Suspended Animation Extra
As an uncle with two nieces and two nephews I am quite familiar with Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors with its barely edible pizza, pitchers of soda and noisy arcade games.
However, one of my regrets is that I was never able to take them to enjoy a more upscale but similar experience with Rocky, Bullwinkle and their friends. Of course, they weren’t even born when Bullwinkle’s Family Food ‘N’ Fun restaurant was at its prime and weren’t familiar with the Jay Ward classic cartoons.
Not much has been written about Bullwinkle’s Family Food ‘N’ Fun restaurants except for some anecdotal memories so I am going to try to share what little I know about them and maybe readers of this site have more information.
Family Fun Centers was an indoor/outdoor amusement company started by twin brothers John Huish and Jim Huish in 1974 and featured outside activites including a go-cart track, batting cages, bumper boats and eighteen holes of miniature golf.
Starting in 1983 some of the locations started including an indoor Bullwinkle’s Family Food ‘N Fun restaurant location attached to the outdoor venue.
Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of the video game company Atari, had a dream to open an interactive family entertainment restaurant that would combine dining with the feeling of being at a carnival. He wanted to expand video arcades beyond just adults and teenagers to a more kid friendly atmosphere.His first idea was a pizza parlor (because of how quickly and cheaply the food could be made) with talking beer barrels.
However, he was inspired by Walt Disney World’s Enchanted Tiki Room and Country Bear Jamboree to include a character audio-animatronics show all produced by his in-house staff on a stage at the end of the dining area.
He had ordered a costume that he thought was a coyote but it turned out to actually be a grey rat with a snout and buck teeth. So instead of his first choice of Coyote Pizza and then Rick Rat’s Pizza, he was convinced to theme the restaurant to a mouse who would love the cheese on pizza.
The first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre opened on May 17, 1977 in San Jose, California and was immediately popular. It expanded into additional locations and inspired a host of imitators including Showbiz Pizza Place with mascot bear Billy Bob Brockali.
Voice artist Paul Frees who supplied memorable voices for Jay Ward characters suffered later in his life from multiple ailments, including arthritis and diabetes, and had complained about constant pain.Three years before his death, he was looking for other sources of income so pitched the idea to Jay Ward to license his characters for a similar pizza entertainment parlor featuring the Ward characters.
Ward and Peter Piech licensed their characters to these pizza parlors so in addition to Rocky and his friends, the characters in the restaurant included Tooter Turtle, Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog.
Ward was ambivalent about the idea but decided to go along with it since he was closing his studio the following year (1984). He was still enjoying operating the Dudley Do-Right Emporium on Sunset Boulevard next to his studio that had opened in 1971.
The wide variety of eclectic Ward themed merchandise was popular to those who were able to find the shop open. The gift shops in the restaurants offered the opportunity to sell similar items like the “Wossamotta U(niversity)” sweatshirts and Bullwinkle watches as well as other items unique to the location.
Bill Scott wrote the scripts and songs for the shows that would be performed every fifteen to thirty minutes. In between the stage shows, there was a water fountain show with color lasers in front of the red curtain to entertain patrons either waiting or eating their food.
Scott and June Foray who had provided the voices for the characters in the original cartoons returned to Jennifudy Studios on May 21, 1982 to record the tracks along with Corey Burton who filled in re-creating some voices.
The audio-animatronics were built by former Walt Disney Company Imagineers who had opened their own company, Only Animated Design and Display Company located in North Hollywood.
Bullwinkle’s Family Food ‘N Fun opened its first location in Santa Clara, California in 1983. The exterior was designed like a log cabin to reference Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties and the serving staff initially was dressed in Mountie uniforms and hats. Outside were fifteen to twenty foot high character totem poles with Bullwinkle and his extended antlers at the top.
The interior walls and support beams were made of logs and the floor had red carpeting. The dining area had long wooden tables with wooden benches.
The menus were filled with cartoon illustrations of the characters. There were such food items as Bullwinkle’s Famoose Pizza and Rocky’s Remarkable Burgers. Desserts included Rocky’s Road, Frostbite Falls, Snidely Whiplash’s Sundae and Bullwinkle’s Mousse.
While waiting for the food, there were arcade games with brass game tokens featuring the image of Bullwinkle the Moose.
The Eagle’s Nest stood ten to twelve feet tall and looked like a gun powder keg and was usually reserved for birthdays. The restaurant like Chuck E. Cheese was very popular for birthday parties.
Dudley’s Den was an area like a sports bar with a big screen television to watch sports. A photo opportunity inside the restaurant had a life-sized Snidely Whipslash figure in a cage.
The audio-animatronics show featured Bullwinkle sitting center stage with a banjo. Rocky stood next to him with a wooden homemade cello. Up above the proscenium arch were the faces of Boris Badenov and Natasha who talked carved into a totem pole. On small side stages were full figures of Dudley Do-Right and Underdog.
By the end of the 1990s, the restaurants were failing for a variety of reasons and the Huish family sold out their interests. Some of the places became Boomers.
The restaurant underwent several extensive renovations over the decades but three still exist in Wilsonville, Orgeon; Edmonds, Washington and Tukwila, Washington.
Even more of a mystery was Gadgets that opened in 1984 in Long Island that had audio-animatronics Looney Tunes characters putting on a twenty-minute show in a restaurant venue. Apparently, there were several different shows. There were other locations in Springfield, Ohio, Baltimore, Maryland, and Ocean, New Jersey, Niles, Ohio and Westberry, New York.
Mel Blanc provided all the voices for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Henery Hawk, Foghorn Leghorn, the Tasmanian Devil and other audio-animatronics created by Advanced Animations of Southbury, Conn.