The Untold Story of Chuck E. Cheese Skee-Ball
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There’s a wonderful story behind this picture. It ends with a man professing a life-altering experience, and begins with the marquee on top of that very first “Chuck E. Cheese” skee-ball machine in this photo. If you tilt your head and squint you can see that it says “Chuck E. Cheese Roll”. A few years ago I was speaking at an entrepreneurialism event in South Florida with Dr. Gene N. Landrum, the man pictured on the right in the above photo. What happened next became part of a really heartwarming story.
Dr. Landrum had been the Silicon Valley marketing guru behind the successful launch of Atari’s Home Consumer Division and the Atari 2600 VCS. After leaving Atari with Nolan Bushnell, Gene developed the concept and characters that we know today as “Chuck E. Cheese” and served as the company’s first President.
The group we had attended that day was somewhat large, close to 200 entrepreneurs all working on their own ideas. During the Q&A session following Gene’s talk, a man named Pete stepped forward and presented Gene with what looked to be a framed picture.
As he handed Gene the picture frame, this man told the story of how he was once a cabinet maker who had become a small manufacturer of skee-ball machines, initially building them out of his garage.
Decades ago, just as “Chuck E. Cheese” was hitting its stride, Pete had brought his skee-ball machines a trade show where Gene Landrum happened to be attending. “Would you be willing to build custom skee-ball machines for our restaurants with a “Chuck E. Cheese” theme on them?” Gene asked, as this was something the big skee-ball manufacturers of the time were unwilling to do. Pete agreed and Gene Landrum placed a sizable order of skee-ball machines. Pete was in business!
Those initial “Cheese Roll” orders put Pete on the map. Shortly thereafter Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre bought Pete’s company outright, and the rest was history. From that story came “Whack-A-Munch” and many other arcade staples of early Pizza Time Theatre restaurants.
With tears in his eyes, Pete went on to say how Gene Landrum had changed his life forever with the order for these “Chuck E. Cheese Roll” skee-ball machines. The framed picture he gave Gene wasn’t a picture at all, but an original “Chuck E. Cheese Roll” glass skee-ball marquee from one of the very first machines, nicely framed with a little gold plaque at the bottom.
Gene has it in his house today.
Justin is a Technology Entrepreneur, Futurist and Raconteur, and an avid Atari aficionado behind the creation of Atari I/O. He is also a contributing writer at The Retroist under the name Atari I/O. You can follow him at his website https://www.atari.io