblers any more than NBA Hoops turns them into basketball stars. The truth is, all the ticket hoarding honed my math skills. The games fine-tuned my reflexes and pattern recognition. Or maybe they taught me nothing, aside from the importance of walking away from a rush that will always be there.
Back in the birthday booth, the woman once yelling into her phone has calmed down. She is seated with her family and her son, who has just turned another year older. The door beside the stage swings open, and a real-live Chuck E. Cheese saunters out to wish the little boy a happy birthday. It is so hokey. But I’m not the intended audience. Besides, even a cynic like me can’t help but be moved when I see the look in the little boy’s eyes as he throws his arms around that strange person in the ridiculous costume. Pure joy.
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