Children like three things during their birthdays: pizza, games and animatronic animals. The '80s and '90s saw those very ideals become a reality in a sprawling fantasy world of talking mooses, raccoons and mice.
In Calgary, the first was Bullwinkle's. Before the current south Schanks sports bar, there was the talking moose. Bullwinkle's main attraction was a stage where a mechanical Bullwinkle and Rocky the Flying Squirrel would do their dog and pony show while, above the stage, the lopped-off heads of Natasha and Boris would comment oh-so wittily on the lack of quality in the shows. I think there were shows with jumping jets of water in between.
Overall, the place was creepy with beheaded villains, the dark atmosphere and forgotten TV heroes. Even the most grizzled university vets would barely remember it.
The high period was owned by Chuck E. Cheese. In Bullwinkle's' old space sprung up the mouse. Created by Atari brainman Steven Bushnell, it was the longest-lived animatronic franchise. Gone was the dank atmosphere of a moose, replaced by a mouse in a bowler. There was still the creaky animatronic stage show, but there was also a real Chuck wandering around his empire. It also boasted greasy eats.
But the selling feature was the games. Carnival favourites like Skee-Ball, Whack-a-Mole and hoops gave sugared-up children an outlet. To encourage more spending, games spat out tickets so the little ones could buy plastic, made-in-China trinkets to take home or candy to fuel more hyperactivity.
But the reason Chuck E. Cheese dwells so large in my mind is the Buck Shot Show. Those of us from Calgary remember when Buck Shot would read out kids' names on their birthdays if mom or dad had sent them in. At the end, he would draw a name and that lucky kid would win a trip to Chuck E. Cheese with two pizzas and an obscene amount of tokens. I won twice, and when you're seven it's like heaven on earth. It was better than Christmas.
The renaissance saw Easy Streets in Chinook Centre and Sundridge Mall. As every place must have an animal mascot, Easy Street had raccoons. Creators probably learned animatronic animals were a little too freaky for kids, so the raccoons were there only in spirit. They boasted fake trees, primo mini golf courses and, of course, games.
It seemed to be a last-ditch effort to attract children and disinclined parents to its lands. By this time, Easy Street and Chuck E. Cheese were competing against Sega and Nintendo. The magic, or perhaps our generation's good will, had leaked away. It was too loud, garish and fake. We had better games on our computers and game systems.
Both Easy Streets fell victim to mall renovations and the last Chuck E. Cheese in Calgary became a strip club.
I can't imagine how children celebrate birthdays now. Maybe with soy-based cakes and wheat germ ice cream. But I secretly hope when I have children, they can have a birthday with bad pizza, a small fortune in tokens and a line of tickets taller than they are.