Saturday, March 4, 2017

Countryfied, Electrified, Genuine Country Dragon - The History of Tex Critter's Pizza Jamboree

Since The Walt Disney Company produced the first ever audio-animatronic character, Abraham Lincoln, automated beings have been a staple of the modern entertainment industry. Used in theme parks, films, and much more, this interesting form of technology has grown both more advanced and more widespread with an incredible pace.

Smoking, abrasive, inner-city rat turned children's icon!
One of the key players in the medium's popularization came in the form of  the Pizza Time Theater restaurants (now known as Chuck E. Cheese's). Backed by electronics powerhouse Atari, this chain of eateries combined arcades, pizza parlors, and small-scale amusement parks into one exciting package.

Immediately, entrepreneurs saw the genius of the concept; leading to the creation of imitators such as Showbiz Pizza Place, Circus World PizzaMajor Magic's All-Star Pizza Revue, Bullwinkle's Restaurant, and too many others to possibly list. Thanks to a mix of nostalgia and appreciation for each storefront's unique creativity, a fan following has recently sprung up, celebrating the retro fun of these locales.

Within this fanbase, one smaller-name entertainment center has newly popped back into relevance; Tex Critter's Pizza Jamboree. Collectors have acquired original animatronics from the stores, and fans have swooned over their cutesy designs. However, beyond this admiration, there seems to be a loss concerning information about the pizza parlor. With the help of the Retro Pizza Zone forums, fandom superstar CavitySam, fellow fan Masterpj555, and a trusty search engine, I've compiled all I could find into covering the rise and fall of Tex.

Tex Critter's was a joint production between Castle Entertainment Inc. and AVG Technologies, not unlike the well-known pairing of Corporate Showbiz Pizza and Creative Engineering. Castle, though seemingly having mostly disappeared to time, was a highly ambitious family fun center company, owning various mini-golf locations, arcades, and more. AVG's previous and future works spanned anything from other Pizza centers (such as the aforementioned Circus World Pizza and Bullwinkle's Restaurant), to full-on amusement park dark rides, to feature films.

The Tex cast - Skeeter the Rattlesnake, Country Cal, Foxy Roxy, and of course, Tex - was designed by Disney Imagineers Larry Nikolai and Rolly Crump, giving the crew a traditional cartoon feel. Each character, to varying degrees, served as a homage to the genre of Country music; deliberately distinguishing the show from similar electronic cabaret acts of the time, which focused moreso upon familiar or generally upbeat tunes rather than one consistent music choice.

Tex's was also one of the first entertainment centers to limit it's guests to families only, avoiding the grimy hangout atmosphere found in similar places.

Another unique feature of the stores was it's variety of entertainment. Though retaining the common arcade theme, Tex's also featured Televisions playing then-hip channels such as MTV, a small-scale
theater featuring 3-D films, computers running fun programs, and even an occasional special spotlight on local events (playing recordings of parades, ceremonies, and more of the such on screens through the store). Castle was impressively ambitious, and though little is known whether or not these features were implemented into each location, it's undeniable that they certainly put this chain far
above the comparatively simple ventures of competitors.

Unfortunately, there seems to be very few records of what the real stores looked like. There is one image of an outdoor sign, but no known shots showing the interior of any location. We do, however, know of some memorabilia, such as a member's card from a Puerto Rico location, official Tex shirts, and a full Tex mascot costume.

Even the animatronic band itself was high-tech considering it's mass-market production. Compared to the often simplistic quality of figures in other pizza parlors, it's easy to see that AVG was many steps ahead of these lesser forces. Each character clocked in at about 300 pounds, and eight feet tall. The 'Bots were specifically designed to last, using airplane parts to ensure they'd last as long as possible. Their face 'masks' were glued to an inner skull, and held snugly via buttons (unlike masks such as those used by Showbiz Pizza, which were loosely slipped onto the bare mechanism). They could even be remotely controlled via joysticks, allowing the characters to specifically look at things. As seen in this very rare footage, the Tex show was practically Disney-quality, with smooth, natural movements.

Estimated to be AVG's most produced animatronic show, it is believed 20+ locations existed. Oddly, AVG's website only mentions the Castle Park location, with no indication of the actual food chain in which the figures were used. I have a theory that the first Tex show was test-ran in the park, as it was also owned by CE, and upon it's success, the project was pushed further.

Castle Park was a popular attraction in El Paso, Texas, covering CE's various professions (including, of course, a state-of-the-art arcade facility and a large mini-golf area). It is believed that the above footage originates from this location.

1984, however, proved to be a fatal year for all of CE's outlets. The Tex chain, Castle Park, and a handful of other attractions owned by the company closed, indicating that CE had totally folded this very year. Sources claim that the closure of at least Tex was due to poor money management (presumably caused by the complexity of the stores themselves). A lifetime of only two years, it isn't surprising that CE's impact on the entertainment industry was minimal, at best.

By the time of Castle Park's closing, Tex and company were purchased and moved to similar (though not CE owned) attraction Castle/Magic Landing, which opened that year. The locale displayed their set in a familiar location - the pizza parlor. As CE no longer existed, there was no other Tex advertising nor merchandise around the park, isolating the trio. CL existed until 1988, when it closed due to both a lack of funds and a variety of controversies.

The majority of Tex animatronics were sold off in auctions and the such, or perhaps dismantled in hopes of scrap money. Many still exist, albeit in highly decomposed forms - though few have seen as much wear and tear as those given to Landing.

The park itself, rather than immediately leveled or sold apart, was entirely abandoned. Resting from 1988 to roughly 2008-9, the contents quickly grew eerily decrepit, forgotten by those who once perhaps adored them.

Tex and the gang, twenty-three years old in the accompanying picture, were sadly not spared. They spent seventeen of those years in disregard, and many more afterward. Melting, broken, and soulless, it's a sad sight to see the characters once so full of life now in this terrible (yet, perhaps even more morbidly, recognizable) condition. Even sadder, Landing's corpse was finally levelled in 2013, presumably taking what may have been the first complete Tex stage with it. A work of art, lost to history.

Luckily, it is believed most of the in-store Tex sets were sold off via auction (along with the rest of each location's assets). Designed for years of use, many are still popping up in the oddest of places (and oddest of conditions) to this day.

One such example is a set that, according to often-retold anecdote, was purchased from a closed Tex location  by a high school and used to teach students programming. An alternate version of this tale claims the trio was used for a play, by the same school. The characters were largely incomplete (missing their faces, skins, clothes, and various other pieces), leaving their inner shells and mechanics bare. The fiberglass shells were directly painted upon. Albeit non-official, this is the only known retrofit (or reworking) of Tex Critter animatronics. The characters were renamed "Sammy", "Miss Kitty", and "Uncle Frank", presumably to match their new context. Oddly, Skeeter the Rattlesnake is missing from the set.

As previously mentioned, fans have discovered their own sets, as well. Among others, CavitySam (right) and Masterpj555 (left) have uncovered sets, both in varying states of completion. Though currently in naturally weathered  conditions, both owners are working diligently to refurbish the crew to fully finished, fully functional states - a difficult, but impressive task. The animatronic community has taken a large interest in their progress, thus leading to a small revival in Tex Critter's relevance, with fan art, speculation, and general excitement clouding around the forgotten characters and their background.

Masterpj555 has taken it upon himself to begin clearing this fog, locating and contacting names behind Tex. One successful lead was artist Larry Nikolai, who upon learning of the renewed interest, has began recounting his experience with the project on his FaceBook page. Posts so far have revealed the manufacturing of the animatronics, the design process, and even his original maquette (used to visually conceptualize the stage layout, seen as this article's header).

Yes, despite Tex's long-ignored past, it seems he and his friends do have a future. New information is speedily reaching those invested, discoveries are springing up left and right, and new fans of the show certainly prove it's charm beyond it's limited exposure. The Tex Critter story - despite it's trials and tribulations - has yet to end. New information is old; which naturally means the various questions can, and hopefully, will be answered.

As information is still being uprooted, naturally, there will be periodic updates. I plan to add to the history through new articles. Though I intend to preserve this one as-is, any conflicting updates will be resolved.

With that, here's to the new life that been been breathed into Skeeter, Cal, Tex and Roxy.


  1. I am masterpj555 you posted about. More fog is about to be cleared when I fly to LA.. the showtapes are also now public:

  2. I also wanted to say: Well done on the article