Billy Bob’s Wonderland - Atlas Obscura

Billy Bob’s Wonderland

Barboursville, West Virginia

This arcade is one of the last places to catch a public performance by the now-defunct ShowBiz Pizza's house band of animatronic animals. 

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Billy Bob’s Wonderland is the last arcade in the United States where you can see the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic band. In the 1980s, the Rock-afire performed in hundreds of locations across America, housed in the now-defunct ShowBiz Pizza Place, which has a long history with the first name in animatronic pizza restaurants: Chuck E. Cheese.

The first location of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre first opened in 1977. A family-friendly restaurant with elements of amusement parks and arcades, the San Jose restaurant was the brainchild of Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell. One of the most distinctive elements of Pizza Time was its cast of animatronic performers, which put on a variety show with songs and jokes every few minutes, led by the restaurant’s namesake Charles Entertainment Cheese. The restaurant was a hit. Bushnell stepped away from Atari to focus on the restaurant, made plans to open hundreds of Pizza Time Theatres across the United States. 

First opened in 1980, ShowBiz Pizza Place was one of many pizza restaurant-entertainment center hybrids following the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre model. But ShowBiz had an advantage: It was owned by Robert Brock, whose company was supposed to lead the Pizza Time franchising deal. Brock had met mechanical engineer Aaron Fechter, who had designed an animatronic animal band of his own that moved more smoothly than Chuck E. Cheese’s Cyberamics.

Fechter’s animatronics powered the Rock-afire Explosion, the house band at ShowBiz Pizza. Led by Billy Bob Brockali, a banjo-playing bear in red-and-white striped overalls, the band’s members included a gorilla named Fatz Geronimo (keyboard), a dog named Dook LaRue (drums), another bear named Beach Bear (guitar), and a mouse named Mitzi Mozzarella (vocals). Performances also included the comedy stylings of Rolfe DeWolfe and Earl Schmerle and Billy Bob’s sidekick Looney Bird. 

The early 80s saw aggressive expansion from Pizza Time and ShowBiz, each company trying to capture a bigger slice of the pizzeria-arcade market. Pizza Time hit some financial hardships along the way and, in 1984, declared bankruptcy. ShowBiz bought them out and combined their robotic stage shows. Many of the animatronics were retrofitted into Chuck E. Cheese characters, putting the Rock-afire Explosion on the endangered species list.

A few local arcades bought Rock-afire shows in the 1990s, but with the decline in popularity of arcades and themed entertainment, they shut down. Billy Bob’s Wonderland in Barboursville, West Virginia, is a rare exception.

A former ShowBiz Pizza, it went independent when other locations were being officially converted into Chuck E. Cheese. It’s the last place where you can see regular public performances by the Rock-afire Explosion. The animatronics have been restored and there are shows each and every day. Fans come from across the country to hear the furry animals sing covers of well-known songs and vintage originals.

Know Before You Go

Billy Bob's Wonderland is open seven days a week. Check the website for operating hours.

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