Happy birthday, Chuck E. Cheese


Most mice only live a few months. But Chuck E. Cheese's turns 35 today.

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The kid-friendly restaurant chain was launched this day in 1977, bringing its curious blend of animatronic rodents, arcade games, Skee-ball and pizza to millions. It's faced more than a few hurdles over the years, but it's still going strong, with over 500 stores around the world and quarterly revenues of nearly $200 million.

But despite its success, there are plenty of things you might not know about the Pizza Time Theater. Such as:

- It was the brainchild of the man behind Atari.

Nolan Bushnell is a video game legend, having built the first gaming empire by co-founding Atari in 1972. But for his next trick, he stepped out of the living room and into the restaurant business by creating Chuck E. Cheese's.

He's proud of his work, though he knows that most parents cringe when their kids beg them to go there.

"I guess that I have never been surprised that the chain has lasted this long," says Bushnell, who's no longer involved with the restaurant. "There will always be a place for kids and I'm proud that it has given so much joy to so many young kids, though not always to their parents."

- Chuck E. Cheese wasn't always a mouse.

When Bushnell first came up with the concept of the restaurant, there were no plans to use a rodent as the mascot.

"The project started as Coyote Pizza," says Bushnell. "We thought that a Coyote would be a great mascot. I purchased what I thought was a Coyote costume from an amusement park walk-around costume vendor and had it shipped to the company. When it got here it was obvious to everyone but me that it was a rat costume.

"Rather than get another costume we decided that we would use a big rat as the mascot. Marketing didn't like Rick Rats Pizza and came up with Chuck E. Cheese - as they called it a 'three smile name.'"

A rat -- particularly one born in Jersey that made rude comments and interrupted his guests -- is an odd mascot. As the restaurant evolved, officials quickly morphed Chuck E. into a more cuddly mouse. His manners improved as the years went by, as well. Today, he's the kindly master of ceremonies.

- The key to its success? Tokens.

You can't walk into a Chuck E. Cheese's without being assaulted by the sounds of arcade games. They're as much a soundtrack to the place as the animatronic band's music and screaming children. But they have a secret purpose.

The tokens that the chain uses are an artificial monetary system meant to distract people from the fact that they're spending real money, and even make them think they're getting a bargain. It's an old arcade trick. Remember how excited you were to get 10 tokens for a dollar when you used to go to the arcade? You were still giving cash to the owners, but felt like you were getting the best of them.

"The token system was very key to the success of Chuck E. Cheese," Bushnell noted a few years ago. "It's something you can promote. You don't want to give away quarters, but with tokens, you can give away games. It gives you some very interesting flexibility to do cool and interesting things."

- Some of those tokens  are now worth real money.

Chuck E. Cheese's has gone through so many varieties of tokens that a collector's market has sprung up around the restaurant. Pretty much anything from the chain's early days is worth something to collectors (scarce, early menus, for example, can run up to $50). A token from 1994 can run as high as $15.

If you've got an early token from one of the restaurant's overseas locations, though, you're really in the driver's seat. An early Charlie Cheese token from Australia (the company changed the name, since "chuck" is Australian slang for "vomiting") will fetch up to $40.

- It's not just for kids

Sure, the restaurant is designed for children, but that doesn't mean it can't be the place for adults to take a date.

Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were spotted at one last week, and one Virginia couple even made a romantic Valentine's Day out of it.

As Steve Gustafson and his fiancée Heather Fields (who have no kids, it's worth noting) were deciding what to do for the most romantic day of the year, they had an epiphany.

"We realized we had already done the expensive dinner in a high-priced restaurant," says Gustafson. "We wanted to do something different that was low stress but high fun. … [It certainly beat] a crowded DC restaurant - looking for our waiter to refill our water, and being hassled by someone selling $50 roses outside. At Chuck E. Cheese's we got to laugh and have fun - in casual clothes!"

Bushnell adds that it is, in fact, quite common for people to make a love connection at the restaurant.

"An unintended result of the chain is that it became the perfect place for divorced or widowed parents to meet a new mate," says Bushnell. "There have been thousands of marriages by people that met at a Chuck E. Cheese's."

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