The Rock-afire Explosion
The Rock-afire Explosion
|Origin||Orlando, Florida, United States|
|Years active||1980–2000, 2008–present|
|Members||Billy Bob |
|Past members||Uncle Klunk |
Statue of Liberty
The Rock-afire Explosion is an animatronic robot band that played in Showbiz Pizza Place from 1980 to 1992. In 1992 when they rebranded the band was replaced by Chuck E. Cheese characters. The show was created and manufactured by inventor Aaron Fechter, creator of Whac-A-Mole, 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 anthropomorphized animals, including a brown bear, a grey wolf, a silverback gorilla, and other species. They would perform medleys of classic rock, pop, and country music, as well as original compositions and comedic skits.
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, along with Chris Thrash 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.
The Rock-afire explosion operates using four tracks of audio, two for audio and two for data. The data tracks were encoded using Biphase mark code produced during the programming process by two Apple IIe computers. During the days when Showbiz was uninvolved in programming, the circuitry of the RAE was purchased by Creative Engineering from Superscope, the makers of Pianocorder. Eventually, as technology evolved and Showbiz became involved in programming, a new programming system called "APS" (Animation Programming System) designed by Dave Philipsen was used. A new controller designed by Bill Synhorst of Triad Productions called "Cyberstar" was implemented in the restaurants which added video playback capability. This controller eliminated the need of the Pianocorder playback board and communicated directly with the existing driver boards.
Production of the show
Production of the programming and audio for the show was done in-house by Creative Engineering, Inc. in Orlando, Florida. Almost 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.
Later, as ShowBiz Pizza Place began to take over programming, they used a system inherited from their acquisition of Pizza Time Theatre called "Songcode". A few years later a more modern system called "APS" designed by Dave Philipsen became the programming system for all shows.
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 Rock-Afire Explosion.|
|In addition to these main Voice Actors, each character was portrayed by an inside VA for ShowBiz company-made tapes in the late 1980s. The only SPP voice actor who has been identified is Joe Conti, the voice of Rolfe and Earl in some showtapes, including "The Earle and Rolfe Show", the final Showbiz Pizza showtape for the RAE, in which Aaron 's voice was not used, as Showbiz had cut ties with Creative Engineering.|
- Billy Bob Brockali – Bass / Vocals. A brown bear from Tennessee who wore yellow and red overalls and played a wooden bass. 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 squabbles.
- Looney Bird – Vocals. Looney Bird shares Billy Bob's stage, as they are close friends. His head was the only thing ever seen, the rest of him 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 that held a piece of paper for him to read. Looney Bird was portrayed as an alcoholic, who used Gasohol, a cheaper form of gas Billy Bob invented, to become intoxicated, but became more interested in technology as years progressed.
- Dook LaRue – Drums / Vocals. A mongrel who aspired space travel and wore a space themed suit. Slightly dimwitted, Dook would often lose focus during shows and miss his cues. 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 DeWolfe into many arguments.
- Beach Bear – Guitar / Vocals. A polar bear with a laid back attitude and a smooth singing voice. When voiced by Aaron Fechter, his personality was more erratic, to fit with the voice he had provided. Beach Bear would usually make sarcastic comments or ask other characters questions to throw off their act in the name of fun.
- 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 – A ventriloquist/comedy act. Nominally a stand-up comedy act performed in between musical sets; Rolfe is a wolf, and Earl is his sentient ventriloquist puppet. Rolfe is portrayed as sarcastic and abrasive, with a tendency to be incredibly rude to both the band and the employees that work at Showbiz. He has a fondness for disco music, Kmart, and the works of Frank Sinatra. Earl was there to "set him straight" by calling his behaviors out, and by turning Rolfe into a joke. When Rolfe was set up properly, he could raise his arm to hit a cymbal.
The show also has several smaller prop characters, many of which did not have speaking roles. These included an animated Sun and Moon (who provided background vocals from time to time), Antioch the birthday spider (who spoke in garbles), Choo-Choo the baby bear, who hides in a small tree stump in front of Dook's drums, and Birthday Bird, who sat on Billy Bob's guitar. On Dook's stage originally, there was an owl. He was just a prop who did not move or speak. Additionally, thirty stores were outfitted with "Uncle Klunk," a human character who replaced Rolfe and hosted talk-show segments with his bird sidekick, Click. 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 Pizza Time Theatre, another restaurant chain that was popular in 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 Pizza Time Theatre filed for bankruptcy in 1984, ShowBiz 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.
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.
An experiment of Paul Linden and Dave Philipsen using JVC BR-7000 VHS Hi-Fi tape decks which integrated two stereo audio tracks, two longitudinal data tracks, and video led to a system in 1988 where 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. A reel-to-reel version of Cyberstar called "Cybervision" was tested at two restaurants in Austin, TX; Cybervision can be distinguished from Cyberstar by the fact that they only feature the animatronics, and no graphics or walkaround characters. Cyberstar was also implemented at Pizza Time Theatre, and remains in use at all Chuck E. Cheese's locations, albeit using DVDs rather than VHS tapes.
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 animatronics into a new show called Munch's Make Believe Band featuring the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre characters. Dook LaRue was moved to Billy Bob's place and became Pasqually The Chef, Looney Bird became PizzaCam, Beach Bear became Jasper T. Jowls, Fatz Geromimo became Mr. Munch, Mitzi Mozzarella was moved to Dook's place and became Helen Henny, The Sun became The Building, Choo-Choo became Munch Junior, and Rolfe DeWolfe became Chuck E. Cheese; The Moon was the only character carried over unchanged, and Antioch's computer and air lines were reused for The Wink, an animated Chuck E. Cheese head over the stage that would wink at the end of each segment. Unused animatronics (which included Billy Bob, Earl Schmerle, and Antioch) and props were either sold off or destroyed.
After ties between Creative Engineering and ShowBiz were completely severed, owing to Aaron Fechter's refusal to sign over the rights of the band completely, "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 right 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 Earle Show" (Earl's name was unintentionally misspelled), featuring the voices of Showbiz employees imitating Fechter's voice; the two ran a highlights reel of old Rock-afire Cyberstar segments and wondered aloud what the band would do now, and hinted at the coming Chuck E. Cheese-themed show. "The Rolfe and Earle Show" was the final Rock-afire show; after concept unification had been completed on the center and right stages, Rolfe and Earl were ready to be removed. Rolfe's animatronic was converted into Chuck E. Cheese, while Earl was scrapped.
Following Concept Unification, Creative Engineering began to design The New Rock-afire Explosion introduced in 1994 featuring smaller, redesigned Rock-afire characters. These smaller, more advanced animatronics were dubbed "mijjins" due to their small size. This show also featured a rotating stage allowing a more advanced and versatile show. They were put in Looney Bird's, a spinoff restaurant. Looney Bird's shut down by the early 2000s. Many of the mijjin shows were sold to other restaurants and family fun centers.
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. Using parts from the old animatronics, he created different shows, in hope to sell to other establishments. Most of these were never sold. One of these was the Moon Rockers, which represented a group of aliens from a city in the moon. There was Princess Haley (a female vocalist that used Mitzi's animatronics), Quazar (a guitar player that used Beach Bear's animatronics), Orc (a keyboardist that used Fatz's animatronics), and Ozone (a drummer that used Dook's animatronics). The stage also got a new look; it had a night sky and a large moon for the new background. It also had a floor that looked like they were on a planet. No establishment or individual is known to have bought this show. As of 2019, the company is still in operation, with Fechter as its sole employee while also having a few assistants. Fechter sells both new, unused, and used animatronic equipment in addition to giving tours of the facility.
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.
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 was better known as Bubba "Whoop-Ass" Wilson, a member of The Monsters in the Morning radio show. Both Rick Bailey and Jeff Howell have been active as musicians in the Orlando area.
The New Rock-afire
A redone show was made in the 1994, shortly after concept unification. This show featured smaller, yet more advanced animatronics. These robots were dubbed 'mijjins', as a reference to their smaller, shorter size. It also featured a spinning stage, used to simulate characters dancing, and new side stages, one featuring a scientist Looney Bird in a lab setting.The stage would then rotate to reveal Beach Bear and another Looney Bird (Just his head). The other side stage would feature a pink TV with animated bunny ears on top. The stage would also then rotate to reveal Dook LaRue. There are no more New Rock-afire's left in the public.
The Rock-afire Explosion at its birthplace at Creative Engineering Inc, located in Orlando, Florida.
Odyssey Fun World, an indoor amusement park located in Naperville, Illinois (Closed), and Tinley Park, Illinois, operated the New Rock-afire show in its Restaurant, but as of January 4, 2019, Both shows have been removed and sold to fans.
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. In 2011, it was released on ITunes.
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