For over 30 years Chuck E. Cheese has been the premiere mascot of family entertainment restaurants. His long tenure and popularity has made him one of the most popular advertising characters. According to a 2007 Cartoon Q Ranking Study among kids ages 6-8, Chuck E. Cheese's character ranked among the top 4 percent of favorite characters ahead of Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, The Flintstones, Barbie and Snoopy1.
Character Origins / Design
Chuck E. Cheese first appeared in 1977 at the first Pizza Time Theatre restaurant in San Jose, CA2. During the initial planning stages, the idea and design for Chuck E. came from a generic mascot-character costume obtained by Nolan Bushnell at a trade show. It was assumed to be a coyote, which prompted the original working title of the restaurant concept to be "Coyote Pizza". They had the costume shipped and once it arrived they noticed a large pink tail indicating it was actually a rat. Rather than find a replacement costume, they kept it and went with the rat theme and changed the restaurant name3. The costume head was handed to Bushnell's engineers who were instructed to "make him talk"4.
In 1976 Gene Landrum, the original president of Pizza Time Theatre, presented Atari with a presentational outline of the new restaurant concept which was simply titled "The Big Cheese" before Chuck E. had a proper name5. Nolan Bushnell recalls that for a period of time, they also planned to call the restaurant "Rick Rat's Pizza". Atari's PR agency was horrified that a dirty rat would be used as a restaurant mascot. However, the agency thought it would be ok if they down played the rat theme and named him Chuck E. Cheese. The name was chosen because it was a three-smile name, just saying it forces a person's mouth to smile6.
Late 1970s - Early 1980s
In the earliest years Chuck E. Cheese was very much a rat. He had a pointy snout, a long tail, and along with his signature red derby was usually dressed in a maroon patterned or checkered vest draped over a yellow undershirt that was outfitted with black buttons and bowtie. He was often pictured holding a cane and a cigar7. The cigar was actually incorporated into both the walkaround costume and the animatronic version from the Shelf (Portrait Show) during Chuck E.'s earliest years. It was during this period where he was commonly called "The Big C" or sometimes just "Big C" by the other characters.
John Widelock was the voice of Chuck E. Cheese from 1977 through 1984, and he was responsible for much of the character's early personality. On the original Pizza Time Theatre demo reel, Widelock performed the voices for all the characters, but it was soon decided to go with different voice actors to decrease the amount to post-production required and increase the overall chemistry between the characters. He was given the choice of which character he wished to keep, and naturally he chose the star of the show - Chuck E. Cheese.
Chuck E.'s personality (with his New Jersey accent and overall demeanor as a loveable thug) was based upon the character "Muggs McGinnis" portrayed by Leo Gorcey in the 1930s-1950s. During his youth, Widelock used to watch Muggs McGiness in various comedies and he found it to be a perfect inspiration for Chuck E. Cheese8.
Another person who was quite influential to Chuck E. Cheese in the early years was Robert Allen Black. He was in charge of the advertising firm that Atari / PTT utilized to produce show material and who originally helped create the characters including Chuck E. Cheese. Mr. Black claimed that an oral agreement made before PTT Inc. broke away from Atari gave him certain copyright and trademark ownership rights to the characters he helped create. In April of 1983, Mr. Black took PTT to court seeking $60 million in damages9. John Widelock had agreed to appear in court to testify on behalf of Mr. Black, however he was never called upon and from what he recalls the lawsuit was settled out of court8.
By 1984 Widelock was replaced as the voice of Chuck E. by Scott Wilson (who was already the voice of Mr. Munch). In 1983 Nolan Bushnell hired animators to create an animated storyboard for a Christmas special starring Chuck E. Cheese known as "The Christmas That Almost Wasn't". The film was never completed, but was intended to be animated by Bushnell's new animation division called Kadabrascope, and sent to NBC as a pilot. During the recording of the audio, Bushnell and the engineers became frustrated with Widelock's inability to sing. Scott Wilson was given a chance to sing as Chuck E., and after nailing the show's final song on the first take, he was given the reigns to the character on the spot10.
Although Chuck E.'s personality began to warm toward the end of Widelock's tenure, he really started to become a friendlier rat while voiced by Wilson. Aside from a brief interruption in 1986 following PTT's bankruptcy and aquisition by ShowBiz where a replacement voice actor was used, Wilson continued to be the voice of Chuck E. Cheese into the mid-1990s.
During the 1980s, Chuck E.'s appearance became more standardized - his vest became solid red to match his derby and many of his rat-like features were softened, making him look more like a mouse (though still considered a rat). This appearance became so famous and recognizable that it was used solely to describe the replacement of the Rock-afire Explosion with the Chuck E. Cheese characters in the "Rolfe and Earle Show" as the 1980s came to a close. Hints about the fortcoming changes were given by dropping clues like "big ears", "red derby hat", "long nose", "vest and a bowtie", "big teeth", etc.
The 2000s - Today
2012 Revamp & Controversy
On May 3, 2012 it was announced that Chuck E. Cheese would be getting a makeover in order to combat a first quarter slide in sales, revenue, and profits11. Spearheading the new ad campaign was the Dallas based Richards Group who was given the goal to contemporize Chuck E. Cheese for a July 2012 debut.
Character artist Chris Ayers' initial concept artwork contanied some fairly drastic alterations to the character including enlarged ears, a less-defined chin, and most notibly, the return of his tail that had been missing since the 1990s. By the time the final character design was completed and submitted for trademark, a few alterations had been made such as shortening his sleeves and altering the color of his shirt to match the "avenger" purple and green colors that he's worn since 2004. Perhaps the largest change was the way in which the new Chuck E. Cheese was actually portrayed - aside from being composed entirely with CGI animation, Chuck E. was shrunken down to the size of an actual rat12, a drastic alteration from any way he's been represented in the past.
For the new advertising campaign, a new voice actor was utilized which led to some unexpected controversy that spilled into the media. Jaret Reddick, best known as the lead singer for the band Bowling for Soup was hired for the singing and speaking voice of Chuck E. in the campaign. In the days leading up to the campaign launch, Chuck E. Cheese Entertainment released a preview of "Chuck's Hot New Single" via e-mail to those who signed up for their e-mail club13. After receiving the e-mail containing the mp3, a group of fans contacted Duncan Brannan, the voice actor who has portrayed Chuck E. since 1993 to get additional information. After hearing the song himself and contacting a source at CEC's corporate offices, Duncan was informed that he had been replaced. He then issued a press release to the fans14. ShowBizPizza.com collected and archived this farewell press release with the intention of referencing it at a later date. Within a few days, local news outlets in the Dallas area picked up on the story, and before long it had spread across the internet to various national new outlets and blogs such as Gawker, Perez Hilton, and the Huffington Post. On July 3rd, the AP released their article which was then sent to dozens of media outlets. Chuck E. Cheese Entertainment, Inc. has since denied that Duncan was fired, and stated that although freelance, he is still in contract with the company to provide entertainment in its restaurants15.
1 - Press Release, "Chuck E. Cheese's Celebrates 30 Years of Success"
2 - 1977 Pizza Time Theatre Program
3 - SP.com correspondence with Nolan Bushnell
4 - Nolan Bushnell Interview - People Are Talking (1982 Episode)
5 - SP.com correspondence with Gene Landrum
6 - Nolan Bushnell Interview - G4 Icons (2002 Episode)
7 - 1978 Pizza Time Theatre Franchise Brochure
8 - SP.com correspondence with John Widelock
9 - Pizza Time Theatre 1983 Annual Report
10 - SP.com correspondence with Scott Wilson
11 - New look planned for Chuck E. Cheese character - The Dallas Morning News (5-3-12)
12 - Chuck E. Rocks - Screen Magazine (6-29-12)
13 - Advertisement for CEC's New Single - Official CEC Facebook Wall Post (6-25-12)
14 - Press Release: "Former Voice of Chuck E. Cheese Reacts to His Replacement"
15 - Chuck E. Cheese transforming into a rock star - MSNBC Business, Updated AP Article (7-3-12)