Entertainment

It's true: The ShowBiz Pizza robot band is back, at a retro arcade bar

Rock-afire Explosion band from Showbiz Pizza fame now playing at arcade bar

The Rock-afire Explosion band from Showbiz Pizza fame was brought back to life for a retro arcade bar in Kansas City.
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The Rock-afire Explosion band from Showbiz Pizza fame was brought back to life for a retro arcade bar in Kansas City.

For kids who grew up in the '80s and early '90s, few things were more mind-blowing than a trip to ShowBiz Pizza.

The chain of family entertainment centers had it all: arcade games, pizza and an awesome — or creepy, depending on whom you ask — animatronic robot band called the Rock-afire Explosion.

The band, led by a banjo-playing hillbilly bear named Billy Bob, broke up in 1992 when ShowBiz Pizza rebranded to Chuck E. Cheese's. But now it's back together at Rock-afire, a new arcade bar in midtown Kansas City.

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An original Rock-afire Explosion band from ShowBiz Pizza, a chain of family entertainment centers from the 1980s and early 1990s, is the centerpiece of a new Kansas City arcade bar, also called Rock-afire. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

Rock-afire opens Thursday, May 24, at the former Empire Room spot at 334 E. 31st St., on Martini Corner. The 21-and-over bar features arcade games and pinball machines from the '80s and '90s. It also has the only public, fully functioning Rock-afire Explosion band in the world, according to owner James Bond.

The band was refurbished by its inventor, Aaron Fechter of Creative Engineering in Orlando, Fla.

Fechter made new masks, skin and costumes for the band. He showed off his progress last month in a video posted to the Rock-afire Explosion YouTube channel.

Bond, 33, was a huge fan of the robot band when he was a 5-year-old in Kansas City, where the first ShowBiz Pizza opened in 1980. His favorite member was Fatz Geronimo, the keyboard-playing silverback gorilla.

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Rock-afire's animatronic robot band features original characters from the 1980s, including Fatz Geronimo, a keyboard-playing silverback gorilla. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

"You didn't know whether they were fake or real," says Bond, who also owns Sissy's Breakfast & Lunch in the Northland and Ron Rico in the East Crossroads.

Bond collects retro arcade games and jumped at the chance to buy a Rock-afire Explosion band from Fechter, who also invented Whac-A-Mole.

In addition to Billy Bob and Fatz, the reunited band features Dook LaRue, a drumming dog in a space suit; Beach Bear, a guitar-playing polar bear; and Mitzi Mozzarella, a singing cheerleader mouse. Each character has a distinct personality and facial expressions.

To the left of the band stands Rolfe DeWolfe, a wolf comedian with a ventriloquist puppet named Earle Schemerle. DeWolfe razzes the band between sets and, during songs, twirls Schemerle's limp yellow body like a wet towel.

Bond and Fechter are working together to program new songs for the band to play. The current set list includes '80s classics by Michael Jackson and Madonna and modern hits such as Katy Perry's "Firework." Get ready to be hypnotized, because a Biggie Smalls medley is coming.

Grown-up ShowBiz Pizza kids who go to Rock-afire will recognize many of the band's old songs, like "Happy Birthday" and "My Gal Is Red Hot." The furry robots also perform explicit hits like Afroman's "Because I Got High," which is mildly uncomfortable to watch.

Bond hopes the Rock-afire Explosion sets his arcade bar apart from others in Kansas City. Among them: Up-Down and Tapcade in the Crossroads Arts District, Broadway Arcade downtown and Draftcade in the Northland.

The band "is something you're not gonna find anywhere else," Bond says. "It's about experiencing being a child again, but in an adult setting."

Rock-afire arcade bar on Kansas City's Martini Corner
Rock-afire is in the former Empire Room spot at 334 E. 31st St. on Martini Corner. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

Rock-afire is already building buzz. Its Facebook page scored 1,300 likes within a week, and a tweet by a Kansas City man about the bar was favorited more than 130 times.

He posted: "Me: Ugh, companies think they can just automatically earn my generation's money by pandering to our sense of nostalgia, well it's not that easy folks! Also me: OMG AN ARCADE BAR IS OPENING THAT HAS AN OLD ANIMATRONIC BAND FROM SHOWBIZ PIZZA, I'LL TAKE MY PAYCHECK IN QUARTERS PLZ."

Bond says Rock-afire tokens will cost $5 for 25 but that patrons who are at the bar ordering drinks will get to play for free.

The bar's game selection includes arcade staples such as "Donkey Kong Junior," "Mortal Kombat" and "Super Mario Bros. 3" — you know, the one with the warp whistles. There's also "The Simpsons," "Crazy Taxi," "Rampage World Tour" and two Arnold Schwarzenegger games: "Terminator 2 Judgment Day" and a "Last Action Hero" pinball machine.

Bond's favorite is "Ice Cold Beer," a rare find made in 1983. Players use two joysticks to guide a ball into lit-up holes on a vertical wooden play field that looks like a pint of suds.

The bar serves beer and mixed drinks that sound like they were created by a kid: Princess Peach Sangria with sliced peaches, a Ms. Pac-Man shot with cherry vodka and lemonade and a Ninja Turtle drink with green apple vodka and Hawaiian Punch Green Berry Rush.

Rock-afire is open from 4 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Thursday, 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday. Bond says he might expand hours later on.

He's also considering adding more games in the basement, and karaoke.

Singers, of course, would be backed up by Rock-afire Explosion. Because sometimes, childhood dreams do come true.

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