Thursday, October 08, 2009

Culture Shock 10.08.09: Phenix City man launches Rock-afire tour

People in Alabama understand obsessions, but most people’s obsessions here involve football.

Some dedicate entire rooms to their favorite football teams. They build shrines to the Auburn Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide. A few heretics even worship at the altar of the Tennessee Volunteers — and may soon resort to human sacrifices.

But in Phenix City, population 30,000, just west of the Georgia state line, one man has an obsession that is almost all his own.

Chris Thrash is obsessed with Showbiz Pizza, a family restaurant chain that, in the early 1980s, was the backbone of America's arcade culture.

Showbiz Pizza offered its customers — mostly pre-teens and their parents — pizza, video games and rides. But more importantly, Showbiz Pizza was the home of an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion.

Now Thrash's obsession is the subject of an affectionate, bittersweet and thoroughly engaging documentary by Brett Whitcomb and Jason Connell. "The Rock-afire Explosion" is now available on DVD after a tour of film festivals nationwide, including last year's Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham.

From a stage overlooking Showbiz Pizza's main dining room, The Rock-afire Explosion sang songs, cracked jokes, delighted children and annoyed parents. The band's members included the restaurant's mascot Billy Bob (a bear), Fatz Geronimo (a gorilla) and Mitzi Mozzarella (a mouse). All were given life by an elaborate network of gears, electronics and air pumps.

As a boy, Thrash told himself he'd someday have his own Rock-afire Explosion. Now 33 years old and married, he finally does. And he is sharing it with the world.

He purchased one of the last remaining Rock-afire Explosion sets from Orlando-based Creative Engineering, assembled it inside a building in his backyard and filmed the band's reunion performance for YouTube.

It turned out Thrash wasn't alone. Before long, his videos of The Rock-afire Explosion were an Internet sensation among thirtysomethings nostalgic for their long-lost youth.

Yet, as much as Whitcomb and Connell's film is about Thrash, it's also about Aaron Fechter, the founder of Creative Engineering, inventor of Whac-A-Mole and creator of The Rock-afire Explosion.

Creative Engineering's fortunes fell along with Showbiz Pizza, which purchased bankrupt rival Chuck E. Cheese, took on the Chuck E. Cheese name and then phased out The Rock-afire Explosion when Fechter refused to relinquish his Rock-afire trademarks and copyrights.

In the old Creative Engineering factory, tools and equipment gather dust, untouched for 20 years. The last Rock-afire Explosion ever made sits in crates, waiting for some nostalgic buyer to come along.

Meanwhile, in Phenix City, Thrash and his wife have opened The Showbiz Pizza Zone, where a new generation of children and their thirtysomething parents come for pizza and arcade games. And the Rock-afire Explosion still plays.

This time, I bet, the parents are less annoyed.

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