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Springfield, Illinois Chuck E. Cheese location to retain animatronic band

Chuck E. Cheese keeping animatronic band at one Illinois location
Chuck E. Cheese keeping animatronic band at one Illinois location 00:18

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A Chuck E. Cheese in downstate Illinois will be one of the select few to retain an animatronic band.

In November, Chuck E. Cheese announced that it would be pulling the plug on the animatronic performances at all locations but one in the Northridge neighborhood of Los Angeles – where the company said Munch's Make-Believe Band, as it's known, would retain a "permanent residency."

Chuck E. Cheese also said another location in Nanuet, New York, in Rockland County north of New York City, would retain the animatronic band—and remain a "100% retro store," according to published reports.

But that was to be it.

In recent days, however, Chuck E. Cheese announced that three more locations would be keeping the robot band—including one at the Town & Country Shopping Center at 2369 S. MacArthur Blvd. in Springfield, the state capital. Also on the list to keep the band are Chuck E. Cheese in Hicksville, Long Island, New York, and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Earlier this month, Chuck E. Cheese President and Chief Executive Officer David McKillips told CBS News the company needed to keep up with the times and the interests of today's kids. Thus, the animatronic band was on its way out, while trampoline zones, and floor-to-ceiling Jumbotrons overlooking digital dance floors, were on their way in.

"This is the most exciting time in the brand's 47-year history," McKillips told CBS News. "It's a complete brand transformation here at Chuck E. Cheese."

Active play areas are a major priority, McKillips said.

"Most importantly for mom, it's bright, it's clean, and now we've embraced active play installing trampolines in every single one of our locations coast to coast," McKillips told CBS News.

He added that while Chuck E. Cheese has an "incredible legacy of bands," it remains the reality that "like any other great brand, you have to evolve."

Chuck E. Cheese has a grand total of 19 locations in Illinois, including two in Chicago—one in the Riverpoint Shopping Center at 1830 W. Fullerton Ave. along the Chicago River's North Branch, the other at 5030 S. Kedzie Ave. in Gage Park. There are also 12 suburban locations, and five more either downstate or elsewhere in Northern Illinois. Chuck E. Cheese also has a location in Merrillville, Indiana.

Chuck E. Cheese dates back over 40 years in Chicago

Chuck E. Cheese was founded in 1977 by Atari's co-founder, Nolan Bushnell, with the first location opening as Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose, California. It was the first family restaurant to marry food with arcade games and animated entertainment.

Say cheese: This little girl smells a rat. Actually a man in a rat's suit. Adam Roberts; the man ins
CANADA - JANUARY 18, 1987: Say cheese: This little girl smells a rat. Actually a man in a rat's suit. Adam Roberts; the man inside; dresses up as Chuck E. Cheese; rodent restaurateur. And he loves his job. The little ones kiss my nose and say: 'I love you Chuckee.' They pass me notes and drawings; he says. John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre arrived in Illinois in 1981, with a location in Loves Park near Rockford. A Chicago location opened a couple of years later at the Harlem-Foster Shopping Center, at 7300 W. Foster Ave. on the city's Northwest Side.

By contrast to today's brightly-lit spaces, Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre back in the 1980s was composed of so many massive, dimly-lit rooms with arcade games, mini-carnival rides, Skee-Ball and Whac-A-Mole, ball pits, and mazes with rope ladders to climb.

The Foster Avenue location featured three different rooms of animatronic musical acts. A main dining room featuring the Pizza Time Players—Jasper T. Jowls, Helen Henny, Pasqually, Mr. Munch, and of course Chuck E. Cheese himself—who back then was depicted as a wisecracking rat with a New Jersey accent and attire that to some suggested a casino pit boss, rather than today's mouse in a skateboarder outfit. Other party rooms featured a band of dogs called "The Beagles," and a lion in a white and gold jumpsuit called "The King"—which mimed along to real recordings of The Beatles and Elvis Presley, respectively. A fourth animatronic act, jazz-singing hippo Dolli Dimples, was the first sight seen upon entering the amusement venue.

An April 1983 Chicago Tribune article held up Chuck E. Cheese as one of a few operations capitalizing on a trend of offering pizza, video games, and other family-friendly entertainment under one roof.

"Combination pizza restaurant/video game parlors have invaded the Chicago area like locusts in the last few months," writer Richard Phillips wrote in the article. "By summer's end, their number may well be doubled."

Chuck E. Cheese's main competitor at the time was ShowBiz Pizza Place—which at the time had just opened a location in Park Ridge as its fifth in the Chicago suburbs. ShowBiz had its own animatronic band known as the Rock-afire Explosion, fronted by a bear character called Billy Bob Brockali.

The article also highlighted a third operation that was strictly local—ShowTime America, previously and subsequently known as Sally's Stage, at 6335 N. Western Ave. across from the Nortown movie theater in West Rogers Park. Sally's Stage did not have any animatronics—it was famous for its Barton theater pipe organ and hostesses on a roller skate track. But Phillips' article did note that as of April 1983—while under the ShowTime America name—Sally's did feature free video games for patrons and "Roger, a remote-control robot, who [when functional] impresses kids with questions and dispenses free tickets for sundaes."

Of these, only Chuck E. Cheese remains—and not the one on Foster Avenue, which later became a Little Ceasar's Caesarland and is now a Planet Fitness gym. ShowBiz and Chuck E. Cheese merged after Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre filed for bankruptcy in 1984—and while they went on as separate concepts for a while, the Chuck E. Cheese name had prevailed for the whole operation by the early 90s. The site where Sally's Stage once stood is now occupied by a Hanmi Bank. 

As of August of last year, Chuck E. Cheese operated 568 corporate and franchised locations, as well as 122 Peter Piper Pizza restaurants. 

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