The Rock-afire Explosion
|The Rock-afire Explosion|
|Origin||Orlando, Florida, United States|
|Genres||Rock and roll, pop, psychedelic rock, modern music, country music|
|Years active||1980–1992, 2011-present|
|Website||Creative Engineering home page.|
|Members||Billy Bob Brockali
|Past members||Uncle Klunk
Statue of Liberty
|Keyboard, Electric guitar, Drumset, Bass guitar, Cymbal|
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 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.
Following the completion of rebranding, the show was sold to other restaurants and entertainment centers, such as Circus Pizza, Pistol Pete's Pizza, and Billy Bob's Wonderland. 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 pioneering in many respects to other animatronics shows of the early 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. At the end of the show's tenure, Chuck E. Cheese marketing director Jul Kamen credited Rock-afire with being largely responsible for Showbiz's financial success.
In 2008, original Rock-afire Explosion creator and technical engineer 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 re-connected with the older audience the band had originally entertained in Showbiz Pizza restaurants nationwide.
Production of the show
Production of the programming and audio for the show was done in-house by Creative Engineering, Inc. in Orlando, Florida. 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 on the characters' faces, 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, making it theoretically possible for them to play actual instruments.
|The following voice actors portrayed the characters of the The Rock-Afire Explosion.|
- Billy Bob Brockali – Bass / Vocals. A bear in overalls, he was the mascot for ShowBiz Pizza Place throughout its existence, and his image was on most of the chain's merchandise. Sweet and naive, Billy Bob was usually a mediator to the band's minor on-stage quabbles.
- Looney Bird – Vocals. Looney Bird shares Billy Bob's stage. His head is the only thing ever seen, the rest of him supposedly hiding in an oil drum. Some shows featured a segment where Looney Bird would answer fan mail; for this, the robot was retrofitted to include a pair of hands which popped up holding a piece of paper for him to read. Looney Bird was originally portrayed as a drunk, but went on to become a tech nerd
- Dook LaRue – Drums / Vocals. A dog who aspired to space travel; his costume was an astronaut suit. A bit of a dimwit, Dook would often lose focus during shows and miss his cues. He would respond to questions with a caustic "What?" The character is unique in that, when set up properly, he has the ability to actually play a 4 piece drum kit in time with the music.
- Fatz Geronimo – Keyboards / Vocals. A silverback gorilla. He is a parody of real-life entertainers Fats Domino and Ray Charles. Unofficial band front man, Fatz had a tendency to ramble. He introduced the most shows and ordered other band members around, leading him and Rolfe into many arguments.
- Beach Bear – Guitar / Vocals. Beach Bear is a "surfer" polar bear. Beach Bear would usually make sarcastic comments or ask other characters questions to throw off their act, but never in mean spirits.
- Mitzi Mozzarella – Vocals. Mitzi is a mouse and a cheerleader. A typical teenager, Mitzi was considered "loose" by the rest of the Rock-afire Explosion, and is obsessed with gossip, boyfriends, pop music, and (appropriate for the time) Michael Jackson.
- Rolfe deWolfe and Earl Schemerle – Located on stage right. Nominally a stand-up comedy act performed in between musical sets; Rolfe is a wolf, and Earl is his sentient ventriloquist dummy. Rolfe also functioned as an antagonist to the Rock-afire group during skits, bossing them around in his role as their unofficial manager.
The show also has several smaller prop characters, as well as characters who were only integrated into the show in certain locations. Many did not have speaking roles: These included an animated Sun and Moon, Antioch the spider, and Choo-Choo the baby bear, who hides in a small tree stump. Additionally, thirty stores were outfitted with "Uncle Klunk," a human character who replaced Rolfe and hosted talk-show segments with his bird sidekick (known as both Click and Murray D. Bird). The Klunks also served to be retrofitted into Santa Claus shows during the holidays.
Later years at ShowBiz and Concept Unification
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 both companies 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.
By 1985, Richard M. Frank had joined the company as CEO and chairman. 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 sour. Aaron Fechter, the founder of Creative Engineering and creator of the Rock-afire Explosion, claimed that the fallout between his company and ShowBiz arose when ShowBiz 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, on the grounds that Showbiz offered no monetary compensation for the rights.
The creative control held by Fechter became stifled, as ShowBiz produced their own tapes for the Rock-afire, using voice impersonators to play the character voices. ShowBiz also learned how to program the characters, thus taking even more creative control away from Fechter.
In 1986, Creative made one final attempt at regaining control over show production by programming and recording their version of the Liberty Showtape, which was produced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. However all of Creative's programming was erased in a "late night celebration". This Rock-afire show led to Creative regaining the recording rights, but ShowBiz never gave back control on programming.
ShowBiz began toying with the idea of adding licensed characters such as Spider-Man or Garfield to the Rock-afire show, and three locations actually replaced Billy Bob and Looney Bird (both at stage left) with Yogi Bear and Boo Boo in 1987. Although Yogi and Boo-Boo's guest appearance at ShowBiz wasn't successful enough to be installed systemwide, the Jellystone Park background on their stage might've became the basis for the Showbiz Pizza Campground, which later replaced the Smitty's Super Service Station background seen behind Billy Bob.
By 1988, TV screens were installed above the Rock-afire stage as the company introduced their new Cyberstar TV screen system. During showtime, the characters were finally shown performing in video, as reel-to-reel formatted tapes began to be used less often.
The changes to the Rock-afire stage were very minor, as the company later decided to enact a process called "Concept Unification," in which all ShowBiz Pizza locations would be remodeled into Chuck E. Cheese's. The remodel included the elimination of all Rock-afire characters from merchandise and advertising and retrofitting/reprogramming the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic 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.
After ties between Creative Engineering and ShowBiz were completely severed, "Concept Unification" began in September 1990 and occurred sporadically at ShowBiz locations for the next two years, with the final ShowBiz being converted in 1992. As concept unification began at each location, the left and center stages of the Rock-afire show were shut down, leaving only the Rolfe and Earl characters operational. The two performed "The Rolfe and Earl Show," featuring the voices of Showbiz employees imitating the characters; the two ran a highlights reel of old Rock-afire shows and wondered aloud what the band would do now, and hinted at the coming Chuck E. Cheese-themed show. "The Rolfe and Earl Show" was the final Rock-afire show; after concept unification had been completed on the center and left stages, Rolfe and Earl were ready to be removed. Rolfe's animatronic was converted into Chuck E. Cheese, while Earl was scrapped. The Rock-afire Explosion days at ShowBiz unfortunately came to an end.
Although Fechter attempted to keep Creative Engineering afloat after being pushed out of the ShowBiz operation, he was ultimately forced to terminate all of his employees, a process he dragged out over the course of several years as he struggled to find new venues for the show. As of 2010, the company was still in operation, with Fechter as its sole employee; Fechter sells both new and unused animatronic equipment in addition to giving tours of the facility. In 2008 he sold one of the last two unused Rock-afire shows to a restaurant in Jordan; the final show has yet to be sold.
Several Rock-afire performers went on to careers of their own: Shalisa James is currently a member of the a cappella group Toxic Audio, while Burt Wilson is now better known as Bubba "Whoop-Ass" Wilson, a member of the The Monsters in the Morning radio show. Both Rick Bailey and Jeff Howell are still active as musicians in the Orlando area.
In the 2000s, spurred by the growing online Rock-afire fan community, Fechter reunited some of the Rock-afire performers and began to program shows set to fan-requested songs. Videos of the performances—posted to YouTube upon completion—are credited with helping to further revive interest in the group and ShowBiz pizza, and spurred individuals who owned their own Rock-afire bands to begin programming new shows themselves.
As of 2011, the animatronic band still exists in a few locations in various states of disrepair, such as Billy Bob's Wonderland in Barboursville, West Virginia. The show appears each year at the fairground on the seafront in Bray, Ireland as part of the Bray Summerfest. A show was formerly a part of Snap's Blast to the Past Museum in Pace, Florida, but the building was destroyed in a fire in October 2010.
The three "Gullivers" theme parks (Gulliver's Land, Gulliver's Kingdom and Gulliver's World) have a Rock-Afire Explosion at each one. However, the animatronics have been changed and modified to become "The Hard Luck Bear Jamboree" and all of the characters except Billy Bob, Looney Bird, Beach Bear, Choo Choo, and Earl have become bears.
In recent years the Rock-afire appeared at "Rock-afire Pizza" in Indio, California; however, as of July 31, 2008 they were no longer running the show and had replaced it with large-screen TVs to show sporting events. Rock-afire Pizza has since been closed as of 2011 and its former space is now occupied by Farmers Insurance.
There was a Rock-afire Explosion show at Fun Station USA in Lynbrook, New York, but it has since been dismantled and the characters have been put on display around the store. Also (close to the other side of Nassau County), there was a Rock-afire Explosion show at the original Fun Zone (at the time, a venire similar to Fun Station USA) in Farmingdale, New York. Originally fully operational with the "show selector" feature, it decayed over the years and underwent certain mutations; by the late 2000s (among other abnormalities), the multiple "show selector" buttons were replaced with 1 round button, and the characters did not move at all (although music did play and lights did flash). Eventually, the show was put out of commission; and when the original "Fun Zone" closed in 2011, the entire show was taken out of the building and auctioned off.
In 2008, Chris Thrash, a Phenix City, Alabama car salesman, opened Showbiz Pizza Zone, an arcade fashioned after Showbiz Pizza, which featured an entire fully operational Rock-afire Explosion, which he funded with money he raised by working multiple part-time jobs. Although Showbiz Pizza Zone closed its doors on May 30, 2010, Thrash maintains the show privately, and he occasionally rents it out for birthday parties.
The Rock-afire Explosion, a documentary about Chris Thrash, Aaron Fechter and the remaining Rock-afire Explosion fan base, was released at film festivals and special screenings around the United States in the fall of 2008. Written and directed by Houston filmmakers Brett Whitcomb (Director) and Bradford Thomason (Writer), and produced by Jason Connell, the film has been featured on Last Call with Carson Daly. It was released on DVD in 2009.
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- Jenna Wortham, “Animatronic Band Moves from Pizza Parlors to YouTube”, Wired, 10 August 2008
- Steve Schmadeke, “Some find it odd, others see re-creating mechanical band as a way to tap into happy childhood memories”, Chicago Tribune, 23 September 2007
- Whitney Matheson, “'Rock-afire Explosion': Best movie I've seen all year. Really.” USA Today, 13 November 2009