Friday, October 26, 2018

Birthday partying at ShowBiz Pizza Place!

The year is 1987. It's late October, almost Halloween, and I'm about to turn 6 years old. I'm in a car full of kids, and we're all on our way over to Virginia Beach for a birthday party. My birthday party. Where are we going? Why, none other than...

If you're not familiar with ShowBiz Pizza Place, imagine if your favorite arcade also had a live animatronic band made up of various animals, and also served pizza and beer. I guess Showbiz was a restaurant first, but come on. We all know no one was going there for the pizza. It was all about the games, tickets, and prizes. I'm still not sure how we ended up deciding to go there for my 6th birthday. I certainly don't remember any sort of fascination for the place, so I'm thinking this must have been a surprise cooked up by my folks. I bet they regretted that decision.

One of the interesting aspect of that age is your friend group's likely just going to be made up of classmates. Other than my cousin, I didn't really have any friends of my age outside of school. And I'm pretty sure that's exactly who I invited to make the hour long journey to celebrate the wondrous anniversary of my birth. Oh, and they were also invited to stay the night at my house once we got back. I'm sure my parents regretted that decision, too.

There are a lot details of this trip that are lost to time, but I remember that there were two whole carloads of us just partying it up as we crossed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. This was the time when there was just a single bridge span, with traffic going in both directions. So, if your folks were in a particular hurry, you may have experienced one or more ass puckering moments during the 17.5 mile trek when they tried to pass the sightseers in front of them. I'm sure we were all too distracted talking about our favorite toys or the latest episode of Smurfs to notice all the near misses and head on collisions we narrowly avoided.

Thankfully, we all got there without incident, and though my folks probably told us to proceed in an orderly fashion, I'm sure we were all running around like a bunch of madmen the moment we got inside the doors. Once I hit that slightly greasy carpet, I was in awe of the lights and sounds, and the frenetic insanity I saw inside. That's the thing about ShowBiz Pizza Place, there was so damn much to do. The place was packed to the gills with arcade games, and though I was awful at all of them, that didn't stop me from trying as many as possible. If you were more the gambling type, they had dozens of machines that would spew out minuscule amounts of tickets for maximum effort. Or, if you were feeling particularly adventurous, you could always go for a swim in the ball pit. There's no telling what you would find in there. My mom joined me on some of the arcade games, while my dad likely sat back and relaxed with a pitcher of beer, trying to calm his nerves after dealing with half a dozen six year olds in his backseat for the past hour and a half. Or, maybe it's knowing that he still had to deal with us after we'd left the restaurant.

After we got our fill of ball pits and rigged games, it was time for two of my favorite things, presents and pizza. I wish I could say it was the best pizza I've ever had, but it is among my earliest memories of pizza. There's a very real possibility that Showbiz is the first place I ever had pizza, and I'm not sure how I should feel about that. I know everyone jokes about how bad it is now, but I refuse to believe it's that awful. As you can see above, the tables were a bit of a mess after a dozen soda fueled elementary school kids ravaged several large pizzas. The icing on the cake was literally the icing on the birthday cake that they served us afterwards. If you look at the above picture close enough, you might be able to see the look in my eyes as all that sugar and pizza dough starts to kick in. My parents were going to be in for a loooong night. Maybe. That's one thing about youth, you get that initial kick of energy, then three hours later you could be Sonic the Hedgehog or a zombie.

Besides the food, the best part of any birthday party is the presents. Sadly, I can't remember anything that I got that year, and I've driven myself nuts trying to get a clear look at what I'm holding in that picture above. If the look on my face is any indication, it could have been anything from an action figure to a toothbrush. It's one of those in-between looks. I could be on my way to an "Awesome! Thanks a lot!", or "Awe--oh..thanks".  Whatever it is I'm holding, the kids to my left appear pretty intrigued, but that one to the right seems rather non-plussed. Maybe he's the one that gave it to me.

Looking at those boxes underneath, it's a crap shoot as to what could be in there. Over the years, I've learned that those boxes could hold anything from an itchy sweater, to a handful of Supernaturals figures. Honestly, the gifts were always a bit of a crap shoot at parties like this. Invite enough people, and you're going to get some that aren't particularly close to you, or just don't know what you would like. Or their parents do the gift shopping, and they don't know who the hell this Chris kid is, but they're sure he'll like a whiffle ball set, because what kid doesn't like whiffle ball? Also, pick up eggs and milk. Thanks, dear. That's how I ended getting a knockoff Robocop at one party, though that one had light up weapons and made sound, so it was still kinda cool. Well, it was until it broke a week later.

While all this nonsense was going on, the big guy here was walking around doing some meeting and greeting. Billy Bob was the official mascot of Showbiz Pizza, and the lead singer of their animatronic band, the Rockafire Explosion. And looking at him now, he was pure nightmare fuel. There's nothing about Billy Bob that doesn't terrify me now, but those cold, dead eyes, and the overall dim look on his face are particularly haunting. Somehow, he was less frightening as a guitar playing robot than he is as a dude in a suit.

Yet, six year old me didn't seem to have any problem going up and giving the guy a hearty handshake, even though Billy Bob has a bit of a "I'm gonna love him, and squeeze him and call him George" kind of look to him. Someone, my mom most likely, even got me to stand up there and pose with him, and I didn't even burst into tears. It wasn't that long before this that I got freaked out by a guy in an Easter Bunny suit, and was nearly inconsolable. But, put me next to a guy that looks like he'd party at the Overlook Hotel, and I'm all chummy. Maybe I was just so hopped up on pizza cheese and sugar, that I didn't know or care about what was going on. You could probably put me next to the toxic waste guy from Robocop, and I'd still be willing to give him a hug.

After we'd drunk all the soda, eaten all the pizza, broke all the games and burned the place down, it was time to head back to the Eastern Shore for the sleepover portion of the evening. Of course, by that time, we were all exhausted, so the kids that didn't go home to their parents were pretty much ready for bed by the time we got back to my house. All except for a couple of troublemakers. I don't remember the exact offense, but there was crying and yelling, followed by my dad reading them the riot act. I think there were threats of calling their parents to pick them up that night if they didn't shut the hell up. I'm pretty sure my father even woke up early just to take those two home first and get then out of his hair. Honestly, I wasn't totally sure he hadn't planned on taking them to the middle of nowhere and leaving them, so I breathed a little sigh of relief when I saw them at school the next week.

If the memory of the birthday party itself is a little blurry now, that night and the next morning are nothing more than a smudge in my mind. I'd like to think we all hung out and played with action figures before the parents started showing up to take everyone home, but the reality is that we were probably all sitting around staring at each other, groggily shoveling cereal into our faces. Then all the kids would be picked up one by one, leaving me with just my memories, and my presents.

I never had another birthday at Showbiz, and I've only been back there one other time since then. By that time, they'd changed mascots, switching out the hillbilly bear for a giant party mouse. My next couple of birthdays were actually at McDonald's, and though I had fun, they just couldn't compete with an indoor amusement park full of arcade games and robotic musicians.

McDonald's could make a hell of a birthday cake, though.


  1. ah man now you got me going csi on the picture ,its going to drive me crazy trying to figure it out!

    1. It's definitely a weird shape and size. It looks like the bubble reaches almost all the way to the top of the card.

  2. Replies
    1. I think I know where my 40th birthday is gonna be...

  3. Chuck E. Cheese bought out the Showbiz Pizza place in the town where I grew up...and it's just not the same. Then again, arcade machines aren't the same either. Lots of good times and lots of good memories with Showbiz, but sadly my family wasn't a big picture taking family so all I have are those memories swirling around in my head.

    1. I only went the two times, and I remember being underwhelmed, even as a child, the second time around. My wife was going to take me for a mini-birthday celebration this year, but we ran out of time. Maybe it's for the best. 30 years later, I'm sure it won't be able to live up to what I remember. And really, what can?

      My mom was definitely a picture taker, unfortunately, the main camera we owned was one of those small rectangular 110 film cameras. So, there's a lot of dark, off center photos in our albums.


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