Hiatus Update: Courthouses and Pizza Robots in the Magnolia State

The 1905 Marion County Courthouse in Columbia, MS. Photo courtesy Damon Breland.

It’s been about a month since I put this blog on hiatus to work on my things. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve made much progress, but I have realized that less time spent here has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I’ve long known that establishing routines is the key to managing my mental health problems. My work schedule makes that really hard, but writing something -anything- here on a weekly basis is a routine of its own, one that I should probably continue even if the posts don’t fit my desired template for awhile. On the other hand, extra time not researching Ohio’s eighty-eight county courthouses has allowed me to clear a couple of things off of my plate, which is a win that makes me feel capable and in control. Some level of authority over my life that allows me to function beyond the basic necessities of simply existing is critical to keeping my depression at bay. 

Over the past few weeks, I managed a small victory in the fight by knocking out some illustration commissions for a longtime client and friend, a process that brought pizza robots back to the forefront of my mind.

“Welcome to the Pizza Time Theatre where I guarantee, the fun doesn’t stop when we bring on the food!”

Excitement continues throughout the meal via original Computer Animation which is the most advanced of its kind in any restaurant establishment in the world. Here our PIZZA TIME PLAYERS entertain you in the main dining room with original songs, skits, jokes, and other interplay. Fun for the entire family
1.” 

Scan courtesy of Travis Schafer.

My ass. As a kid, I was introduced to Chuck E. Cheese and his mechanical cohort around the time I started recognizing and identifying the courthouses of Indiana. There’s nothing scary about a Richardson Romanesque clock tower, but boy was that rat terrifying. 

A Richardson Romanesque clock tower, in Wells County, Indiana. See? Nothing to fear.

For the past several years I’ve created illustrations and other equity for Damon Breland’s Smitty’s Super Service Station. It’s an obscure place in the distant boondocks of Little Improve, Mississippi, but Smitty’s is famous in its own corner of the internet for being, well, whatever this is:

Smitty’s features 1984-88 vintage “porch” show Pizza Time Theatre robots.

Technically, “this” is an old country convenience store that houses Damon’s private collection of vintage memorabilia. That’s the Big C himself in the video, along with Munch’s Make Believe Band. But wait- that bear. That bird. That wolf with the puppet- maybe they all look vaguely familiar. If so, it’s because they’re members of the Rock-Afire Explosion of ShowBiz Pizza Place fame.

“The Rock-Afire Explosion! They sing. They joke. They’re almost human. 

And to wide-eyed youngsters, Billy Bob, Rolfe de Wolfe, Duke LaRue, Fats, Mitzi Mozzarella, and the whole zany crew are very special friends who make ShowBiz Pizza Place a vacation event close to home2.”

A 1980 ShowBiz Pizza Place graphic, courtesy of Travis Schaefer.

Smitty’s is the only place in the world that Chuck E. and Billy Bob perform under the same roof, and Damon has one of only nine or ten complete Rock-Afire shows in the world to boot. Though Chuck came first, ShowBiz snapped the destitute rodent up out of bankruptcy in 1984 and rebranded around the Pizza Time Theatre characters eight years later. Aside from living on perfunctorily at some independent family-fun-center type places, the Rock-Afire Explosion was forgotten by all except from its most devoted fans. Damon is one of those glorious weirdos; he bought his Rock-Afire robots eighteen years ago from their original manufacturer. Then he built his kingdom.

Here’s Damon in front of Smitty’s. Photo of Damon Breland courtesy Damon Breland.

A few years ago, I joined the eccentric club and got my own pizza robot, a thirty-year-old Billy Bob. Part of my effort to get past being terrified of animatronics that look like talking ottomans has been to slowly restore the thing to working order in my living room. It’s said that the best way to overcome your fears is to confront them head on, and I know no better way of conquering an abhorrence of vintage animatronics than standing one up mere feet from the couch on which I frequently nap.

Here’s Smitty’s 1984-88 Chuck balcony bots for those who didn’t watch the video.

For more than a decade, adding to Smitty’s Super Service has been Damon’s labor of love. Heck- the project of restoring my one robot has been enough of a hardship since my knowledge of pneumatics was limited to sucking helium out of a balloon to talk in a funny voice. The same can be said for my courthouse project: I was a rube when I first ventured to another county to take photos there, freaking out about parking, suspicious onlookers, and just about everything else. But looking back at the growth it provided is one of the best and most humbling aspects of a years-long project. 

Here’s Columbia’s courthouse from the west, with part of a later addition. Photo courtesy Damon Breland.

I’ve loved venturing hither and yon to a new-to-me courthouse. When Smitty’s needs supplies, Damon goes to Columbia, the area’s biggest city. With a population of 5,992, the place has a Walmart, and, crucially, a Little Caesar’s, Dominos, and Pizza Hut. Oh, and a courthouse, Marion County’s third. It was built to succeed a previous structure erected in 1880 and an even earlier one that served as Mississippi’s state capitol from 1821-22. A wave of civic pride predated its construction for $65,000 in 1905, and the courthouse was done up in the popular classical revival mode3. Damon’s hip to courthousery and sends me photos of it whenever he’s in the area. Beyond the artistic transactions, I’m glad to consider him a friend of mine.

The Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana.

The structure sort of resembles a smaller version of the courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana and it was designed by P.H. Weathers of Jackson. Weathers was a prolific architect of courthouses, drawing up plans for others in Lousiana’s Tensas Parish, Lamar and Lee counties in MIssissippi, Cape Giradeau, Davies, and Stoddart counties in Missouri, and Oklahoma’s Ellis, Logan, and Washington counties4. Some share the building’s original octagonal layout, which was spoiled by functional additions that came in 1946, 1968, and 19745. The entire courthouse was renovated about twenty years ago.

Columbia goes completely bonkers during the holiday season. The city celebrates the festivities during an annual “Experience a Columbia Christmas” that kicks off during the first week of December6. The courthouse looks dashing all gussied up with lights and garnish garland. 

Here’s the 1968 Sebe Dale, Jr. Chancery Court Building attached to the 1905 structure. Photo courtesy Damon Breland.

I’ve been to 164 courthouses during my courthousery project, a number that I think is a lot. The Census tells me otherwise, though, advising that there are 3,143 counties and county equivalents in the country7-data backed up by this article in The Onion. It means that I’ve only been to five percent of the country’s counties, both more and less than I expected. I’m glad that my project is nowhere near the end, and although I don’t intend to make it to every county in the country, I started this off never thinking I’d get to all of Indiana’s so we’ll see.

Smitty’s Rock-Afire Explosion. Photo courtesy Damon Breland.

Columbia is about the size of Rushville, Portland, Rochester, or Boonville here in the Hoosier State, and the star attractions of those cities are their courthouses! Columbia’s is nice too, but the real party is twenty miles southwest of Columbia’s square at Smitty’s, where Billy Bob, Rolfe, and the rest of the Rock-Afire Explosion ring in the season with their “Homely for Christmas” show. I’m sure Chuck and his gang have their own fun too, depending on who’s at the controls.

Here’s the 1905 courthouse from the east, along with its 1968 chancery court addition. Photo courtesy Damon Breland.

It feels like I’ve done nothing but wonder who’s at the controls as I’ve struggled with diagnosed mental illness over the last twelve years, particularly lately. In some ways, my hiatus here seems counterproductive to me. I’ve been kicking around the idea of returning to the old format sometime in May as I continue to try to chisel the raw limestone of my problems down into some manageable bricks. In the interim, I’ll probably continue to jot down shorter, courthouse-adjacent posts that don’t take much research but make sense to me like this one. 

Thanks to Damon of Smitty’s Super Service Station and Travis Schaefer of Showbizpizza.com for the photos, and thank you for reading. 

1 “Pizza Time Theatre Program” May, 1977. Submitted to ShowBizPizza.com by Mary F. Archived by VegaNova 1/27/13. Web. Retrieved 3/11/21.
2 “ShowBiz Pizza Place 1980 Franchise Brochure” 1980. ShowBizPizza.com. Archived by VegaNova 4/12/08. Web. Retrieved 3/11/21.
3 Hyatt, Maryann. “History of Marion County Courthouse” The Columbian-Progress [Columbia]. 3/25/20. Web. Retrieved 3/12/21.
4 “Artisan Search Results” Historic Resources Inventory Database. Mississippi Department of Archives and History. 2011. Web. Retrieved 3/12/21.
5 Deacon, J. “Marion County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web.  Retrieved 3/12/21.
6 Herrington, Charles. “Experience Columbia Christmas to begin Nov. 28” WDAM7 [Moselle]. 9/16/20. Web. Retrieved 3/14/21.
7 “County Totals Datasets: Population, Population Change and Estimated Components of Population Change: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2012” 2012 Population Estimates. United States Census Bureau, Population Division. March 2013. Web. Retrieved 3/14/21. 

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