The Rock-afire Explosion are considered the greatest animatronic rock band of all time. They were the subject of the wonderful 2008 documentary by Houston filmmaker Brett Whitcomb. They performed thousands of shows at restaurant chain ShowBiz Pizza from 1980 until 1992, when all ShowBiz locations were eventually rebranded as Chuck E. Cheese. I grew up in Los Angeles with only Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre featuring Munch’s Make-Believe Band, which most Rock-afire fans consider a “bastardized” version of the original show, created by retrofitting and reprogramming the old characters into new ones. Dook LaRue became Pasqually The Chef, Beach Bear became Jasper T. Jowls, Fatz Geromimo became Mr. Munch, Mitzi Mozzarella became Helen Henny, and Rolfe Dewolfe became Chuck E. Cheese. Had my entire childhood been shortchanged by never experiencing the legendary Rock-afire Explosion? To find out for myself I had to see the show in person, but as of 2017 only three fully operating shows still exist in the United States.
One of them is housed at Creative Engineering in Orlando, FL, the original factory where the show was created and manufactured. In the early ‘80s, Creative Engineering, a 20 million dollar per-year business was home to 300 employees. Today, it is home to just one employee: owner and operator Aaron Fechter. The second two fully operating Rock-afire shows are owned by fans who purchased them directly from Fechter: Phenix City, Alabama car salesman and rollerskating rink deejay Chris Thrash (famous for his YouTube videos of the Rockafire programmed to sing current Top 40 jams), and Sandy Hook, Mississippi computer scientist and single dad Damon Breland. While vacationing in New Orleans, I e-mailed Breland and asked if it would be possible to come watch a show. He agreed to make my dream come true, and all he asked for in return was for me to bring him a large cheese pizza.
I went to meet Breland on a Saturday at noon but not everything went according to plan. After experiencing my first hailstorm the night before I pulled off the side of the road in my rent-a-car and stayed at the shadiest roach-infested $30-a-night (cash only) motel with no running water that only paper money can buy. I woke up early the next morning to find myself in an incredibly rural part of Mississippi with a dilemma on my hands: the closest Dominos or Pizza Hut was almost two hours away. I arrived late but with the box of cold pizza in hand as my price of admission. 38-year-old Damon Breland was an extremely tall, fun character and was excited to host someone who had travelled so far to visit what he calls Smitty’s Super Service Station, a wooden panel building that looks like an abandoned gas station from the outside and rests just off the highway in Swampland, USA. The only sign of life within 20 miles was the Marion Walthall Correctional Facility, which explained Damon’s warning via e-mail that said: “Make sure you don’t pick up hitchhikers in the area under any circumstances.” (Damon later revealed that he is in fact employed at the prison as a network computer IT guy).
While Smitty’s Super Service was very unassuming from the outside, I was amazed at what I saw before me as I walked in: a perfect recreation of ShowBiz Pizza Place, complete with original ShowBiz tables, framed posters, souvenir mugs, kiddie rides, and most importantly, The Rock-afire Explosion spread across three full stages. Smitty’s is Damon’s weekly escape from reality (and mine for the next three hours). He spent four long years building it, learning how to run it, and acquiring a digital show library (which runs on a Windows 95 PC in the back room).
The first “showtape” Damon queued up for us to watch was one that many Rock-afire fans consider the very best, a Magnum opus if you will. The showtape, titled “Magic Night” was programmed in February of 1984, and features the Rock-afire Explosion performing a medley of covers, all of which contain the word “magic” in the title. After some intro banter between the characters, the band launched into their setlist which included “Magical Mystery Tour” by the Beatles, “Black Magic Woman” by Santana, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf, “Magic” from the movie Xanadu, “You Can Do Magic” by America, and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” by The Police. The songs were glorious, as was the playful dialogue between the band (recorded by Aaron Fechter and various members of Creative Engineering’s family supplying not just the character voices but the musical instrumentation as well).
The YouTube videos I had watched of the Rock-afire at home did not do them any justice, seeing the show before my very eyes was glorious experience that is difficult to describe, all the while the loud chattering and clicking of the mechanics and compressed air working in the background rendered me slightly disturbed as I realized that I was in a room in the absolute middle of nowhere, alone with a large man that I had just met and a dozen artificial singing animals (It’s no wonder The Rock-afire Explosion inspired the popular horror video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s.
Besides The Rock-afire Explosion, Smitty’s Super Service Station is also home to some Chuck E. Cheese “deep cuts” such as King Kat, (a 9’ tall animatronic Elvis impersonator) as well as The Beagles, (an all dog, animatronic Beatles cover band). On weekends Breland hosts children’s birthday parties by day, and late, booze-fueled parties for grown-ups at night. He admits that he’s slept on the Rock-afire stage on one or two occasions and the only time he’s left Mississippi was when he went on tour with the filmmakers in 2009 to promote the documentary.
I really appreciated Damon Breland for taking three hours out of his afternoon and giving me an experience that I’ll never forget. However, before I drove back to New Orleans he had one surprise left for me: After having me wait by myself for over five minutes, Damon re-emerged from the back room in an original Billy Bob walkaround costume for an impromptu photo shoot.
Life, it doesn’t get much better than this.