Friday, June 21, 2013

That's Showbiz

"You've never seen a place, like Showbiz Pizza Place..."

I still remember the first commercial, clear as day: pizza and video games in the awesome early 80's.

"We'll serve you a pizza, second to none. So come for the pizza, stay for the fun!

The first Showbiz Pizza in the nation opened in 1990, not far from my backyard in Independence, Missouri, at I-70 and Noland Road. I persuaded my folks to take me there for my birthday and bring a couple of friends.

They had Skee-Ball and Pac-Man and Space Invaders, all feeding on tokens which you could buy in bulk. Five dollars bought six dollars worth of tokens. My friend Brad mastered Skee-Ball while I put the ball in the 'net above. Steve taught me the nuances of Pac-Man as it was breaking out into a worldwide phenomenon.

They served pizza in four-inch by four-inch squares, and it was actually pretty good, and pretty meaty. In front of us, Billy Bob and the Rock-A-Fire Explosion -- an all-star cast of animatronic puppets -- entertained us with covers of moldy 50's classics and a tribute to the early days of Michael Jackson.

I loved it because this was one of the few times my parents allowed me to pump their hard-earned money into mindless entertainment. This was the innocent age of arcade gaming, before 50 shades of Mortal Kombat invaded the playspace. Showbiz didn't mind being old-school. Atari's rudimentary Night Driver sat peacefully across from Asteroids. Wizard of Wor and Tempest shared the same galaxy. Showbiz even found a way to make an Apple ][+ into a coin-operated machine by serving up "Lemonade," that game we used to play on the classroom computer.

Then the video game boom crashed hard. Showbiz started plugging their pizza. All those locations they opened started closing, but the Noland Road location hung on for many years after I grew up and moved away. It's still there now, but as Chuck E. Cheese's, transformed into its chief 1980's rival.

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Many years later, when my Royal Father turned the benchmark age of 50, guess where the guys from his office took him? To a Showbiz in St. Louis, where they racked up Skee-Ball tickets.

I miss the old-school arcade. I miss the pizza.

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