Last week I got invited to the most exclusive party one could be invited to -- a gala taking place at a venue for those with the most refined tastes: That’s right, I got a handwritten invitation to a friend’s 5-year-old daughter’s birthday party being held at the one, the only, Chuck E. Cheese’s up in Bloomington.
Coles County never had a Chuck E. Cheese, this we all know. Which is why I had to sneak my way into the archives of the Herald and Review for the next “best” thing: a couple of ads for the Chuck E. Cheese equivalent, Showbiz Pizza Place, which was for all intents and purposes just the same place except with a big bear as their mascot.
We kids of the ‘80s all needed places to spend our birthdays outside of the house. Our options in Coles County were reserving that weird indoor gazebo that used to be inside the McDonalds’s out near the Lake Land exit, the Silver Star skating rink, or the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the mall.
According to some old ads I found, reservations for an Aladdin’s Castle birthday party got you the following privileges: accesses to “dozens” of the hottest arcade games, a free Aladdin’s Castle T-shirt, and extra tokens for the birthday boy…or girl…although if you ever let your adolescent daughter hang out at the arcade, be prepared for me to register a back-dated complaint on your behalf with D.C.F.S. Oh…you also got “adult supervision,” which I’m guessing was an attendant with a stained blue vest. Given the roustabout nature of an arcade coin jockey, I would imagine parents continued to hang around anyway.
As for a trip to Showbiz Pizza Place, I really only remember one. My poor parents…all they wanted to do was hit up Farm and Fleet or Venture and they ended up having to drag me to Showbiz because of my patented “why don’t we ever get to do anything I want to do?” droopy face when we drove past it in the strip mall.
Here’s what I remember: It was dark, and there was a creepy animatronic bear band on a stage tucked away in an even more poorly lit room away from the games, and trust me the only thing creepier than an animatronic bear band is an animatronic bear band playing to an empty room; and I remember not really being able to enjoy any of the arcade games and Skee-Ball because if there’s one thing that can really bring down the experience, it's knowing your parents are across the room in a booth nursing Diet Cokes and the room temperature dregs of a pepperoni pizza while semi-patiently waiting for you to hurry up and fail at your game of Galaga.
What’s the state of a kids’ birthday party at Chuck E Cheese today? Well, it was still in a strip mall, but it was actually rather well lit. Guess a few LED bulbs really can make a difference. Also, those looking for a full animal band experience might be disappointed, for they had trimmed the bandstand down to just one reasonably well done animatronic Chuck E. Cheese who would activate in time with some pre-recorded tunes, which it must be noted were still Christmas-related even though it was January.
The birthday girl seemed like she had fun, as did I, as I was gifted my own “Play Card” with 60 minutes worth of time on it, which I used to generate as many tickets as I could to donate to the birthday girl’s stash. The secret? Find games that pay out the most tickets in as little time as possible, in which case you’re going to want to stick to Skee-Ball and an arcade game that’s a rip off of the exact same “Fishing Derby” game you might have played on the old Atari 2600. The birthday girl was obsessed with something that looked like Pachinko tilted on its side, where you put a coin in, it falls down a ramp and into a hole, and you get tickets. Little lady wouldn’t even wait to see where the coin went before handing me tickets to stuff into my cargo pockets.
There’s something always a little melancholy about a kid’s birthday party at a place like that; at least for those grown-ups watching from a distance. I noticed one family had reserved an actual appearance by the Mouse himself, who appeared from a side door and, even under a big furry mouse head, appeared to be confused as to which table of kids he was officially supposed to be visiting at, a confusion borne by the fact the “correct” birthday girl was at a big table with only one other friend and a concerned grandmother with an ancient camera while our (unofficial) party’s table was full of friends and family members all munching on some (reasonably good) pizza.
Where was the rest of that girl’s family? Well, sure looked to me like they were on their laptops or phones in nearby booths while the two girls jumped and squealed with delight as a big mouse handed them birthday gifts before walking sadly back to the kitchen area. Dude, you really got to work on your exit -- this is showbiz after all.
I’m not perfect when it comes to the whole “responsibility” thing, but geez, you parents and relatives out there…that little kid in your life is only going to turn 5 once, and yeah Chuck E. Cheese may be a little too kid-chaotic for you even on a good parenting day, but c’mon; when in doubt, do what C.W. did: Grab your Play Card and get to the games. Thanks to my Skee-Ball skills the birthday girl was able to strut up to that exchange counter and walk away with a spinner, purple jewels, a White Mystery Airhead, a primo P.J. Masks stickerbook, and a purple sheriffs badge which insured that everyone had to call her “Cowgirl” the rest of the day.
When the party was finally done that afternoon, I headed back to my car, throwing arm sore, and found practically an entire roll of tickets crammed into a jacket pocket I forgot to feed into the voucher machine. While at first I was annoyed because that was one more trinket the kid could have got, I realized that the tickets don’t appear to have an expiration date. You know what that means? Next birthday, I’m already 100 tickets ahead of the house. Um…I mean, she will be. Assuming she’s not too “cool” by that point.
"The Throwback Machine" is a weekly feature taking a look back at items of interest found in the JG-TC online archives. For questions, suggestions, or his "Song of the Day" recommendation, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.