A familiar site in San Jose is Chuck E. Cheese smiling at those driving by on highway 101.
Nolan Bushnell started Atari in 1972, making video games with a partner in the bay area. In 1977 he opened the first Chuck E. Cheese in what is now the Santana Row shopping center in San Jose. The second opened on Blossom Hill in San Jose and the third was this huge and locally famous one off of 101. Since then this giant Chuck E. Cheese has been smiling at us all as we have driven by. Before the giant smiling rat, this large restaurant and video game arcade building had once been a toy store with giant toy soldiers facing the highway. The location realized its great potential, however, when it opened up as a two story Chuck E. Cheese restaurant with seemingly hidden worlds and passageways for kids to discover between playing what appeared to be infinite video games, structures to climb in, time for loosing and finding staircases again and the miniature Chuck E. Cheese apartment that kids could crawl through. Then, of course, there were the animatronic stage shows. The place was mind blowing for a kid.
It has changed quite a bit in the decades since it oppened. The animatronics and stage are gone; replaced with a wall projecting a video of Chuck E. Cheese. The miniature apartment is no longer there. Well, if it is, it’s not open to the public. The play structures are gone. There is still food, plenty of space, and a whole lot of video games; more games than even there were when the place first opened. You could say Chuck E. Cheese accomplished its mission. Nolan Bushnell conceived of and opened the business as a way to make video games accessible to families and ultimately, to build video game customers. At the time, when video games were just starting out and Atari was just building its fame, video games were found in pool halls and bars where future customers, kids, were not able to get to them. Nolan wanted to mix a family restaurant with a little Disneyland together as a backdrop to providing video games to future generations. The model was copied often and expanded far and wide, spreading the connections of kids and video games.
The first video game I ever really really wanted to own was Super Mario Brothers. I had played Mario Brothers in the local pizza shop and suddenly found out that I could actually own it and bring it home. Yes, I think Nolan’s plan worked.