Friday, March 12, 2010

Cheese Fight!

My first job, if you don't count a once-a-week newspaper route, was working at Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre. I started in September of 1983, as I began my Junior year of high school. Like most of the first-time-employed at Chuckie's, I started as a busboy, cleaning up little pizza disaster areas for minimum wage. As first jobs go, this place was pretty cool. Free videogame-playing after hours, noise and pizza everywhere, a wacky teenage crew – and they paid us, too! There was also the occasional clandestine cup of beer, smuggled to us by the of-age cashiers. Life was very good, indeed.

After a week or two of working on my table-clearing, shaker-filling, chrome-polishing craft, my manager, undoubtedly sensing my limitless potential, let me start learning other areas of the operation. I picked up each new skill quickly. Before long, I was regarded as a master of the scullery. During peak hours, they'd usually have someone assigned exclusively to scullery, but when I was around I'd get that plus bussing duties in one or two of the dining rooms. Yes, stretching before me was a bright future of cleaning up after people. Eventually I made it to the kitchen, then to oven/cut. Oven/cut was fun, because I got to call out pizza orders and Orioles playoff scores on the P.A. system. Kitchen was even more fun, because it afforded me the opportunity to create works of pizza art, and it was out of sight of the customers, making it one of the best places to goof around with coworkers. Hot, though.

My proficiency in the kitchen, especially in terms of keeping it clean through a big rush, earned me several "special projects." When I spent four hours meticulously sanitizing the walk-in refrigerator, my manager slipped me a cash bonus worth 2 1/2 hours of wages – a ten-dollar bill! As I toiled away at all these unglamorous tasks, I kept myself focused on eventually making the Big Time. Here, the Big Time was climbing into a furry gray suit and becoming Chuck E. Cheese himself. I knew that not everyone could expect to ever earn such an honor, but I hoped.

My hard work and dedication, my study and dogged determination all paid off on that glorious day when I first got to wear the coveted costume. Actually, being "Chuckie" turned out to be a mixed blessing. I found it to be really easy, compared to most of the other posts. All one had to do was don the costume and walk around hugging kids, shaking hands and pantomiming goofily. Chuckie got to go out into the fresh air and wave at cars. Chuckie was often escorted about by one of the cuter girls of the crew. But the costume was very hot. There were two or three full suits, and I don't think any of them had ever been washed, so they were getting pretty nasty. There was always danger for Chuckie, too. For every kid who ran up to hug Chuckie, there were three who wanted to abuse and/or expose the human in the suit. The little monsters would lift up my huge Chuckie feet to see my sneakers, grab my plastic Chuckie nose and peer into the screened mouth and eye holes, try to knock my Chuckie head off, pull my furry hands and don't even get me started on that TAIL!! Chuckie wasn't defenseless though. One of the costumes had a pink felt-covered vacuum cleaner hose for a tail, and I found that with it I could inflict a serious whack upon my little enemies while maintaining the appearance of playful innocence. Also, hangers-on could be led into freezing rain and snow outside. In an emergency there was always the "nose bonk" wherein I'd stay upright and give my attacker a vigorous hug, bringing that hard plastic nose down sharply upon the unsuspecting cretin's head, often with devastating force. All things considered though, being Chuckie still beat the hard work and heat of the kitchen, scullery or oven/cut.

Chuckie also provided his share of thrills for the crew and customers alike. On one of my first nights, Chuckie knocked me into the sundae bar, sprinting in his huge shoes to escape the vicious kicks and punches of his female escort. Apparently, Mr. Cheese had "copped a feel" as she led him through the crowded game room. Seeing Chuck E. Cheese being chased through the restaurant by a high school girl with murder in her eyes was more than most customers could bear, but the crew found it uproariously funny. I was impressed to see how even under spectacular assault, the young man in the Chuckie suit stayed completely in character. He clutched his tail as he ran from his attacker, pantomiming his terror as he went, occasionally trying to hide behind customers, using them to shield himself from the girl. I didn't see how management could possibly have failed to see the humor in this.

There was also the tail-fire incident. Chuckie was visiting one of the birthday parties in the Pizza Time Theatre (the fact that they spelled it with the "re" still cracks me up!), when a youngster tugged on his arm. As he turned to greet the child, his tail hovered over the burning birthday candles just long enough to ignite its pink felt covering. Screams and shouts filled the darkened "theatre," but screams and shouts always fill the place, so Chuckie continued patting the heads of children, some terrified and some wildly amused. People started gesturing frantically at the mouse, but people always seemed to be gesturing at him, so he just acted coy and waved back, now with a significant portion of his tail alight. One of the managers rushed through the crowd toward him and, as is his wont, Chuckie playfully scampered away, trailing smoke and flame as he went. Two or three employees finally got hold of the burning tail and doused it in a pitcher of Sprite, to the cheers and laughter of the customers. Again, Chuck E. Cheese stayed in character. He gingerly held his blackened tail with one paw and fanned it with the other, as his boss led the stricken mouse away to the break room.

But nothing could top the incident that came to be known simply as "The Fight." I was clearing tables in the Theatre when I saw one of my kitchen buddies, Mike, slip into Chuckie's dressing room with one of the girls. This was normal; Chuckie would often emerge from his dressing room already armed with his escort. But Mike was a wild man, and action followed him wherever he went. It was Mike who came tearing through my kitchen from oven/cut with a flaming trash can one day, only to panic at the alarm-equipped back door and dump the burning contents onto the floor. It had also been our hero Mike who was caught in a state of mutual half-undress with Wendy in Chuck E. Cheese's dressing room. And yes, Wendy was the girl he'd "pawed" as Chuckie a month earlier. With Mike's track record in mind, I made sure I hung around the Theatre until he made his big Chuckie entrance.

The lights went down and a buzz of excitement went through the mechanical supporting cast of characters along the Theatre wall. Then came the spotlight on Chuckie's door, the drum roll and the pre-recorded introduction. As was his style, Mike-as-Chuckie grandly flung the dressing room door open and strutted out. How he managed to strut in that costume with those enormous feet was beyond all of us. Pattering after him came his escort, Wendy – tucking in her shirt. Immediately, there was a problem. In mid-wave, Chuckie froze. I saw Wendy's eyes go wide as the smile fell off her face like an undercooked strand of spaghetti off a kitchen wall. She and Chuckie were staring right past where I was lingering with my bus cart. I turned around and instantly understood their grave expressions. Just behind me, with everyone's eyes upon him, was another Chuck E. Cheese.

Everything stopped as the two huge fuzzy gray mice stared at each other with their hands on their hips. No one knew what to make of it. Was it part of the show? The kids began proclaiming their astonished observations that "There's another Chuckie!" Before I could finish saying, "Well what do you know – It's Chuckie's twin brother, Chachi Cheese," Mike-Chuckie started stomping toward Chuckie #2. Chuckie #2 gave him the Universal hand gestures for "you want a piece of me?" as Wendy tried in vain to hold Mike back. I joined the vain effort to keep them apart, but Mike gave me a wicked nose-bonk, before lunging at Chuckie #2 over my bus cart. Chuckie #2 side-stepped the initial lunge, sending Mike-Chuckie and a mountain of plastic cups and plates, pizza crusts and coke crashing all over the Theatre floor. Someone screamed and parents rushed to sweep their children out of the room as Chuckie #2 landed a quick pair of body blows on Mike. His recovery was swift, and he punched #2 in the stomach, then kneed him in the side of his huge Chuckie head as he doubled over. Mouse #2, with his head now sideways atop his body, gave Mike a shove, toppling him over the wrecked bus cart and into the pile of table debris. By now several crew members and a manager were shouting and pulling at both mice, but Mike broke free and a flurry of furry punches was exchanged, eventually landing both combatants, me and the manager in the mess on the floor. Soaked with coke and pizza sauce, the rodents returned to their now-askew feet for another round of furious punches. As Mike began to get the upper paw, Chuckie #2 made a break for it, toward the front of the restaurant. But Mike-Chuckie was not to be denied, and he chased down and tackled his twin, knocking both of their heads off and prompting more screams. Both Chuckies, realizing that they had just committed THE Cardinal Sin of mascotdom, let up just long enough for the managers to drag them, heads in hands (literally), to the office to sort it all out.

After that day, nothing fazed us at the Rockville Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre. We spent the rest of our days there separated into two classes of employees – those who had seen The Fight and those who hadn't. I was one of the privileged few.

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