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Saying goodbye to Chuck E. Cheese's animatronic band

Commentary: When a band breaks up, it can feel like the end of an era, even if it's a bunch of animatronic animals that play the banjo.

There are bands whose breakups I may never recover from. Whether it's the Smashing Pumpkins or Pavement, I'm still upset that I'll never hear any new angst-filled songs from my favorite college bands.

Then there's the band that rocked my childhood, the band that made me want to pick up my first guitar, the band that still makes me hungry for pepperoni pizza. It just happens to be a bunch of weird robot animals. 

The Pizza Time Players are an animatronic animal band that plays covers of pop tunes and tells jokes to entertain kids and adults alike who choose to have their birthday parties at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant and arcade.

I have fond memories as a kid, sitting with my friends, stuffing my face with piping-hot pizza and staring in amazement at the animal robots on stage that played keyboard, guitar, banjo and drums. 

It was the only thing that could cheer me up after spending a week's worth of allowance on arcade games I wasn't particularly good at.

The Pizza Time Players originally consisted of the Chuck E. Cheese rodent mascot, Jasper T. Jowls the hound dog, Crusty the cat, the Warblettes (three magpies) and Pasqually the pizza chef.

Over the years, robotic band members were retired and replaced with others like the blues-singing hippo Dolli Dimples, Artie Antlers and The Beagles (who played Beatles covers). 

Now after decades of robotic hijinks -- going all the way back to 1977 -- the chain is breaking up the band due to lack of interest from today's kids who demand much more high-tech entertainment.

"The kids stopped looking at the animatronics years and years ago," Chuck E. Cheese Chief Executive Tom Leverton told CBS last week. "The animatronics became a side show."

In fact, the Pizza Time Players stages will be replaced with dance floors for kids to strut their stuff with humans wearing Chuck E. Cheese mascot costumes. 

Chuck E. Cheese also plans to modernize some restaurants by toning down the boldly colorful design of the interior decor, as well as offer gluten-free pizza and healthier items like wraps.

The chain will initially phase out the singing robot band as it begins to make over their restaurants in San Antonio, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri. The rest will surely follow. Considering that there more than 500 Chuck E. Cheeses restaurants around the world, this is a big deal. 

To me, this is a loss for kids who will never experience both the wonderment and terror that only a giant, twitchy band of animal robots can provide. 

As a young kid, I thought the band members were real animals who were taught to sing and play instruments for our amusement. I figured they must be paid in pizza and soda, which is the ultimate dream job when you're 6.

Later, when I realized that The Pizza Time Players were highly sophisticated robots (at least during the '80s), I was even more impressed. After all, this was during the height of sci-fi robot appreciation from R2-D2 to K9. A lot of kids my age fantasized about having their own robotic best friend. 

I would sit and stare at The Pizza Time Players as they played songs by The Pointer Sisters and The Beach Boys and wonder what it would take to convince my parents to let me build my own robot band in our basement. 

As I grew older, my fascination with Chuck E. Cheese robots gave way to more pressing matters like the goth life and Dungeons & Dragons. Sadly, I never returned to see The Pizza Time Players again. And now I'll never know if they covered the Cure.

Perhaps if I had been more diligent and had demanded to throw graduation, bachelorette and baby shower parties at Chuck E. Cheese, I could have championed the need for The Pizza Time Players to remain onstage.

But times change and I can't single-handedly keep the robot-pizza-entertainment phenomenon alive. In fact, it feels like Japan is the last remaining country that truly appreciates the kind of crazy dinner show only robots can provide. 

While kids today apparently prefer a dance floor to old-time animatronics, I'd never trade in my memories of awe as I first witnessed a banjo-playing robot dog.  I may never see The Pizza Time Players jam together onstage again, but the band will always remain one of my all-time favorites. 

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