Chuck E. Cheese, known to corporate executives by his businessman name Charles Entertainment Cheese, is dead. Well, the character himself is not dead, but Variety reports that his company, CEC Entertainment, did just file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, even after 43 years of business, and reopening 266 establishments amid the pandemic in a last-minute bid for cash. On Friday, USA Today reported that the chain will permanently close 34 locations.
I have many memories of Chuck E. Cheese, the greasy, kid-piss-infested chain restaurant that was my first legitimate job in a small, rural suburb, in an undisclosed central California valley. On my 15th birthday, my parents kicked me out the front door and told me we weren’t going to celebrate with cake until I came back with job applications. It was the middle of the last recession, you have to understand, and they were just worried about money.
After trawling around on my bike for a few hours, I stumbled across the dingy Chuck E. Cheese that had opened in the old Walmart parking lot. Or was it the old Lowes parking lot? Or was it the parking lot they were going to build a Target in, but went with an Old Navy and Chili’s instead? I can’t remember. But the manager, who desperately asked if I was 15, practically shot the application out at me through a t-shirt cannon. They were desperate for help, he told me, and looking for teens to stuff the building with after school. (Again, it was the recession, so they might have also been looking for cheap, disposable labor.)
Yes, standing on a street corner in the Chuck E. Cheese mascot suit, in 100-degree weather, was part of my job, as I’ve already thoroughly detailed. I’d hold a sign that read “Honk for Chuck E!” and count the number of Suburbans that pulled a U-turn for a second round. Sometimes, I’d participate in “ticket parades,” where hordes of screaming, pizza-crazed children would tear at my limbs like piranhas, the roll of tickets in my hand acting as blood in the water. Sometimes I was asked to cut the cheese pizzas in the back room with a knife as large as a sword. On the nights I worked late, well past the time I should have been doing my homework, I’d steal away a few pieces as a treat.
There was also a cotton candy mixer that I wasn’t allowed to operate until I was 16. When they did train me on it, I had to watch an instructional safety video that asked me not to “climb inside and put my limbs in danger.” I was only 5'3 at the time, and could’ve probably fit too! (Urban legend had it that an employee had actually lost their hand in one of them, but it was just an urban legend.) Over the three years I haunted the place, my job also took on many new functions. At times I was a waiter, slinging pizzas and previously frozen fries and wings. Other times, I was a toy dealer at the ticket counter, although you would have thought I was a drug dealer—a job I also briefly took up on the side, for some extra cash—by the way those kids would haggle over a slinky.
For all my mundane activities, there were some experiences that helped me better understand the liminal space that Chuck E. Cheese exists inside of, a quandary world where the planes of reality collapse into complete and utter surreality. Once, on my lunch break, a manager dumped what looked like a hazmat suit on top of the break room lunch table, and asked me to “go diving” in the ball pit. Apparently, multiple kids had pissed themselves “as jokes,” and I was tasked with the damp, smelly job of cleaning it up. Truthfully, I really didn’t know what I was doing, except wiping down certain balls and closing it for a few hours. We might have sprayed some piss-neutralizing chemicals inside? But I was also 16 by then, so who could really say.
There was also the time a woman allegedly snatched a baby that wasn’t hers, and some incredibly piggish police officers had to perform some sort of sting operation. I remember them asking me if I could “act normal” when serving her my pizza. I didn’t know what “normal” was, so I was just like, “Here’s your pizza,” and left like I always did. They later recovered the baby, safe and sound, in case you were worried.
Most memorable, though, was a birthday party I hosted. A woman and her husband had talked to me on the phone frequently that week, insisting that I make sure over 50 pizzas were ready by the time they walked in the door, in addition to the ones that already came with their party package, for a group of somewhere between 50-100 people—including kids. That day, however, our freezer broke, so we scrambled to make some additional last-minute pizzas. (The extra dough was sometimes kept in there for storage, and had spoiled. When I called to inform them of this news, they hung up on me.) Upon arriving, the husband threatened to beat me up if the party had any more hiccups. Eventually, 50 pizzas were procured, as were 40 orders of fries, 30-some odd pitchers of Diet Coke, buckets upon buckets of arcade tokens, and lots of pre-frozen Chuck E. Cheese birthday cakes that got waxy if they were left out for more than a few hours. The kids reduced my coworker in the Chuck E. Cheese suit to tears, and the parents demanded I let their kid ride the ticket tornado chamber (where a bunch of tickets blew around) five whole times. In total, the party cost about $5000. (If that number sounds absurd, think about it this way: It’s $30 a kid. For 50 kids, that’s already $1250. Then you count the pitchers, additional pizzas, and $30 per bucket of like, 150 tokens. It adds up!)
Anyway, as they were leaving, the woman tipped me exactly three dollars and some pennies.
Who knows what the future holds for Charles Entertainment Cheese. At the very least, he can use this downtime while the courts sort through his finances, for a sabbatical to one of the many animatronic vacation homes I’m sure he owns. But as for me, I’ll always have my memories.