Chuck E. Cheese’s 1984: Where a kid can fight off teenagers to play arcade video games

For my 9th birthday in 1984, my parents took me to an establishment new to the Pittsburgh area that had plenty of games for kids and plenty of pizza for kids to eat.  Chuck E. Cheese’s was my funhouse as a child, and it looks nothing like the place I knew growing up over thirty years ago.

Each location in Pittsburgh had different activities for kids, and I appreciated the location west of town near Bridgeville.  Sure, they had an awesome ball pit and they had a cool and scary twisty slide (It would have been deemed unsafe in 2017, that’s for sure), but the real draw for me was that the Bridgeville Chuck E. Cheese’s had the best selection of arcade games to play under one roof.

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My favorite arcade game

The original Chuck E. Cheese’s had the same types of games that are found in today’s locations–skee-ball, whack-a-mole, wheel of fortune and other games where the object is to earn tickets which are then redeemed for cheap toys.  Toys that might cost a few dollars elsewhere, but at Chuck’s they could be obtained with the tickets earned from $10 worth of skee-ball games.  Today’s locations have many more of the “ticket games” than actual arcade games.

At my old age, I was curious as to why the old Chuck’s had so many cool arcade games.  I discovered that Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc. was actually one of the original owners, and wanted the video game arcade to showcase many of the titles that Atari and its parent companies released.  What transpired in the arcade section of Chuck’s in the mid-1980’s was wonderful chaos.  In a place that was marketed to children ages 3 to 12, teenagers and college kids were lining up to play video games.

The arcade section was set up the same as other arcades in the 1980’s.  They were usually found at malls and amusement parks all across America.  Token machines were stationed throughout Chuck’s.  One token was worth twenty-five cents, and the majority of people playing the arcade games at Chuck’s would simply walk in, bypass all of the pizza and dinner theatre themed areas for the kids and spend $10 to $20 on the thirty to forty arcade games lined up in a U along the walls on one side of the main play area.  Some of the bigger cockpit-style video games were in the center of the floor, including two (TWO!!!) Pole Position games.

All of the games were not Atari games.  It seemed that Bushnell wanted whatever was hot to increase traffic and boot profits.  Many of the companies I remembered were very big names in the video game industry then and well represented at the Bridgeville Chuck’s.  In addition to Atari, they had Nintendo, Data East, Midway, Konami, Sega, Namco and Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was the video game equivalent of a “one hit wonder”, being responsible for the legendary game Q*Bert, which is pictured above.

By 1986 traffic declined at Chuck’s due to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Previous home systems were mostly crude  versions of the arcade games, but the NES combined fun games with better graphics.  Teenagers and college kids could buy an NES, play games at home all day and not have to worry about running out of money to play the machines at an arcade.  Even though there were less people playing the games, for a few years the machines stayed at Chuck’s.  Toward the end of the 1980’s, the Bridgeville Chuck’s had the following games in one location:

Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Bump ‘N’ Jump, Rampage, Defender, Joust, Gauntlet, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Q*Bert, Frogger, Centipede, Paperboy, Marble Madness, Zaxxon, Out Run, Mario Bros. (The original, not Super Mario Bros.)

Chuck’s had other arcade games besides these, but I remembered these games well.  They were fun to play and I even enjoyed watching the older kids play them because I would learn the game before spending my money.  The 13-25 age group that hogged most of the games taught me which ones were the best to play so I could spend my $5 a little more wiser than I would have.  And sometimes, the older kids let me in on the action.

At my brother’s 8th birthday party in 1986, the Bridgeville Chuck’s got a multi-player Gauntlet machine.  It would allow for up to four players to run the game at once and team up to beat the enemies on each level.  I was 10 at the time and while I was walking through the arcade, a teenage boy about 15 years-old asked me to be player four on Gauntlet.  I agreed even though I had no idea what I was doing.  The two other players with us were his friends, also around high school age.  During the game he taught me how to use the buttons and what areas to focus on attacking.  By the time we completed the game (We got about halfway through the game before we all ran out of money), there were a few other teenagers watching us run through the beginning levels.  Before the next batch of guys tried the new game, they were asking my new acquaintance and I about the game play features.  Not him and his friends–him and I.  Me, all of age 10.

The Gauntlet experience at Chuck E. Cheese’s taught me not to be afraid of unfamiliar environments.  Sometimes the people that seem intimidating end up being helpful, kind and welcoming.  If I would have said, “No, I don’t know how to play”, an early shred of confidence gained would have been missed out on, and it would have affected me going forward in life.

That fall, my friends at school wanted me to go out for the basketball team.  I never played before, but I remembered playing Gauntlet with the older kids, finding my place on a team and learning that new experiences didn’t have to be scary, unappealing situations.  I tried out for the team, made the team, and by the end of the year had become one of the better players.

So as you can see reader of this post, there is a lot to be learned from playing video games.  Happy 40th birthday Chuck E. Cheese’s, and thanks for the awesome place to learn the meaning of confidence.

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The Car Fire Incident Of 1996

It was either September or October of 1996 when Pittsburgh was hit with a tropical storm.  Usually a hurricane would lose all of its wind strength by the time it hit western Pennsylvania, but this particular storm was moving a little faster than other storms of this magnitude.  Rain came down all day, and high winds of 40 to 60 miles per hour accompanied the rain.  So with those facts in mind, this story begins, “It was a dark and stormy night….”

On the day of the storm, I worked the 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at a big box sporting goods store.  I didn’t move my car the whole day, and there were about six other guys on my shift that had the same routine that day: Bring your own dinner from home or run across the parking lot to the mall and get something at the food court.  Nobody wanted to drive to the local fast-food joints in this storm.

All of us guys were college age, so we weren’t wise enough to know that in hard rain storms, you should run your car on occasion to keep moisture away from the engine (Heating the engine up reduces moisture).  Cars of today can experience this problem, but it happened way more often with cars built in 1980’s.  Fuel injection engines were a new feature to these vehicles, and my clunky 1983 Oldsmobile still had an old carburetor engine, which was very temperamental.

I clocked out of work a little later than the other guys, so I was surprised to see all of them standing around in the parking lot at 10:15.  It was still pouring down rain, and the wind was still whipping sideways as it had when I started my shift.  Apparently two of their cars were “flooded out”, meaning they had so much moisture in the engine block the cars wouldn’t start properly.  They pushed one car under the overhang at the front entrance of the store and started to work on it.  I went to my car to see if it would turn over properly.

My car started fine.  I think I had the oldest car and the only one with a carburetor.  How that worked out in my favor I’ll never know, but I did know at the time I had to run my engine for ten to twenty minutes before I made my journey home.  While I was waiting for my car, my buddy John called me over to his 1987 Honda sedan.

John found out that his car would not kick over as well, so his Honda made three cars having issues with the rain.  He opened the hood and he handed me a can of starting fluid that he had in the car.  He asked me if I knew where to spray the fluid, and I told him that I had a good idea even though my car had a different engine than his.  The plan was to spray the distributor cap in order to get the moisture off of the spark plugs, then try to start the car.  At this point John and I are soaked.  I am buttoned up in my Nirvana 1990’s grungy green, brown and black flannel, John in his leather college lacrosse jacket.

At least in 1996, starting fluid had diethyl ether in it.  I’ll save 2,000 words to this post by simply saying it is a very volatile flammable liquid that is harmful to skin and harmful to breathe.  When I sprayed John’s distributor cap the first time I let him know that I was done.  He tried to start the car and it cranked, but did not kick over.  Over the next five to seven minutes, we repeated this process a few times and we got the same result.  We were close to getting the car to start but did not succeed.  Growing tired from the work day and becoming ill from standing in the rain for over fifteen minutes, our next move was a sign of our desperation to get out of the weather and home.  It almost burned me.  Literally.

I can’t remember who came up with the idea, but I know we agreed it was a good idea at the time.  I would spray the starting fluid and at the same time John would turn the key and try to start the car.  About five seconds after I started spraying, John turned the key.

WHAOOOOOOOOSH.

I remember when I was spraying a fairly large fireball emerged from the distributor cap area and spread over the hoses across the top portion of the engine.  I jumped back and I thought I was in trouble for sure.  As the fire continued to burn, John jumped out of the driver’s seat frantic and asked me what happened.  As I told him I didn’t know, I realized that I had suffered no burns.  My flannel was intact as well, and I proceeded to take my flannel off to put the fire out.  The fire started to worsen, and I told John to forget about putting the fire out.  Being his car and not having to worry about unbuttoning a tight flannel, John whipped off his leather jacket and starting slamming the thing into the fire.  Since his jacket was soaked from the rain, the flames went out and his jacket remained intact, but dirty.

I had a flashlight and I started looking under the hood to see if the flames were indeed out.  I was checking the hoses that were on fire a few minutes ago, and remarkably they seemed to look normal.  Our theory was when I was spraying the starting fluid, the strong winds caused residual amounts to land on any car parts around the distributor cap.   When John started the car while I was spraying, vapors from the fluid came in contact with a spark plug via the distributor cap, which caused the fire.  Since my spray was probably flying everywhere in the wind, the trail of ether spread to the other areas of the hood that had a coating of fluid on it from the previous attempts to start John’s Honda.

After inspecting everything under John’s hood for several minutes, we couldn’t see any damage.  We didn’t smell anything burning, we didn’t see anything burning and the engine looked the same as it did before the fire.  Puzzled, John turns to me:

“Should I try it again?”

“Go ahead, see what happens.”

John turns the key, and his Honda started up fine.  I was almost sure something was going to start ablaze but nothing bad happened.  The car sounded normal with no signs of stalling out.  We were stunned.  How can this same car that was going up in flames fifteen minutes prior able to run without issue?

Apparently when diethyl ether comes into contact with water during a fire, the fluid will layer on top of water due to its lower density.  So the rain water that got on all of the wires, hoses, engine parts and plastic pieces before the fire saved the car.  The entire event ended up being a huge surface fire, and when John put out the flames with his lacrosse jacket, the components of his Honda stayed intact thanks to the water all over the parts.  The fire created heat, which dried out the moisture under the hood.  That’s why John had no problem starting the car after the flames were put out.

John drove home that night, and when I asked him how the car was running over the next few weeks, he said it never ran better!  The sludge that caused his car to run sluggish under normal driving conditions was literally smoked out of the Honda.  Or more appropriately firebombed out of the Honda.  Yikes.