One of the best things about Netflix Instant is the bevy of documentaries that are available. The deeper I dig, the more unexpected the subject matter becomes. But no topic was as unexpected as the Rock-afire Explosion, the animatronic band that performed in what, at its height, were over 200 Showbiz Pizza Places throughout the U.S. Although Showbiz Pizza Place is no more – they’ve all either been closed or converted into Chuck E. Cheese’s – you couldn’t grow up in the 80s without remembering the refrain “Showbiz Pizza – where a kid can be a kid!” Even though I only went to Showbiz Pizza one time, and when I did go, I was probably too old for it, I still remember it quite fondly. The pizza had slightly more flavor than cardboard with ketchup on it, but man, I’d never seen so many arcade games in one place in my entire life.
The documentary, The Rock-afire Explosion, tells the story of the rise of Aaron Fechtner, the creator of the robots used to give Rock-afire Explosion life, and how he eventually lost pretty much everything but his boundless enthusiasm and faith in those music-playing animals. It also documents the almost frightening devotion to the band that a group of fans have to their memories of Rock-afire Explosion and Showbiz Pizza Place, most notably Chris Thrash who purchased a complete and functional Rock-afire Explosion from Fechtner.
I get obsessions. I get feeding your inner child. And I certainly understand feeling passionate about things. But there’s a difference between that and never growing up. I would have to say that most of the Rock-afire Explosion fans, at least from the way they were presented in the documentary have got the Peter Pan thing down to a science. It’s one thing to have collections of 80s memorabilia and toys – hell, I have a small one myself – but it’s quite another to spend what was surely thousands of dollars on a gigantic toy in an attempt to keep childhood memories alive. Thrash refers to his Rock-afire Explosion as “his kids” and himself as “their daddy.” Seeing a grown man wearing a Showbiz Pizza Place uniform, even though no Showbiz Pizza Places still operate in the U.S. was kind of sad. All of them mentioned that their memories of Showbiz Pizza Place take them back to a “simpler time” when they didn’t have their current problems. My response to that is “of course it was simpler. You were 10.” Combine that with most people’s pronounced tendency to idealize the past and it’s likely that things were not everything you remember. At some point, you have to grow up and become an adult and accept adult responsibility. It’s ok to have memories like that and to be excited about it, but to let your memories define who you are currently is, in my opinion, wasting your life.
Perhaps the hardest one to watch is Fechtner himself. While I admire his refusal to give up the copyrights to the Rock-afire characters and songs back when Showbiz and Chuck E. Cheese’s were merging – especially since the management were not offering him any monetary compensation for his copyright – it also was ultimately his undoing. He has what can only be described as a stubborn belief that someday, Rock-afire Explosion will come back and make him a rich man again. He straddles the border between optimistic and just downright delusional. His studio, which once housed a thriving corporation that employed over 300 people – is a crumbling mess of a building which he rambles around like a widower in an old mansion, remembering all the good times, surrounded by outdated audio equipment and pieces of animatronics that will never be anything.
I have no idea – maybe the Rock-afire Explosion could make a pop culture comeback if the stars and planets all aligned. But I’m kind of doubting it.
I kind of have to lump this documentary in with all the other crazy fan documentaries that I’ve watched, most notably For The Love Of Dolly and I Think We’re Alone Now. While I watched it, I couldn’t help but feel sad for the people involved. If an animatronic band that was so impressive to their kid selves is the most defining portion of their adult selves, something has gone terribly terribly wrong. At least that’s how the documentary made them look.
Definitely worth a watch. At an hour and 12 minutes or so, it’s a quick watch and more than worth your time. As far as I’m concerned, Starz can keep its mainstream entertainment as long as stuff like this continues to show up on Netflix.