Back in the awesome 80’s I was helping to pay for college by working at a place called Showbiz Pizza in Fargo, North Dakota. It was basically a classier version of Chuck E. Cheese – better pizza, better games, better prizes, a separate “man room” with a big screen TV showing sports, wine and beer a little something called The Rock-Afire Explosion.
The Rock-Afire Explosion was an animatronic band that came to life through the magic of computers and compressed air. The band was made up of Beach Bear on guitar, Fatz the gorilla on keyboard, Dook Larue the dog on drums, Mitzi the “hot” mouse cheerleader on vocals, Rolfe DeWolfe and Earl Schmerle and the star of the show, Billy Bob the bear.
The band played sets made up of songs from the Beach Boys, the Doors and the Beatles as well as then megastar, Michael Jackson. This was THE place to have your birthday party if you were a little kid. We were booked solid every weekend from open to close with parties for all ages. I was a party hostess. I wore the required black polyester pants, white shirt, polyester apron / faux vest and the infamous plastic top hat that we had to poke holes in the top of to keep our heads from sweating. We greeted the birthday party, hooked ’em up with cupfuls of game tokens, took the pizza & drink orders and sent them to the game room until their food was ready. But the real moment that everyone (not just the kids) waited for was the cake which was delivered by none other than Billy Bob himself.
How do you get a compressed air robot to come to life? Well, let me tell you, it was not easy and there were many rules.
First, the show had to be off and curtains closed. Once the curtains closed, you had about 7 minutes. Someone had to be ready, willing and able just before the curtains closed to put on the big, hot, furry Billy Bob costume. We’re talking giant bear feet, giant furry bear suit and one giant Billy Bob head. If you’re lucky, there were fresh batteries so the fan in the head is working. Here’s what it looked like:
Billy Bob always had an escort that lead him to where he needed to go. We didn’t talk while in costume because you couldn’t hear anything that was said in the big head. Trust me, if you could it would just be things like “shut the hell up, you stupid kid” or “I’m freaking melting in here”. The #1 question asked by kids was why he didn’t talk. (our answer was that he was saving his voice for the show). And while Billy Bob visiting your table was the most exciting part of the party for the kids, it was the part we dreaded the most. These kids mobbed you. They hung on you and all vied for your attention “BILLYBOB, BILLYBOB, BILLYBOB!!!” It was madness. One time an obnoxious kid annoyed me so much I started to squeeze his arm until he yelled “Billy Bob! You’re hurting me!”. One of my better moments. But don’t get me wrong, every once in a while when it wasn’t crazy busy, I had some fun with it. I’m proud to say that I was the only one there that could do the moon walk in the Billy Bob costume. HUGE hit with the kids.
The show was on a timer and you had to get back in the closet (yes, a closet) before the curtains for the show opened again. If you didn’t and the kids saw both Billy Bob’s at one time? Well, you had some explaining to do.
Whenever there were bands in town to play at the college or Kirby’s (The Corner That Rocksed – R.I.P.) I brought them out to Showbiz. Every single one of them loved it. From Speak The Language to The Wallets, it was a blast seeing these “rock stars” beg for another cup of tokens or to see them thoroughly enjoying the Rock-Afire Explosion show.
Back in the early days when Billy Bob’s head needed some touching up, I brought it home to my dad for him to paint. Speeding down the freeway in my purple Camaro with my passenger putting the head on as we flew past cars was yet another great Showbiz memory. Later it was determined that only authorized Showbiz personnel could paint the head. Most likely to prevent aforementioned shenanigans.
But back to why I almost peed my pants……
All the Showbiz Pizzas closed in the early 90’s (I believe they went bankrupt which seems impossible….) and now 20 some years later I discover that there is brand new documentary out called “The Rock-afire Explosion”!! I missed the Boston screening a couple weeks ago (doh!), but will wait patiently for the DVD release. I was giddy last night, giddy I tell you, while checking out the website. It was a fantastic trip down memory lane. And while I have some fond memories of the place, apparently there are some super geeks out there that hunted down these robots after the restaurants closed and have their own personal Showbiz Pizzas at their house. Every. Single. Day. And the best part is that they are programming the band to do songs by Li’l Wayne, Usher, Nine Inch Nails and Shakira, just to name a few.
Check out the trailer, but then also go to youtube and search “Rock-afire Explosion” to see of the new tunes performed by Billy Bob and the gang. Because really, this is the kind of thing you just can’t get enough of.
(um, nice choice for the screen grab for this. What the hell is Billy Bob doing to her?!)