Uncle Klunk was the first new character to be introduced to the Rock-afire Explosion by Creative Engineering, Inc. Klunk was quite a strange character that was described as an "abomination" in shows1, but beneath his goofy and bizarre persona he was the most sophisticated animatronic character produced by CEI at the time - with nearly twice the number of movements of any other character, he could actually pick up a telephone or a banana from a conveniently placed fruit basket2. Less than 50 Uncle Klunks were produced3, which meant not every store received one, or at least not at the same time. The idea was for Klunk to be a traveling character, appearing for a few months in a particular location, and later being removed and placed in another store4.
Uncle (Clarence) Klunk was designed to be a wacky talk-show host. Klunk was originally voiced by Jeff "Claude" Howell - a musician who helped perform the instrumentation behind the Rock-afire Explosion, and previously sang backup vocals. Aaron Fechter was always sympathetic to the fact that Howell had been without a character voice despite his heavy involvement behind the scenes. As such, Klunk was designed to look like an exaggerated caricature of Howell himself.
Jeff Howell's portrayal of Klunk was dimwitted and, well, an abomination. He was even billed as "The Uncle Klunk Abomination" (with a special animated "Abomination" sign that would drop down behind his stage valance). Howell's Klunk had a very genuine feel - he really seemed like he was portraying an aspect of himself rather than any specific character. With his trademark expression of "Koosh!" he would perform special segments such as "Culture Corner", "Sports Time", "The News", and "Dear Uncle Klunk". Burt Wilson performed the voice of Klunk's bird Click, his mother, and a few other voices. Together they recorded the initial Klunk demo shows which were roughly produced and filled with bad jokes and inside humor5.
Uncle Klunk was met with mixed reactions - first from ShowBiz Pizza Place and later by the customers. ShowBiz was a bit disappointed with the initial Klunk shows recorded by Howell, and asked Creative to hire a "professional" company to write and produce the skits6. The end result was a completely different version of Klunk that sounded eerily reminiscent of Walt Disney's Goofy character. His bird Click was also renamed Murray D. Bird, and given a mean spirited personality. This incarnation was the version that actually made it into restaurants, and was billed by ShowBiz as the "funniest robot science ever made"7. Despite having ShowBiz's approval, Klunk never quite received the approval of audiences. "We were concerned with an obvious need to change characters, but Klunk hasn't set the world on fire as I hoped he could do," Fechter once stated8. He has also made statements regarding the poor promotion made by ShowBiz for Uncle Klunk as contributing to his failure6.
After his initial run, Klunk also appeared in a 2nd showtape titled Country Klunk9, which was a variation of the Rock-afire's Country II tape10. Once again Klunk was featured with a different voice, this time being performed by Shawn Fernandez. This tape variation allowed ShowBiz stores to have new material whether they featured Klunk or whether they still had Rolfe and Earl installed. For this particular tape, Klunk's outfit was updated to include a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and a southern-style string tie.
Ultimately, Uncle Klunk was a commercial failure. Revenues failed to increase in locations where Klunk was installed, and public response was unenthusiastic. The only other character to appear at ShowBiz in the early days was Santa Claus, which was merely a cosmetic change-out for Klunk. However in all fairness it should be noted that during Klunk's tenure, ShowBiz was facing serious financial difficulty, and the strain put an end to any further development of Klunk, as well as any future characters and advancements to come out of CEI's research and development department. A second traveling character had been in development, an animatronic version of Paul McCartney, but partly because of Klunk's dismal reception, it never made it into production6.
After the merger between Pizza Time Theatre and ShowBiz Pizza Place in 1985, the newly formed company, ShowBiz Pizza Time, began working on their own entertainment projects without the help of CEI. A few of their test market concepts involved utilizing Uncle Klunk character mechs that they still owned, yet no longer had any real use for. One of the projects was called Orwell: A Robot You Control - where a retired Klunk had his cosmetics literally sliced in half to expose his inner-animatronics. Orwell was placed into the game room where guests could press different buttons on a panel in front of him to trigger his different movements and watch how they worked. Another project involving Klunk was the creation of a new character named Uncle Pappy. Pappy looked exactly like Klunk, only he had a pair of glasses, a large orange beard, a blacked-out tooth, and wore red shirt with overalls. Similar to Orwell, Pappy was also placed in the showroom. His shtick involved singing short songs and giving basic advice to kids (Do's and Don'ts, Save Your Pennies, How to Cross the Street, etc) and was voiced by Scott Wilson, the long time voice of Chuck E. Cheese11.
1 - ShowBizPizza.com Showtape Review - Uncle Klunk
2 - 1983 Save the Colander Telethon - Pt 6
3 - 1983 Creative Engineering Inc. Brochure
4 - Ian & Margery - Aaron Fechter Interview
5 - ShowBizPizza.com Showtape Review - Uncle Klunk (Jeff Howell)
6 - ShowBizPizza.com Correspondence with Aaron Fechter
7 - 1983 Uncle Klunk Commercial
8 - That's ShowBiz - The Journal Herald
9 - ShowBizPizza.com Showtape Review - Country Klunk
10 - ShowBizPizza.com Showtape Review - Country II
11 - ShowBizPizza.com Correspondence with Scott Wilson