Thanks the power of Netflix streaming, I was able to check out the documentary The Rock-afire Explosion over the weekend. It was a fascinating way to spend just under 75 minutes and I highly recommend it.
For those of you who may not have been children of the 80’s, the Rock-afire Explosion was the animatronic, in-house “band” at Showbiz Pizza restaurants. A competitor to Chuck-E-Cheese, Showbiz had a rapid rise and fall during the early 80’s, full of games (both video and otherwise), rides, pizza and the show. I can recall the catchy commercials that aired during my Saturday morning and afternoon cartoon viewing with the catch phrase, “Where a kid can be a kid.” Growing up, I visited a few of the restaurants either as a treat with my family or celebrating a friend’s birthday.
And while I’m sure I enjoyed it, Showbiz didn’t create all that huge an impression on me. But to others, like those featured in this documentary, it had a huge impact.
The movie looks at some of the band’s biggest fans as well as the entrepreneur behind the robots, Aaron Fechter. Fetcher’s company designed, built and sold the robots that made up the band that had such a huge impact on the people involved, including Chris Thrash, a guy from Alabama who I’d describe as the world’s biggest Rock-afire Band fan. Thrash has purchased and maintains a working Rock-afire Band at his home and created renewed interest in the animatronic robots when he choreographed some popular songs by the band and put them up on YouTube a couple of years ago.
The story is a fascinating one for a couple of reasons. The first is the passion that the fans have for the band. The investment of time and money that Thrash has put into the group is staggering. While the movie never comes out and tells us how much Thrash paid for the robots, a quick Google search indicates the last time a full band sold on E-Bay, the starting price was $14,000 (and that was in 2008!) . And I’m not sure if that was a new or used set of the robots.
The other thing that fascinated me was a line from the movie where Showbiz was opening store after store and, on the surface, appeared to be wildly successful, but all the time was losing money at a rapid pace. The aggressive roll-out of stores and expansion of the chain ultimately proved to be its own undoing, as did a move to buy out Chuck-E-Cheese when that particular chain was in trouble.
Of course, you can still go to Chuck-E-Cheese today. Showbiz is a distant memory and the Rock-afire Band lives in the memory of fans as well as some boxes as Fetcher’s warehouse in Florida, where he’s waiting on just the right time to make the sale of the final full band produced. (Though a couple of the shows were sold to restaurants in Jordan. So maybe the show is big there…) Fetcher’s belief that the band is about to make some kind of resurgence and be huge again is interesting.* While I agree that many of us out there may have some nostalgia and think it’s cool to see a YouTube video with the band singing the Black Eyed Peas, it’s not something I’m going to invest a lot of time or (more importantly) money in beyond that.
*One thing that I think wound up being the show’s undoing was Fetcher’s lofty goals. Instead of having one or two shows that were rolled out and sold to the entire chain, he and his creative team were rolling out a couple of shows a quarter at the height of the Showbiz popularity. I like the concept that you have fresh content being rolled out, but then again you have to look at the huge expenses that would come with creating and distributing the shows.
But throughout the film, Fetcher and Trash both hold out hope that the revival is just around the corner.
On some level, I can feel for them both. As a Doctor Who fan, I clearly recall the wilderness years when there were no new episodes being produced and the idea that the show would ever return to television looked fairly bleak.
The idea that there are other fans out there who get just as passionate about their own particular thing as I do about Doctor Who or UT sports, is compelling. As is the story of the rise and fall of Showbiz and the band that sang there.
If you’re looking for something different to try on Netflix streaming, give this one a try.