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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

 

The Chuck E. Cheese experience

Maybe it was the toothless grandfather in the cowboy hat standing by the main door, a cigarette dangling beneath his grey mustache. "Chuck E's in there waitin' for ya'," he cackled. Or maybe it was the bottleneck crowd of children and bored parents that stood between us and a teenage bouncer blocking the entrance with a velvet rope. Or maybe it was the hand stamps. Yeah, it was probably the hand stamps that filled me with a sense of dread as we marched inside and up to the pizza counter at the Chuck E. Cheese on SE Powell.

It'd been at least 15 years since either myself or a colleague I had convinced to come along had set foot in a Chuck E. Cheese. Back when we were kids, the place was a Shangri-La of video games, bad pizza and swimming pools filled with plastic balls. In Portland, it could only be rivaled by the Organ Grinder or, maybe, the Avalon Theater. A trip to one of these places was a like a mini-vacation typically reserved for birthday parties or the end of West Hills Soccer Club seasons.

But times have changed. Management has since implemented a security system to deter pedophiles or would-be Pied Pipers from treating the place like a one-stop shopping center. If you arrive with children in tow, you'll each receive a matching hand stamp that will be checked as you leave. Those like us that arrived without tots in tow received a "Z" stamp.




We weren't the only "Z people" in attendance. Shortly after we grabbed our drinks and headed for "The Showroom," a dozen 30-something hipsters took over a few booths in the corner. They too had come to gorge themselves on childhood nostalgia. The nerve-wracked staff seemed happy to have us there- anything not to have to go over to the long table lined with two dozen screaming birthday brats and their parents. They joked with the hipsters and brought us out a second pizza after the kitchen botched the toppings on the first one.

Along with the new security system, a lot has changed in the last decade, the only improvement being the pizza. The Chuck E. Cheese brand has never been synonymous with quality eats. The pizza was once the worst in the nation but an advertisement on a wall cheerfully reported that the franchise now uses "real cheese!" The new stuff was no better or worse than what you might order from a Pizza Hut but a definite step up. And has Chuck E. Cheese always served beer? I guess that makes sense, given the number of weary parents slumped in their chairs.

If you're not under 10 or on a nostalgia trip, Chuck E. Cheese may as well be hell on earth. On the busy weekend night we were there, the place was filled to capacity with screaming members of the elementary school set- all drunk on Mountain Dew and Costco birthday cake. Picture Pleasure Island from the Disney version of Pinocchio relocated in a strip mall. The only thing keeping these kids from going completely feral while their parents downed corporate suds in the other room seemed to be the promise of winnable tickets for an assortment of prizes stacked behind a counter near the main entrance.




The place is also much brighter and shinier after a recent remodel. Back in the '80s when I was a kid, this particular Chuck E. Cheese was lit worse than a Old Town lounge. It was stuck in a late '70s vortex of wooden paneling and dark yellow paint. At least it had a ball pit though, quite possibly the coolest thing in the world from a 6-year old's mindset. But this newly refined Chuck E. Cheese has replaced the pit with the same series of florescent tube slides found in a typical McDonald's Playland. While the location is the same, it also seems smaller with fewer games. While the sign on our table confirmed the spokesrat's commitment to "making magic," I remained skeptical.

As for the Showroom, it's much the same. Movie poster mock parodies starring Chuck E. and the gang still hang over the booths and the robot band is still as stiff and creepy as the old days (take note of the blurry cell phone photos above and below). Beyond a wardrobe update, I'm sure these are the same animatronic critters that scared the crap out of me in the mid-'80s. A new addition: two HDTVs flanking the stage cranking out music videos of Chuck E. and the gang parodying the Beatles and the Spice Girls.

We eventually made our way to the arcade, where the hipsters were busy taking pictures of themselves on the mini-Merry Go Round. I made a beeline for the skee ball machines, where an updated points system makes it almost impossible to win tickets. Dropping a quarter in insures players at least one ticket but to win a second requires 170,000+ points, a task too daunting for anyone raised on video games instead of the carnival variety. I gave up and headed over to "The Rubber Duckie Game," an updated version of Wack-A-Mole. Consisting of little more than a boxing glove on a mechanical arm and an endless conveyor belt filled with ducks. I managed to knock over three of them. I'm thinking of putting this accomplishment on my resume.




Chuck E. Cheese (ie, a teenage employee in a rat suit) eventually showed himself, much to the indifference of everyone except, maybe, the hipsters. They took turns having their picture taken with him while the occasional kid wandered up, stared for a few seconds and headed back to an arcade machine. Chuck did his best to work the crowd but his pre-teen clientele either had better things to do or preferred to run away from him. On his way backstage, a drunk mother decided to make a game of tapping him on the shoulder. He tried to flee but tripped over a booster chair left on the floor. Poor Chuck E. Cheese. Try as he might to appeal to kids these days, the baseball hat and baggy t-shirt just aren't cutting it. He may as well be an over-the-hill yuppie trying to woo an undergrad with a Lexus.

Is there a place for pizza-pitching rat MCs in the 21st century? Can Mr. Cheese possibly compete with Xboxes and iPods? If the packed to the walls crowd at the SE Powell location was any indication, yep. As long as kids still love bad pizza and pumping their parent's cash into arcade machines to win a .30 cent Whoop-E-Cushion, there will always be a place for Chuck E. Cheese.


MORE ON THE CHUCKSTER:

  • A brawl broke out at a Chuck E. Cheese in Toledo over the weekend. Hmmm...who do we know who's living in Toledo these days?


  • To read the history of the Chuck E. Cheese empire, click here or click here.


  • Click here to watch an instructional video on how to properly wear the Chuck suit or click here to watch a group of teenagers get kicked out of one location.

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