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A visit to the last animatronics still singing in Chuck E. Cheese

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A Chuck E. Cheese in Northridge, Calif., will be the last remaining stronghold for the chain's signature animatronics. NPR's Emma Bowman visited the pizza arcade for nostalgia sake.

EMMA BOWMAN, BYLINE: I went to Chuck E. Cheese on a Saturday at peak birthday party time for kids, but the parents who brought them came for the giant mechanical puppets.

MUNCH'S MAKE BELIEVE BAND: (Singing) Good times right here. When it comes to keeping the groove...

BOWMAN: Kyle Cooper was there with his 3-year-old daughter.

KYLE COOPER: This is her first time, yeah. And I heard that this was the last place with the animatronics. I took my daughter here specifically to see the animatronics because that's what I grew up with.

BOWMAN: He's talking about those slow blinking, fuzzy robots on stage, a cast of singing characters known as Munch's Make Believe Band. They've been a fixture of the kids' play place since Chuck E. Cheese opened in 1977.

COOPER: It was exactly how I remembered it if only I could hear it. They're just kind of flapping around up there without much sound.

BOWMAN: On the wall opposite the animatronics stage, a giant video screen has stolen kids' attention. So has the new interactive dance floor. Tahiti Malone came with her grandkids. She's bummed that the sound of the new technology is drowning out the old.

TAHITI MALONE: Nobody's paying attention. Nobody's really looking.

BOWMAN: The company is revamping the franchise to appeal to a new digital generation. By the end of next year, the animatronics will have moved out of the chain's more than 400 locations, all but one. Here in Northridge, northwest of Hollywood, they'll have a permanent residency.

MALONE: So you got to leave something behind. Everything does not have to be on a big screen.

BOWMAN: But Malone's friend, Gigi Boyaga, is on board with Chuck E. Cheese 2.0.

GIGI BOYAGA: I love it because it's today's world, so my daughter could relate to this.

NOLAN BUSHNELL: The whole idea of Chuck E. Cheese was to make it a place where the kids would be king.

BOWMAN: That's Chuck E. Cheese's founder, Nolan Bushnell. Bushnell co-founded the video game titan Atari. The pizza parlor concept was designed as a distribution method for Atari's hit video games like Pong and Centipede.

BUSHNELL: But there weren't any family-friendly locations for kids under 12. You know, bowling alleys were a little bit rough, bars, of course, no.

BOWMAN: But they didn't forget about the parents. Beer and wine has always been on the menu. And the animatronics? Those were also for the adults. The robotic characters originally spoke in double entendres.

BUSHNELL: I felt that the skits had to be somewhat sophisticated, not so that it would leave the kids behind but so that the jokes were something that would amuse parents.

BOWMAN: A restless innovator, Bushnell left the company in 1984. Still, he welcomes the changes.

BUSHNELL: I've always wanted my products to be at the edge, and I think what they're doing now is keeping that ethos alive.

BOWMAN: Virginie Khare teaches international business and marketing at Eckerd College. She says reinvention has been key to Chuck E. Cheese's success.

VIRGINIE KHARE: Animatronics, you know, looked a little dated. Let's be honest. And I don't think that nostalgia marketing would appeal to the new generation of kids.

BOWMAN: But for the inner children of the generations that loved Munch's Make Believe Band, they'll be playing right here in Northridge seven days a week. Emma Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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