The Rock-afire Explosion is an animatronic band from Orlando, Florida that played in ShowBiz Pizza Place restaurants from 1980 to 1993. The show was pioneering in many respects to other animatronic shows of the early 1980s, featuring life-sized characters capable of facial expression; some were even programmed in such a way that they could actually play simple melodies on musical instruments. The show was created and manufactured by Aaron Fechter, through his company Creative Engineering in Orlando, Florida. In addition to overseeing the production of the animatronics, Fechter also provided the voices for several characters.
Following the completion of rebranding, the show was sold to other restaurants and entertainment centers, such as Circus Pizza, Pistol Pete's Pizza, and Billy Bob's Wonderland. The characters in The Rock-afire Explosion were various animals ranging from a dog to a gorilla. They would perform medleys of classic rock, pop, and country music, as well as original compositions.
In 2008, the creator and technical engineer of the band, Aaron Fechter reintroduced the ensemble as a cover band for a variety of pop, rock, and hip-hop groups, including acts ranging from the mid 20th century to the present. Reprogramming the Rock-afire characters to cover new songs, Fechter reached new and younger audiences and also re-connected with the older audience.
Production of the show
Production of the programming and audio for the show was done in-house by Creative Engineering, Inc. in Orlando, Florida. All Rock-afire shows were produced completely in-house, with Creative Engineering employees not only manufacturing the characters, but also writing and performing their songs and skits.
Unlike other animatronic shows of the early 1980s, the Rock-afire Explosion was designed to be life-sized, with most of the performers being about the size of an average adult human. Additionally, Fechter implemented the use of latex masks for the characters' faces, as opposed to the fabric masks common in animatronics of the time. The latex masks were designed to fit over various movable parts on the characters' faces, permitting them a range of facial expressions, including smiling and the raising of eyebrows. Fechter also implemented computer programming that permitted some of the characters to move in rhythm with music, making it theoretically possible for them to play actual instruments.
- Billy Bob Brockali – Bass / Vocals. A bear in overalls, he was the mascot for ShowBiz Pizza Place throughout its existence, and his image was on most of the chain's merchandise. Billy Bob was usually a mediator to the band's minor on-stage quabbles.
- Looney Bird – Vocals. Looney Bird shares Billy Bob's stage. His head is the only thing ever seen, the rest of him supposedly hiding in an oil drum. Some shows featured a segment where Looney Bird would answer fan mail. For this, the animatronic was retrofitted to include a pair of hands which popped up, holding a piece of paper for him to read.
- Dook LaRue – Drums / Vocals. A dog who aspired to space travel. His costume was an astronaut suit. Dook would often lose focus during shows and miss his cues. He would respond to questions with a caustic "What?" The character is unique in that, when set up properly, he has the ability to actually play a 4-piece drum kit in time with the music.
- Fatz Geronimo – Keyboards / Vocals. A silverback gorilla. He is a parody of Fats Domino and Ray Charles. Unofficial band front man, Fatz had a tendency to ramble. He introduced most of the shows and ordered other band members around, leading him and Rolfe into many arguments.
- Beach Bear – Guitar / Vocals. Beach Bear is a "surfer" polar bear. He would usually make sarcastic comments or ask other characters questions to throw off their act, but never in mean spirits.
- Mitzi Mozzarella – Vocals. Mitzi is a mouse and a cheerleader. A typical teenager, she was considered "loose" by the rest of the Rock-afire Explosion, and is obsessed with gossip, boyfriends, pop music, and (appropriate for the time) Michael Jackson.
- Rolfe DeWolfe and Earl Schmerle – Located on stage left. They performed a stand-up comedy act, in between musical sets. Rolfe is a wolf, and Earl is his puppet. Rolfe also functioned as an antagonist to the Rock-afire group during skits, bossing them around in his role as their unofficial manager.
The show also has several smaller prop characters, as well as characters who were only integrated into the show in certain locations. Many did not have speaking roles. These included an animatronic Sun and Moon, Antioch the spider, and Choo-Choo the baby bear, who hides in a small tree stump. There was also an Owl character that was discontinued shortly after the creation of the band in 1982. Additionally, select locations were outfitted with "Uncle Klunk," a human character who replaced Rolfe and hosted talk-show segments with his bird sidekick (known as both Click and Murray D. Bird). The Klunks also served to be retrofitted into Santa Claus shows during the holidays.
- Main article: Concept Unification
ShowBiz Pizza Place was similar to (and competed with) Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre, another restaurant chain that was popular in other parts of the United States. In the mid-1980s, both venues began to suffer financial difficulties, partially due to the video game crash of 1983 and also due to Showbiz Pizza's having opened more restaurants than they could afford to maintain. When "Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre" filed for bankruptcy in 1984, Showbiz Pizza bought the company, hoping that new talent and merchandising opportunities could save both companies.
By 1985, Richard M. Frank joined the company as CEO and chairman. The corporation maintained the two restaurant chains simultaneously for several years. Each continued its own stage shows and sold different merchandise. However, in the latter part of the decade, difficulties between Creative Engineering and Showbiz began to arise. Aaron Fechter, the founder of Creative Engineering and creator of the Rock-afire Explosion, claimed that the fallout between his company and Showbiz arose when Showbiz asked him to sign away the licensing and copyrights to the Rock-afire Explosion, which would have allowed Showbiz to cut production costs on the show, such as manufacture of future shows and royalty payments to Creative Engineering. Fechter refused, on the grounds that Showbiz offered no monetary compensation for the rights.
The creative control held by Fechter became stifled, as the company produced their own tapes for the Rock-afire, using voice impersonators to play the characters. Showbiz also learned how to program the characters, thus taking even more creative control away from Fechter.
In 1986, Creative Engineering made one final attempt at regaining control over show production by programming and recording their version of the Liberty Showtape, which was produced to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. However, all of Creative Engineering's programming was erased in a "late night celebration". In addition, Creative Engineering created and sent out an unauthorized, ten-minute, unscripted Christmas showtape to all Showbiz locations, in which the characters sit around discussing the spirit of Christmas, thanking the store managers, and stating their intent to stay together. These Rock-afire shows led to Creative Engineering regaining the recording rights, but Showbiz never gave back control on programming, resulting in some embarrassing programming errors (such as characters singing with the wrong voices).
Ultimately, the company decided to enact a process called "Concept Unification", in which all Showbiz Pizza locations would be remodeled into Chuck E. Cheese's. The remodel included the elimination of all Rock-afire characters from merchandise and advertising and retrofitting/reprogramming the Rock-afire Explosion animatronics into a new show called Munch's Make Believe Band featuring the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theater characters. Unused animatronics and props were either sold off to other restaurants, put into storage, or destroyed.
"Concept Unification" was tested between 1989 and 1990 and occurred sporadically at Showbiz locations for the next two years, with the final Showbiz being converted in 1993. As Concept Unification began at each location, the left and center stages of the Rock-afire show were shut down, leaving only the Rolfe and Earl characters operational. During this period, the characters performed "The Rolfe and Earle Show", featuring the voices of Showbiz employees imitating the characters. The two ran a highlights reel of old Rock-afire shows and wondered out loud what the band would do now, and hinted at the coming Chuck E. Cheese-themed show. "The Rolfe and Earl Show" was the final Rock-afire show produced for ShowBiz. After Concept Unification had been completed on the center and left stages, Rolfe and Earl were removed. Rolfe's animatronic was converted into Chuck E. Cheese, while Earl was scrapped.
Although Fechter attempted to keep Creative Engineering afloat following the termination of his Showbiz contract, he was ultimately forced to terminate all of his employees, a process he dragged out over the course of several years as he struggled to find new venues for the show. Animatronics were being viewed as a dated art form by that time, and The New Rock-afire Explosion failed to sell as many units at Fechter had anticipated. As of 2010, the company is still in operation, with Fechter as its sole employee. Fechter sells both new and used animatronic equipment in addition to giving tours of the warehouse. In 2008, he sold one of the last two unused Rock-afire shows to a restaurant in Jordan; the final show has yet to be sold.
Several Rock-afire performers went on to careers of their own: Shalisa James is currently a member of the acappella group Toxic Audio, while Burt Wilson is now a member of the The Monsters in the Morning radio show. Both Rick Bailey and Jeff Howell are still active as musicians in the Orlando area.
In the 2000s, spurred by the growing online Rock-afire fan community, Fechter reunited some of the Rock-afire performers and began to program shows set to fan-requested songs. Videos of the performances, posted to YouTube upon completion, are credited with helping to further revive interest in the group and ShowBiz pizza, and spurred individuals who owned their own Rock-afire bands to begin programming new shows themselves. 
In 2016, it was reported that Fechter planned to open a new restaurant chain, featuring the Rock-afire Explosion and food cooked using hydrillium, a substance invented by Fechter that was the cause of the Blast of 2013.
As of July 2021, 25 of the shows subjected to Concept Unification are still in operation at Chuck E. Cheese's locations around the country, in varying states of disrepair and with the original latex cosmetics replaced with cheaper plastic cosmetics.
As of 2019, the animatronic band still exists in a few locations in various states of disrepair, such as Billy Bob's Wonderland in Barboursville, West Virginia. This particular show is in a poor condition after a disagreement between Fechter and the owner, which caused Fechter to cut off all support for the show. In 2018, the show fell into disrepair, with Mitzi having a broken arm, Beach Bear covered up by a walkaround head, and Looney Bird not working at all. The show underwent a mechanical and cosmetic restoration by Braylon Giles and Anthony Ybarra until they were fired in late 2019. Since their firing, the condition quality of the RAE in the store has been going downhill. In 2019, they also got new showtapes.
A show appears each year at the fairground on the seafront in Bray, Ireland as part of the Bray Summerfest. It is known as "Fatz and the Hillbilly Band". However, recently, the show has been in poor condition with none of the characters moving anymore.
The 30-year-old theme park "Gullivers" has three theme parks in the United Kingdom with The Rock-Afire Explosion in each one, but it has been changed and modified to become the "Hard Luck Bears Jamboree" and all of the characters except Billy Bob, Looney Bird, Beach Bear, Choo-Choo, Earl, the sun, and the moon have been modified to resemble bears. This show uses special showtapes with British voices. They also have a Billy Bob walkaround. As of 2020, all three shows are no longer being used, and rather abandoned in their theaters.
There is a traveling Rock-afire known as Billy Bob's Bear-a-dise Tropical Jamboree that performed at the Heritage Fest in Downers Grove, Illinois in 2008 and 2009, the Kentucky State Fair in 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016, the St. Joseph County Fair in South Bend, Indiana in 2013, and at the Big E Fair in Springfield, Massachusetts in 2015 and 2016. It was restored in late 2016 by Aaron Fechter and got back into the state fair circuit in 2017 - 18. However, this show uses the Mini-Stage and is no longer operating due to slight technical issues that were missed after being fixed. As recently as 2019, it's been discussed that the show may be sold off soon.
There is a Rock-afire Explosion show at Scandia Golf and Games in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, with minor cosmetic faults mainly in Fatz and Dook’s face masks, as well as sporadic malfunctions to the show selector. As of now, the show selector has been disconnected and is no longer used. Otherwise, this show is in the best condition of the still-extent shows.
The Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois obtained a Rock-Afire Explosion in 2018 and had it installed in its animatronic museum in 2020. However, it never ran due to the museum planning to use a third-party control system, and Aaron demanded that they use his own system. It was a static display for a short time before going back into storage.
A show was formerly a part of Snap's Blast to the Past Museum in Pace, Florida, but the building was destroyed in a fire in October 2010. The fire reportedly started when a smoke machine attached to Fatz's keyboard by the museum overheated.
Two shows were formerly installed at a small Illinois chain called Chimpy's Pizza Safari until both restaurants closed in 2005.
In recent years, the Rock-afire appeared at "Rock-afire Pizza" in Indio, California. However, as of July 31, 2008, they were no longer running the show and had replaced it with large-screen TVs to show sporting events. Rock-afire Pizza closed in 2011 and its former space was occupied by a Shakey's Pizza restaurant. As of 2020, Shakey's has closed down too and it's unknown if the land it occupied will be reused.
In 2008, Chris Thrash, a Phoenix City, Alabama car salesman, opened ShowBiz Pizza Zone, an arcade fashioned after Showbiz Pizza, which featured an entire fully operational Rock-afire Explosion, which he funded with money he raised by working multiple part-time jobs. Showbiz Pizza Zone closed on May 30, 2010. For a while, Thrash maintained the show privately, and he occasionally rented it out for birthday parties, but he has since sold the show back to Aaron. Chris Thrash now has Snap's old show, which is currently in storage minus Dook, who was sent to the former Rock-afire Bar. He is now owned by a private collector.
There was a Rock-afire Explosion show at Fun Station USA in Lynbrook, New York, but it has since been dismantled and the characters have been put on display around the store. Also (close to the other side of Nassau County), there was a Rock-afire Explosion show at the original Fun Zone (at the time, a business similar to Fun Station USA) in Farmingdale, New York. Originally fully operational with the "show selector" feature, it decayed over the years and underwent certain mutations. By the late 2000s (among other abnormalities), the multiple "show selector" buttons were replaced with a single round button, and the characters did not move at all (although music did play and lights did flash). Eventually, the show was put out of commission and when the original "Fun Zone" closed in 2011, the entire show was taken out of the building and auctioned off. Some of the animatronics (Billy Bob, Fatz, Beach Bear and Dook) from Fun Station are now in the possession of a YouTuber known as Jojo King.
Flamingo Land, a theme park in Malton, England used to have an area of the park called “Billy Bob’s Kingdom”, which had shops and arcades named after the Rock-afire characters, (such as Dook’s Snack Shack and Rolfe and Earl’s Arcade) as well as a full Rock-afire Explosion show. This area of the park was remodeled in the mid-2000s and the show was removed. Flamingo Land’s sister theme park, Pleasure Island, in Cleethorpes, also had a full classic Rock-afire Explosion show between 1993 and 1996, but it was removed and replaced with a New RAE show in 1997. The New RAE show lasted until around 2005. They also had two Billy Bob walkarounds.
Billy Bob, Looney Bird, and a retrofitted Mitzi animatronic also operated at the British restaurant Hannah Banana. There were plans to open more of these restaurants, but it never happened. The place closed down due to glass being found in the food.
Odyssey Fun World, an indoor amusement park with locations in Naperville and Tinley Park Illinois operated a New Rock-afire show in its party rooms as recently as 2011. The Naperville show was out of commission by August 2016 due to numerous issues, though Aaron Fechter had expressed interest in refurbishing the show. Its Tinley Park location also had one, but it too broke down with the animatronics disassembled. After the closure of the Naperville location in early 2019, both shows were sold to collectors and are being restored.
The Rockafire Arcade Bar in Kansas City had a brand new show that was just sold to them by Aaron in 2018. Everything was in perfect condition; however, the show did not feature Looney Bird, Choo-Choo, Antioch, the sun or the moon. The stage was not a regular stage that would normally come with a Rock-Afire show, but instead had a bent rectangle-shaped stage. The location closed in February of 2019 and the show was sold off to collectors.
The Rock-afire Explosion, a documentary about Chris Thrash, Aaron Fechter and the remaining Rock-afire Explosion fan base, was released at film festivals and special screenings around the United States in the fall of 2008. Written and directed by Houston filmmakers Brett Whitcomb (Director) and Bradford Thomason (Writer), and produced by Jason Connell, the film has been featured on Last Call with Carson Daly. It was released on DVD in 2009, and on ITunes in 2011.
- ^ Jenna Wortham, “Animatronic Band Moves from Pizza Parlors to YouTube”, Wired, 10 August 2008
- ^ http://drfawkes.deviantart.com/art/NEWS-New-restaurants-featuring-the-Rock-afire-599776139
- ^ Whitney Matheson, “'Rock-afire Explosion': Best movie I've seen all year. Really.” USA Today, 13 November 2009
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