My friends know I’m a big fan of Showbiz Pizza Place. Remember them? The company, a subsidiary of Topeka Inn Management (then the country’s largest Holiday Inn franchisee) was the precursor to, competitor with, and -ultimately- savior of the Chuck E. Cheese brand and featured their own menagerie of robotic animal musicians to provide each restaurant’s entertainment. After Chuck E. Cheese’s corporate entity declared bankruptcy in 1984, Showbiz swooped in to buy them, maintaining both branded concepts until the early 1990s when they decided that Chuck E. Cheese himself was a more viable character than any of Showbiz’s. By 1992, Showbiz Pizza’s house band, the Rock-afire Explosion, was totally replaced and forgotten, apart for the memories of kids across the company and a couple of weirdos who personally bought their own shows and restored them to working order. I obtained my first Showbiz robot back in January, and am slowly rising through the ranks of those bizarre individuals by fixing it up. It turns out that restoring something old and broken is pretty hard- especially when you have to teach yourself along the way.
In 1985, the young inventor of the Rock-afire Explosion was on the outs with corporate, who’d learned to program their own shows and no longer really needed the original crew to slow things down. At the time, there were ten Showbiz Pizzas in Indiana alone, and one of the most popular outlets was in Bloomington. A hundred years prior and forty minutes southwest of that restaurant, Greene County officials in Bloomfield were working on programming something of their own, a new courthouse.
The 1980s was a decade that gave us Glasnost, shoulder pads, falling walls, Pac-Man, and children’s pizza casinos run by animatronic bears and rats. A century before then, though, Indiana was basically a big garden that sprouted up nothing but courthouses and gas wells. Eleven courthouses were built here during that decade alone and Greene County got swept up in the craze by deciding to replace their old 1839 structure. Built on the site of a public spring donated by an early resident to wrest the county seat away from several competing communities2, the old courthouse had been erected on a site that needed special reinforcements “so as to prevent the hogs from disturbing the court or any other public business,”3 In the 1880s, roaming livestock was no longer a big consideration in designing county infrastructure, so it was time for a new courthouse. Commissioners bit.
Architect George Bunting was chosen to design the building, as he was a known commodity. He’d already done up Crawfordsville’s in 1876, Washington’s in 1879, Franklin’s in 1882, Frankfort’s in 1884, and Frankfort’s twin in Anderson in 1885. As originally constructed, the courthouse measured 112 by 77 feet on a traditional Shelbyville square- basically, a normal city block. Though generally rectangular, the building featured a central projection at its front and four protrusions on each corner where small, pyramidal turrets once stood. The brick is interesting, laid in a stretcher bond and using black bricks as a belt course4 that lines up with the first floor windows and is repeated elsewhere. Originally, the bell tower matched the rest of the building, with a clock under a slightly-projecting pediment, below a pyramidal roof that terminated in an iron finial.
Though the courthouse stood tall and performed admirably for nearly seventy years unaltered, the 1950s ushered in significant changes as it began to deteriorate. In 1952, bricks started to fall from the courthouse’s northeast turret, and four or five feet of the roof’s parapet collapsed. Commissioners responded by hiring architect J.C. Bixby of Vincennes5 to remove the pyramidal turrets, along with the building’s hipped roof and third floor. At the same time, the peaked clock tower was removed and refaced with limestone to provide the building’s current look from the front. Iron beams were added in the attic, ceilings were dropped6, and the interior of the courthouse generally took the appearance of the worst type of 70s middle school, featuring acoustic-tile ceilings, new walls, and fluorescent lights. The project was completed in 1954.
Despite its decrepit -and even dangerous- state, commissioners found the building worth saving. I can understand- my Showbiz robot was pulled out of an open trailer parked at the garage of a golf course in Tinley Park. Unused since 1997, it had been part of a smaller Rock-afire Explosion set that a local chain of arcades called Odyssey Fun World purchased from a Waukegan, Illinois skating rink called Magic City. When a third Odyssey location never panned out, the robots, their stage, and backdrops were left in the trailer they came in, occasionally ransacked and cannibalized for parts to keep the arcade’s two existing shows in working order. Despite its broken plastic, missing cosmetics, leaky air hoses, and burnt-out servo motors, I judged the robot as worth saving. I took it when a group of friends pooled together our money and time to buy all three of Odyssey’s shows.
Sixty years ago, Greene County officials were just interested in getting their courthouse functional, regardless of how it looked. I felt the same with my robot! Just as the brick parapet of the courthouse had fallen down, Billy Bob the bear’s plastic shoulder joint had cracked in half, causing his left arm to dangle precariously from the body by a handful of plastic air hoses. I replaced it with a spare. Next, the robot needed to stand up on its own so I could work on it, but it was missing a pneumatic cylinder underneath its feet to keep it standing upright. I built a simple box to mount it to, then 3D-printed some T-shaped kneecap locks to keep it from toppling over. Now that Bill was stabilized, I could get to work in restoring it, despite the appearance of the bright orange, plastic, kneecap locks. In similar fashion, after Greene County officials removed the tower, turrets, and roof, work could begin in modernizing the rest of the courthouse in order to suit their needs. Unfortunately, work on the robot is at a standstill while I wait on some new components and methods of testing them. But at least it’s standing on its own now, something that hasn’t happened in more than two decades.
But let’s assume that it was operational under its original configuration and that I’d like to improve it- instead of running a limited amount of shows from a filing cabinet stuffed with an Apple IIE and an SVHS player, maybe I’d want to run all of the shows from a laptop that directly interfaces with the robot. It could be done, but the thing would have to be stable and work on its own before I could even start. In 2001, Greene County officials decided to expand the courthouse with a four-story addition to the building’s rear to contain a new entrance with a security station, an elevator, offices, and three new courtrooms to the building’s rear. Unfortunately, the project wasn’t an easy one- the old public spring, long since covered up, made the soil underneath the courthouse square wet, sandy, and unstable itself! The use of heavy construction equipment in those conditions caused the building to move, and huge cracks appeared in its brick facade while an entire staircase shifted. It took eighteen months for engineers to figure out a path forward, but construction resumed in 2003 with the insertion of 64 metal tie rods to hold the building together, along with lots and lots of epoxy to fill in cracks in the brickwork7. Though the building’s addition looks like the health sciences building at my local university, at least it provides a means to keeping the historic courthouse standing, altered as it may be.
As far as structures in Greene County are concerned, my disused pizza robot might be closer to the cupola of the old 1839 courthouse which stands in someone’s yard a few blocks away as a lawn ornament. For now, it’s a single, static component of a larger system that no longer remains. The 1886 courthouse itself, through years of alterations, repairs, and additions, might be closer to a full Rock-afire Explosion show like those kept alive over the past thirty-five years by individual fans. As it stands, two of my pals have fully-functioning, privately-owned robot bands from that can be viewed by appointment in outbuildings on their property.
Several others have complete, non-working sets, and even more have one or several robots in various states of operation. While some prefer to keep their show components as original as possible, others have acquiesced towards using modern methods of mold-making and programming to keep their shows running. While I’m a fan of keeping things as close to original as possible, I recognize the importance of compromising for the greater good. Many counties in Indiana feel the same, as evident through retaining their old courthouse, in some capacity. While all of us robot owners are at different points in our disparate journeys, we’re still blessed to represent the small portion of the overall fandom that own our own robots. Despite how Greene County got there over the past 133 years, residents still have a historic courthouse to enjoy.
Greene County (pop. 32,177, 51/92)
Bloomfield (pop. 2,385).
Built: 1885. Expanded in 2006.
Cost: $60,800 ($1.62 million in 2016)
Architect: George Bunting
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 4 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “The Rock-afire Explosion – History / Evolution” showbizpizza.com. Web. Retrieved May 27, 2019.
2 Faye L. Flynn, “Peter Van Slyke donated land for Greene County seat.” Bloomfield News nd, in the collection of the Greene County Historical Society.
3 History of Green & Sullivan Counties. Goodspeed Bros. & Co. Chicago. 1884.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Greene County Courthouse, Bloomfield, Greene County, Indiana, National Register # 08000912.
5 Information from Drawings & documents archive, Ball State College of Architecture, Inventory of the J. C. Bixby collection as of January 9, 2008. 26 working drawings are noted, along with supplemental materials, specifications, etc.
6 Repairs Planned For Courthouse The Linton Daily Citizen (Linton). February 21, 1954. Print. Page 6.
7 “Work resumes on Greene courthouse”. The Republic (Columbus) September 5, 2004. Print. Page 9.