For many American children growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, Showbiz Pizza was a favorite place to spend a Saturday evening. Showbiz had it all: (somewhat) good pizza, a full arcade (back before a lot of restaurants had them), and for your dining pleasure by the animatronic animal house-band “The Rock-afire Explosion.” Other than heading out to Disneyland/World you couldn’t get animatronic entertainment like this. Each character in the band had a unique personality, and in between the songs, the bandmates would banter with each other just like a real band. Sure it was a little off-putting seeing these fur-covered robots acting so lifelike, but usually, they were able to be more entertaining than creepy.
The robots were designed with latex which enabled them to smile, grimace, blink and laugh very realistically. Sometimes a voice actor would take over the controls of the robots and would speak extemporaneously to the audience or answer questions. This admittedly was a bit disturbing as it made them seem even more realistic.
The Rock-afire Explosion got its start in Kansas City but the animatronics were created in Orlando, Florida. Several innovations in synchronized movement and singing, actually looking like they were playing their instruments and sound design was so ahead of its time that they were bought by Disney to use in their theme parks. At its height, Showbiz Pizza had almost 100 restaurants throughout the United States. Their primary competition was Chuck E Cheese Pizza Restaurants which had a similar but less successful animatronic program in their locations also.
Eventually, it was Chuck E Cheese who blinked and they were acquired by ShowBiz in the late 1980’s. It was eventually decided to consolidate the two chains and take the name of Chuck E Cheese as there were more stores than there was Showbiz. Once they were consolidated the Rockafire show was discontinued by the mid-1990’s and replaced with the Chuck E Cheese characters. An inferior version, in my opinion. Chuck E Cheese is still operational today but many of the locations were scuttled. Originally, they just kept the robotic “skeleton” and replaced them with a new covering featuring the rebranded characters. they also hired new voice and singing performers and used a different music format. So the Rock-afire Explosion became defunct. And that’s the way it stayed for years. Eventually, the children from the 1980’s and 90’s who grew up with the Explosion became nostalgic and the band came back into vogue.
Up until last month, there were only two places to see the Rock-afire Explosion. One was in West Virginia and One in Alabama. Both locations featured the original animatronics and programming. Much of it was now dated. (Mitzi Mozzarella being obsessed with Michal Jackson for example.) Also, the vocal banter often contained references to popular culture that has seen become passé.
But things have changed. Just recently the Rock-afire Explosion has returned to Kansas City where it all began for them 38 years ago. A new establishment called the Rock-afire Arcade has opened up in midtown and offers something different. Unlike the other two locations, the Arcade doesn’t charge to see the show. This is the only version to feature brand new animatronics and new programming featuring up to date music including hip-hop. Although watching ‘Mitzi Mozzarella” sing Lady Gaga is a bit odd for me.
The Rock-afire Arcade is great. You can see the Explosion Rocking the house and play unlimited Pinball or Arcade games for just 5 bucks. They’re at 334 E 31st Street in KCMO. If you remember the band fondly it’s worth a visit. Tell them Geronimo sent you..