Whatever Happened To The Rock-Afire Explosion From ShowBiz Pizza?

Animatronics and pizza are the "Kingdom Hearts" of the fast food world: a combination with no natural connection that's proven successful beyond any reasonable expectations. Children have been enjoying their birthday slices alongside the antics of Chuck E. Cheese and his robot-animal friends for decades before retiring its animatronics in 2017 (per The San Diego Tribune), proving that it's not always a bad thing to have a rat-turned-mouse in the kitchen.

But if even an animatronic rodent is still too much for you, why not a bear or a gorilla? In its early days, Chuck E. Cheese's success spawned a small legion of imitators, as "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" detailed at considerable length (via YouTube). But chief among the competing robot pizza shows was the ShowBiz Pizza Place and The Rock-afire Explosion. After businessman Robert Brock's plan to franchise Chuck E. Cheese's fell through, The Rock-afire Explosion was dreamed up by inventor Aaron Fechter and his Creative Engineering firm (per "The Rock-afire Explosion," via Vice). It was a transparent imitation of its rival's core concept, but according to Business Insider, it enjoyed a key advantage: more sophisticated, full-figure animatronics.

By the early 1980s, the rivalry was getting heated. As legal battles over contract violations played out in the background, ShowBiz Pizza Place was outgrossing Chuck E. Cheese's per store, while Chuck E. Cheese's had more stores in total. But both franchises were built less on their animatronics or even their pizza than on their video game arcades. And when the video game crash of 1983 hit, both chains were badly affected, their expansion coming to a dead halt.

ShowBiz Pizza bought Chuck E. Cheese's, but Chuck's band carried the day

The video game crash of 1983 proved the key to resolving the feud between Chuck E. Cheese's and The Rock-afire Explosion, though probably not on terms the former would've liked. Having lost $15 million that year, Chuck E. Cheese's creator and Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell was forced to file bankruptcy. Per Vice, Robert Brock took advantage of his competitor's misfortune by buying it up. Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre became part of the rechristened Showbiz Pizza Time Inc.

Having bought his rival, however, Brock opted not to throw Chuck and his friends out. He initially maintained them alongside The Rock-afire Explosion. But for whatever reason, the character Chuck E. Cheese enjoyed greater popularity with guests. Responding to demand, Brock stopped having Rock-afire characters made, creating friction between himself and their creator, Aaron Fechter. When Fechter refused to sign over the rights to the band, hoping to expand them beyond pizza parlors into a full franchise, Showbiz responded by dropping them altogether.

That left Fechter and The Rock-afire Explosion without a host, and ShowBiz with high-quality animatronics they could refurbish with the characters they still had. By 1992, Showbiz Pizza Time no longer made ShowBiz Pizza Places. Everything was Chuck E. Cheese's, and the full-figure robots that had once been Rock-afire characters had been transformed into an updated version of Chuck E. Cheese and his crew.

Dedicated fans revived The Rock-afire Explosion in the late 2000s

Per Popular Mechanics, the franchising opportunities Aaron Fechter hoped would materialize for The Rock-afire Explosion after he left Showbiz Pizza Time Inc did not pan out, nor did other business ventures built on his other inventions. All he managed to do with his characters was interest a few amusement parks in Rock-afire bands (per Wired). But a few fans who grew up going to ShowBiz Pizza Places and seeing The Rock-afire Explosion managed to revive interest in the 2000s.

Rock-afire superfan Chris Thrash bought a full band from Fechter himself in 2006 and, according to Spin, he achieved a viral YouTube sensation with it by programming the animatronics to sing contemporary music. A documentary on Fechter and Rock-afire directed by Brett Whitcomb, "The Rock-afire Explosion," was released two years later (per Vice). After an initial discomfort with others scoring viral hits with his characters without permission, Fechter warmed up to the possibilities of internet videos.

As of 2024, Fechter maintains a YouTube channel where he posts videos on the history of Rock-afire and specially programmed performances. Fans like Thrash maintain their own sets of animatronics. Cee Lo Green had a set flown out to Las Vegas to provide backup to him in 2013 (via YouTube). And you can still find a Rock-afire in a pizza place: Billy Bob's Pizza Wonderland in West Virginia. Though according to the DCist, Fechter had an ugly falling out with the owner of Billy Bob's, so the band there was looking a little shabby as far back as 2015.