Creative Engineering, Inc., or CEI, is a company most famous for creating the animatronic characters featured
in Showbiz Pizza Place. Their most popular creation was The Rock-afire Explosion founded by Aaron Fechter. However, they are also widely known for creating the Whac-A-Molegame in 1976.
Willie Wabbit Edit
This was CEI's first animatronic character - Willie Wabbit. He was placed in a kiosk
at the airport in Orlando to advertise for Mystery Fun House and attract tourist customers
Friendly Freddy Edit
He was CEI's first full animated character, which was a guitar playing bear that sat on a stump.
He was sold to Magic World in Tennessee. He was later retrofitted into General Cornelius Bearpatch and was a part of the Confederate Critter show. In 2001, at a CEI tour, some pictures of an destroyed Friendly Freddy came on the web. The current state is unknown. He lost a leg, and his guitar was broken, most likely was eaten up by termites. However, he's gone from CEI and probably was destroyed.
Count Dracula Edit
He was an fully animated character that was installed in Castle Dracula, Wildwood,
NJ in 1976. He would roll out of the double doors outside the castle and recite a chilling speech about the horrors inside the castle. Count Dracula would move his arms and head as he talked. After Count Dracula became in-operational, he would occasionally be pushed outside as a static prop. In the final years of the castle, he remained inside the glass doors and fell into complete disrepair. The Nickels decided that he was too expensive to repair or replace. There was copy's of Count Dracula inside the castle, they are statues and couldn't move. Only a few were made. Castle Dracula met its demise due to arson on January 16th, 2002. Some of the castle's structure and contents survived the fire and were taken as souvenirs by various people.
Credit to Darkinthepark.com. Check out their side for more information.
Talking Head Edit
Another character that was installed in Castle Dracula. It was an animatronic prop in Castle Dracula for a short
because it was removed after only a couple of seasons. According to former castle manager Anita Wheeler, this talking head prop was part of a dinner scene located after the lab and before the bridge.
Credit to Darkinthepark.com. Check out their side for more information.
Shamron was a large demon which looked down on you as you would exit the dungeon boat ride in Castle Dracula.
Creative Engineering produced a sound track for this prop which was used during the early years of the castle. However, they didn't actually build that prop, they only made a showtape for him.
Credit to Darkinthepark.com. Check out their side for more information.
Lazlo the great Edit
Lazlo was an animatronic fortune teller that was eventually never sold. He still at CEI to this day. However, some of
his parts like his head is gone. The mask still sitting on his torso.
Santa Clause Revue Edit
By the spring of 1978, CEI had completed the Santa Claus Revue for Santa's Village in NH. The
show still operating but with different animatronics. The showtape still the same. They also changed the name into Santa's Singing Elves.
Here's a video of the full show - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ois6BfpiqhY
The Confederate Critter Show Edit
The Confederate Critter Show was one of CEI's early project. This show was sold to
Magic World in TN which is closed now. The show featured three fully animated characters. Major Mobsy Greygound III, a piano playing dog. General Cornelius Bearpatch, a guitar playing bear. And Colonel Stonewall J. Fox, a Banjo playing fox. All characters are dressed as Confederate Soliders.
There's still not much information about this show but we managed to get some interesting comments from people that remembered the show.
"There was an international convention for amusement parks every year. One particular year (probably 1977) there was one guy at a table with an "animated" bear head. It was indeed Aaron Fechter. It was the FIRST of its type outside Disney. MAGIC WORLD bought it and created "THE CONFEDERATE CRITTER SHOW" with one bear, and the soundtrack recorded for a live person (a Yankee!!) to interact with the bear. Eventually, a Fox and a Hound dog were added to our show long before the pizza places."
"I remember the animatronics were seriously creepy. Their mouths would open and close but they didn't say anything "
"The critters, they got off track once and started to close the doors while still singing"
The Bear Country Jubilee Edit
The Bear Country Jubilee was Creative Engineering's first full animatronic show. It was a predecessor to The Hard
Luck Bears Show. The show was made in 1977 and is based on Disney's "Country Bear Jamboree". The center stage band's name was the "Four Seasoned Bears". The show was later rebuild with advanced movements and given a hillbilly theme to become The Hard Luck Bears.
After years of use at Morey's Pier in Wildwood, NJ, the show was sold back to Creative Engineering as an broken, filthy and withered show with exposed metal frames. Billy Wilburs head was removed and was sitting on the ground. But Aaron Fechter could not tolerate that as they arrived and fixed the show completely.
That's the reason why this show looked different as in the Morey's Pier's pictures. The show now resides in storage at Creative Engineerings Headquarters in Orlando, Florida.
There was also a show in Americana amusement park but sadly, the show never worked properly and later got sold or destroyed. The theater is still there.
The show played the same showtape as the Hard Luck Bears. They also share the
same names. However, the only difference is that they used to have Mortimer and Buford in the show. A Moose and a Buffalo. There's also an showtape for the show.
Showtape - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVQOrfxuBmw
The Wolf Pack 5 Edit
In the summer of 1978 CEI began development of the Wolf Pack 5 stage show.
Aaron Fechter came up with the concept after seeing a live performance in London of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Wolf Pack 5 consisted of five characters that played 50's style rock and roll music. The cast included the Wolfman, Fats Gorilla, Dingo Starr, Beach Bear, and Queenie. They made their debut at the 1978 IAAPA convention in Atlanta.
The Wolf Pack 5 is currently under restoration and moved from the basement to the first floor of the building.
All known showtape's - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsVA1GIrXU8
All known locations
- 1st Showbiz in Kansas City, MO - now in CEI
- King's Dominion in Virginia - show in storage
- Pyramid Place in Canada - unknown
- Man & His World in Canada - unknown
- Spreepark in Berlin, Germany - retrofitted, gone
- Italpark in Buenos Aries - moved to Republic of children in La Plata
- A park in Japan - unknown
The Hard Luck Bears Edit
At the 1979 IAAPA convention, CEI presented their new show, The Hard Luck Bears - a retrofitted, hillbilly themedversion of the Bear Country Jubilee. The characters in this particular show were the band of brothers - Billy Wilbur (guitar), Billy Bill (piano), Billy Boy (drums), and Billy Bob (bass). Stage right had Pete and Repeat Thornsberry - brothers who worked at Smitty's Super Service Station; and stage left had Mama Granbags along with the Gooney Bird.
ShowBiz Pizza Place's pre-incorporation agreement was signed between Creative Engineering Incorporated and Topeka Inn Management in December, 1979. The plan was set in motion to utilize CEI's animation in the second ShowBiz Pizza Place, while the initial store located in the Antioch shopping center in Kansas City would utilize Pizza Time Theatre animation. However, in January of 1980 PTT makes its intentions known about a pending lawsuit over breach of contract, and CEI is forced to supply the animation for the 1st ShowBiz.
All known locations
- Calaway Park in Canada - unknown
- Knoebel's in Pennsylvania - show in storage
- Playcenter in Brazil - unknown
- Carowind's in North Carolina - unknown
- Blackpool Pleasure Beach - moved to Frontierland, Morecambe in United Kingdom, gone
- Fantasilandia in Chile - retrofitted, operational
- A park in England - retrofitted, unknown
The Rock-afire Explosion Edit
The Rock-afire Explosion was essentially the combination of the Wolf Pack 5 and the Hard Luck Bears. The center stage contained the bulk of the Wolf Pack - Fatz (Fats) and Beach Bear returned very close to their original counterparts, Mini became Mitzi, and Dingo became Dook (Duke). Stage right contained the rest of the Wolf Pack - the Wolfman became Rolfe, and a fuzzy puppet named Earl was introduced.
Stage left was a very condensed version of the Hard Luck Bears. Billy Wilbur became Billy Bob, and the Gooney Bird became the Looney Bird. Smitty's Super Service Station and the Birthday Bird (who was a blackbird in the Hard Luck Bears) were also inherited.
In the beginning, the Rock-afire Explosion looked a little different than they did a few years down the road. Many of the
early character masks were sculpted by Dave Thomas, one of CEI's artists, and the characters onstage had a more grotesque appearance. Their faces were heavily defined, with paint detailing that helped to emphasize the many facial wrinkles and creases. The characters, notably Billy Bob, had much heavier brows that were reminiscent of Disney's bears. Fatz originally had a lighter gray complexion, had protruding ears, and wore rings on his fingers. Mitzi wore pigtails without any visible bangs, and had blue and yellow pom-poms. Dook had a completely different outfit altogether, and Beach Bear's fur was gray and shaggy.
There were a few key differences in the stage props and surrounding characters as well. The earliest shows had an Owl character at the base of Dook's drums, and the Frog sat on Beach Bear's surfboard. The original "Tune Machine" organ had 4 legs and a grill in the front. The scripted "Rock-afire Explosion" logo had not been created yet, so the organ and sign behind Fatz had a much more primitive appearance (the explosion sign behind Fatz is actually attached to an artificial tree).
During the first few years the Rock-afire Explosion was still evolving. Different materials were tested and used (for
instance, at one point Dook had gray fur), and things were altered where necessary for structural issues (a retrofit was made for Dook's hands and Beach Bear's legs) and character improvement (the removal of Beach Bear's blonde wig). Valences were also added to the stage, letting customers know immediately what all of the character's names were.
Another of CEI's artists, David "Billy Bob" Irvin, re-sculpted all of the characters faces - there exists 2-4 different faces
for each character, each with mostly minor differences. By the time the final production of the Rock-afire was done in 1983, the characters appeared much friendlier than they did at first. Since CEI now had an entire team of employees, characters were made in groups of about 25, and everything became very standardized. With the exception of the few early stores that had some of the original props still around, every Rock-afire at ShowBiz Pizza Place was virtually the same.
The Rock-afire was also involved in several "promotions", some of which even included temporary changes to the
stage. One of the earliest was the Colander Head Night promotion from March 1983 which introduced the concept of live employees interacting with the characters. Each of the characters (with the exception of Rolfe) all had custom colanders to wear. The Rock-afire also had a few temporary costume upgrades including scarves for Christmastime, and western wear for theCountry tapes.
Second Generation animatronics
One unfortunate aspect of the Rock-afire Explosion is the unrealized future that they may have had. As ShowBiz was in a dead-heat race competing against Pizza Time Theatre, production of the Rock-afire was at full tilt and money was flowing into CEI for the purpose of Research and Development. However all that ended fairly
abruptly when the market started to collapse. Although ShowBiz didn't file for bankruptcy, as Pizza Time had to in 1984, R&D funds disappeared and production of the Rock-afire Explosion was completely halted. Many future projects were never implemented, or even completed.
Uncle Klunk / Santa was one of the last (and only) major alterations made to the show by CEI. For all intensive purposes, Klunk was a 2nd Generation character, which required a separate computer to run all of his assorted movements. Although Klunk received a mild public response, his underlying animatronic was quite sophisticated compared to any of the other Rock-afire characters.
Other characters had 2nd Generation prototypes in development while Klunk was
being finalized. A new version of Mitzi was created that had new arm and hip movements. She had the ability to actually dance by swaying at the hips and bringing her arms in front of her body with smooth, sweeping movements. A new version of Beach Bear was planned that had the ability to stand up off of his surfboard, and big plans were made for the updated 2nd Generation version of Dook. The updated Dookhad new arm and wrist movements, which gave him the ability to play a full set of drums. He could swivel at the waist, and play drums that surrounded him, raise his arms to hit crash cymbals above him, and even reach one arm across the other while playing. It is believed that eventually every character was slated to have a 2nd Generation model, or at the very least, some type of animation upgrades.
There were other projects that were developed by CEI's R&D team in the early 1980s. The Show Selector system was
developed and tested in select ShowBiz restaurants - it allowed customers to select which shows they wanted to see by pressing buttons on a panel near the stage. Another "traveling" character, just like Uncle Klunk, was in production as well. The character was Paul McCartney of Beatles fame. The plan was to make him the most advanced animatronic ever designed. The work on the project was never fully completed, and never found its way into ShowBiz, however it did find new life years down the road. In the not so distant past, the Paul McCartney project became "Private Paul" - an animatronic sold to the US Army to test uniforms that soldiers wear into biological warfare.
ShowBiz Pizza Time
Almost immediately after ShowBiz merged with Pizza Time Theatre to form the new company ShowBiz Pizza Time
Inc, CEI began to be pushed out of the production and development of the Rock-afire Explosion. ShowBiz learned how to program the data to operate the show, and quickly began producing their own. Best-of compilation were used through most of 1985 (a period where no new showtapes were produced by CEI) and between 1986 and 1987 ShowBiz produced most of the tapes, using voice actors they hired to sound reminiscent of the original CEI voices. Through a few sporadic offering by CEI (Liberty show, '86 Christmas, and '87 Homely for Christmas) they eventually regained the recording rights, however ShowBiz never gave back the programming rights.
Under ShowBiz's command, the Rock-afire Explosion began to get some bizarre upgrades. ShowBiz tested out
a prototype "Magic" stage design with the hopes of creating a more coherent appearance to the stage. In 1986 they also introduced theStatue of Liberty to the show, temporarily taking the place of Rolfe & Earl during the weeks leading up to the 4th of July. Yogi Bear was test marketed in 1987 in the hopes of integrating a more recognized character into the Rock-afire show. Another side project created by ShowBiz was "Orwell - the character you control" which was an Uncle Klunk with cosmetics removed and could controlled by guests. They also tested using a cosmetically-altered Klunk in the game room, giving him a beard and a hillbilly appearance (the name of this character is Uncle Pappy).
By the early 1990s the Rock-afire Explosion was being phased out of ShowBiz and CEI was making attempts to reinvent the Rock-afire Explosion. Around 1991 the first new style of character was created by one of CEI's employees, Chris Lanusse who had previously worked with miniature animation. He helped to bring the (now "classic") Rock-afire Explosion down in size. These smaller animatronic characters were nicknamed "Mijjins" by Aaron Fechter. Their first usage was with the show created in 1992 called, correctly enough, The Mijjins - a show containing 6 human characters, Billy Bob, Fatz, and the Mijjinator.
The New Rock-afire Explosion
The New Rock-afire Explosion was in the concept stages during 1992, as new character designs were developed. Around 1994-95 this new show was completed. It contained all the characters from the old show, with the exception of Rolfe & Earl. Billy Bob, Fatz, and Mitzi all occupied center stage; while Dook, Beach Bear, and Looney Bird were on the rotating side stages. The technology of the rotating stages and characters, along with synchronized programming was patented and dubbed "Danceatronics".
Despite the advancements and new technology that was created for the
New Rock-afire Explosion, the updated show was never given the exposure it probably deserved. Relatively few customers purchased it, and of those who did, very few are left in operation today. The animatronics scene has seen a decline since it's dominance in the 1980s, and the New Rock-afire was introduced around the time the audio animatronic trend was fading out. Aspects of the Mijjin animatronic characters weren't entirely stable. A lot of work still needed to be done to prevent breakage that never got done. The New Rock-afire was not as reliable or structurally as sound as the Classic show and CEI didn't have the opportunity to fix that.
Online Influence / Epilogue
The Rock-afire Explosion was given a breath of new life via the internet in the late 1990s when fansites began to arise
including the ShowBiz Pizza Page and ShowBizPizza.com - an active interest began in collecting, compiling, and archiving all things relating to the Rock-afire Explosion. A fan community arose during this time, and those with fond memories of their past experience with ShowBiz and Chuck E. Cheese have helped to keep the memories of the Rock-afire Explosion alive.
In 2007 the Rock-afire Explosion was programmed by fans to sing Ms. New Booty by Bubba Sparxxx. The video clip hit YouTube and went viral by being
linked to by several websites. The online buzz created gathered the interest of many bloggers and even some major news/entertainment outlets. A documentary film titled "The Rock-afire Explosion" was released in Sept 2008, and the renaissance is currently ongoing. The Rock-afire Explosion is continuing to appear in pop culture, from music videos by MGMT (Electric Feel) and Kokayi (Roxtar), to the Adam Sandler film "Just Go With It".
Reginald J. FlootsnootEdit
Reginald J. was an animatronic dragon that could breath fire. He was build in 1983 for the IAAPA convention