When Lemons Are An Oil Embargo, Lemonade is a Singing Keyboardist Mechanical Gorilla
by Silence Do_nothing
The issue which has twisted more knots in the philosophically inclined mind than even Zeno's Paradox itself: Which is greater, an experimental automobile intended to squeeze more miles out of a tank of gas or a band of animatronic, anthropomorphic musicians intended to squeeze a longer visit out of patrons at a family pizzeria and arcade in the early 80s? I learned of the connection between the two from a documentary called The Rock-afire Explosion. Through old footage and contemporary interviews, it details the robotic band, its creator and nostalgia intoxicated fans.
The oil crisis of the 70s motivated young engineer Aaron Fechter to design a fuel efficient car. He became sidetracked through his other inventions whose sales were intended to help fund the high MPG prototype, which led to a business contact hiring him to work on an electronic shooting gallery with minor animatronic features, which led to Aaron designing his own animatronic characters, which led to them being shown at conventions, which led to his creating the Rock-afire Explosion animatronic band, which led to many children in the 80s enjoying them, which led to some of them developing an obsession into adulthood, which led to at least one them buying a set for his own home, which led to a filmmaker producing a documentary on it, which led to the movie being picked up by Netflix, which led its inclusion on a recommended viewing list for a Netflix user who happened to be a hobbyist writer for this blog, which led to a resurfacing of his warm and fuzzy memories of visiting Showbiz Pizza as a kid, which led to his adding the film to his queue, which led to his viewing it, which led to his post of it, which led to a silly title and this sentence. Hopefully this hasn't led to an exasperated reader thinking "Enough already! We get it. Move on." (In my defense, it's already been established that this text would not have occurred without the oil crisis of the 70s. I am but a saltine cracker crumb in the piping hot tomato soup of geopolitical turmoil.)
The Rock-afire Explosion looked like cartoon characters brought to the real world. Clothed animals with bold facial gestures stood upright as they sang and bantered among each other. They had names like Mitzi Mozzarela, Billy Bob Brockali and Fatz Geronimo. It was corny, but that never stopped kids’ love of talking animal characters.
The most vivid memory I have of them involves my habit of focusing on a background character who hadn't moved yet and waiting for the spotlight to shine on it as it joined the others and burst to life. There was something eerie and fun seeing the fast contrast of a lifeless doll transforming into an expressive and boisterous personality.
Honestly though, my liking for them was secondary to – and probably partly influenced by – my greater fondness for the Showbiz Pizza restaurant/arcade chain they were situated in. This was back when arcade games were light years ahead of home consoles. The coolest thing there for me, at the time, was the Dragon's Lair (1983) laserdisc game (even though gameplay was nearly non-existent). The Rock-afire was a part of the fun atmosphere that permeated Showbiz, but not the primary reason to go there.
As expected of someone who took on a second job and saved for two years to purchase a set of the performers, a much greater attachment to the artificial band is shown by Chris Thrash, the most prominently featured superfan. He's a genial eccentric whose nostalgia indulgence serves as his stress relief. Chris learned enough of their operation to re-program them to sync up with current songs, performances which he posts to the internet. He explains his pastime as less harmful than that of many others which people use to unwind. I see that as the validation for all innocuous leisure activities which happen to be weird.
For viewers who would scoff at his hobby for the idea of it alone, its expense compounds their negative impression. How can he waste his money on that? But it's his hard earned money and if he is getting an enjoyment out of it, then it is squandered no more than any other luxury purchase. I have a feeling that buying something like Italian marble would be more acceptable, even if it cost considerably more. I'd rather see someone go Chris' route. That isn't solely my robot chauvinism finding robots cooler than rocks ninety-nine times out of a hundred(although, if I had a financial stake in precious gems, I might think differently).
People of bad taste have less murky motives than those of good. I don't know if people thought to have good taste indulge in objects of good taste because they find it worthy on its own merit or if they find respect rubs off on them when they go along with respected opinions of what is worthy. It's true that there are those who will favor a thing simply for it being out of favor, but Chris didn't strike me as any contrarian or hipster. There's a certain purity in liking something despite everyone thinking that makes you clueless. Or maybe that's just the delusional consolation from someone who manages to consistently to find himself out of step with both the beautiful people and the sophisticated crowd. But still, imagine how much easier the workday would be borne if you knew that waiting at home for you was the Rock-afire Explosion. "A chicken in every pot, and an animatronic rock band in every living room."
Critics may point to Chris' behavior as an example of our generation's infantilization. I would counter that perhaps previous generations' youth entertainment wasn't awesome enough to stick with audiences into their adult years in a way which would motivate them to endure the scorn which a continued enjoyment of that entertainment brings (although having read many reprints, the E.C. comics of fifties would be good candidates).
The movie could have done with added breadth – only a few fans besides Chris were featured, and that was mainly providing general background information on the characters and restaurant. There were questions I wish it would have addressed, such as whether the costs of the Rock-afire significantly contributed to Showbiz's financial woes. These complaints aside, it was still worth the view to get a blast from the past and a peek at two personalities displaying a passion in a weird and wonderful field. It deals with nostalgia, but you don't need to feel nostalgic for the subject to enjoy the film. If anything, lacking it would lead to it appearing even stranger and more fascinating.
Insofar as a seventy-two minute documentary on animatronic characters from decades past can function as a north star in guiding one in the greener car/singing animal robots conundrum presented at the beginning of the post, I am siding with the latter. The old footage in the movie of Aaron driving his prototype made it look like Rock-afire was the more fruitful path of his engineering talents. The vehicle had such a stripped down flimsy looking frame that it reminded me of the Flintstone's car. Unless you're a really hardcore fan of the Hanna-Barbera show, you can't want that. Although if someone were, and dressed as Fred as he drove such a car to commemorate his happy youth spent watching the cartoon, it would have the potential for good documentary material. Especially if it also had another person in a Great Gazoo costume riding along, insulting him. Just beware that the green body make up doesn't make him sick.