Not counting work as a paper boy, my first real job was at Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater in Huntington Beach, California. I was on the brink of turning 16 when I obtained the necessary work permit from my High School and took a job in Chuck’s kitchen making pizza.
For those who are unfamiliar with Chuck E. Cheese and his restaurant, allow me to provide some background. Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater is an arcade, populated by a cast of characters led by a large Rat named Chuck E. Cheese, that also serves some food to kids who return briefly to the table between visits to the ball room and their parents who wait for them. The place is a parent trap designed to keep the kids giddy with excitment with their hands out to be refilled with game tokens courtesy of the folks. Waiting for the pizza provides plenty of time for the youngsters to play games, and eating the pizza provides some parental distraction so they can play more games.
The pizza was actually pretty good. Toppings for each one were weighed to ensure just the right about was used. And while taking laps in the rotating oven, the pizzas would be monitored for any overly large cheese bubbles which were promptly popped with a poker if they grew too large. And although it dominated, pizza wasn’t the only thing on the menu. I had my first French Dip sandwich courtesy of Chuck.
Life in the kitchen wasn’t bad. I would come to work in the standard uniform; a baggy red and yellow shirt over brown pants covered by a brown vinyl apron topped off with a plastic red derby, and churn out pizzas by the dozen. Pizzas for the customers, a mini-one for myself on break, and special ones for family and friends with hidden notes or an unexpected anchovy buried in the melted cheese. I worked this pizza building assembly line until my shift was done, and went home to do homework, satisfied that I had served mankind.
As a parent trap, one secret weapon that Chuck E. Cheese’s employs is the birthday party. By getting kids to demand that their birthday be hosted at their favorite Rat’s restaurant, Chuck E. can count on platoons of partygoers to spend hours pumping tokens into games that feed a gambler’s addiction by rewarding tickets that can be exchanged for worthless plastic trinkets. “But Mom, I only need 75 more tickets to get that plastic spider ring!!”. Such a party package would include pizza, a cake, some tokens to get everyone started, and a personal visit from Chuck E. Cheese himself.
On weekends the quiet life of a pizza builder could be turned upside down by a party host looking to put somebody in the rat suit. I often found myself yanked off the pizza line and told to suit up, to become Chuck E. Cheese and visit a birthday party and wander the game room for a spell. On busy days, when partys were stacked up, I’d just stay in the rat suit, cooling off in the walk-in freezer, sucking a lemon slice, and taking stock of what the experience was teaching me.
And now, after years of reflection, I share these lessons with you dear reader in the hope that if you ever find yourself in a rat suit surrounded by small children that my experience will serve you well.
- You Don’t Need to Smile – When visiting a birthday party wearing a rat suit, you can count on being asked to pose for many photos. That’s what you’re there for, you are a walking furry photo op. Years of conditioning and saying ‘cheese’ will naturally lead you to smile when a camera is pointed at you. Don’t bother! You’re wearing a big plastic rat head! They can’t see you’re face and that’s good because no birthday child wants their photo taken with a pimple faced teenager from the kitchen. I don’t know how many photo albums I’m in, hidden behind a plastic rat face with a frozen grin, but if you could see me behind it, you’d see the contorted faces I created just for the occasion.
- Hold Onto Your Tail – If you don’t, some kid or kids will be glad to hold onto it for you. More than likely they’ll decide to see how fast Chuck E. can run backwards as they drag him all over the restaurant by his tail. Don’t let this happen to you. Keep a firm grip on your tail in your left hand at all times. [note: This lesson has apparently been learned, the rat suit of today is tail-less, perhaps Chuck E. met up with that farmer’s wife]
- Don’t Pick a Kid Up – Because if you pick up one, they’ll all want to be picked up. I actually learned this lesson in the Mr. Munch suit (a purple Cookie Monster rip-off that eats pizza). I was walking the game room as Mr. Munch, surrounded by a pack of kids, when one angelic little dear looked up at me and sweetly pleaded with outstreched arms, “Pick me up Mr. Munch”. Like concert security plucking a rock groupie from the crushing crowd behind them, I picked her up in my furry purple arms and lifted her high above my head. And the moment I put her down dozens of synchronized little arms reached into the air, and voices shouted as one, “Pick ME up Mr. Munch!!”. Mr. Munch ran like hell for the kitchen.
- Handshake Revenge – Not every youngster will be struck with awe in your presence. Some, like the tail pullers described above, know you’re just a sad sack kitchen worker inside that rat suit and they seek only to torment you by pulling your tail, trying to trip you or knock your plastic head off. Already well on their way to a life of crime, youngsters such as these are screaming out for some discipline. But it wouldn’t go well with Chuck E’s image for him to be scooping mean kids up and giving them the beatings they deserve, and so when in the rat suit you really just have to take it. But there is one thing you can do. Offer your hand to one of these kids to shake, I guarentee you they’ll take it, and then bring the brat to his knees in a furry knuckle-grinding grip he won’t soon forget. The wide-eyed hooligan isn’t likely to bother you again, and just may have been scared straight thanks to Chuck E.’s caring clench.
I probably learned a few other things in that rat suit, but these are the ones that have remained the most clear to me to this day when I am now myself a parent who is sometimes caught in the rat trap. I left the employ of Chuck E. Cheese’s to continue my teenage career as a cashier at the local movie theater, but that’s another set of lessons.