A few months ago, I picked up Gabby Wood's excellent non-fiction book Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, a look at the obsessions of turn-of-the-19th-century inventors to create a truly life-like animatronic creation. Delving into this world of clockwork men (and not-so-clockwork scam artists) reminded me a bit of my childhood.
You see, when I was growing up in the 80s I made weekly trips to the nearby ShowBiz Pizza Place, mostly just to flirt with Jr. High School girls and play lots of Dragon's Lair. But for some reason whenever the Rock-afire Band started in on one of their sets, I was suddenly mesmerized by the spellbinding creepiness of the animatronic figures "playing" "music" for "entertainment".
So, I've been thinking all about these about animatronics, and the strange world they inhabit, and then the internet explodes with the word on the documentary film I've been waiting my whole life for...
For more on the Rock-afire gang, don't miss the website of the original programmer (and voice of Billy Bob the bear) Aaron Fechter, who takes bids to program new songs for the Rock-afire Explosion (currently in progress, "Neighborhood #1" by the Arcade Fire). He also invented Whac-A-Mole, so clearly the man is a genius. Here's a look at the early days of his company, Creative Engineering, and their process for creating the original Rock-afire shows.
But Showbiz Pizza is just the tip of the animatronic iceberg, so I couldn't just leave it at that. Follow the jump for more videos of robot presidents, animals, comedians, and, yes, Marlon Perkins!
Before you watch these, you may want to bone up on the 10 Laws of Animatronics, which features some inspiring words by Joan Rivers (who actually is a robot).
Of course, one of the first big champs of animatronics was Walt Disney, who needed something extra-super-wow for his theme park. I already wrote about my run in with Abe Lincoln, but he was but a small part of the Magic Robot Kingdom. (No, I don't know why the Raiders theme is in this clip, either)
In the late 90s, Disney's Epcot Innoventions exhibit revealed an incredibly smooth-moving animatronic being, Alec-Tronic. Unfortunately, they ruined the concept by marring him in terrible jokes, lame impressions (All In The Family jokes for 90s kids?), and a truly painful "President Rap". The voice of Alec-Tronic is Bill Farmer, best known as the voice of Goofy since the late 80s.
Disney started the trend, but even the Hall of Presidents (again with that terrifying Lincoln!) wasn't enough to satisfy some history buffs. And so Texas' LBJ Library commissioned their own "wisecracking" Lyndon B. I can't wait to see what the George W Bush animatron will say!
Celebrity animatronics aren't as ubiquitous as those wax celebrities, but occasionally one pops up in an unlikely spot. For instance, imagine you are casually wandering through Baltimore's 2007 Artscape Festival, when you are suddenly face to face with Marlon Perkins. Hey! Don't put your fingers in his mouth!
Animals are very popular animatrons - which you would know if you've tried to choke down the food at the Rainforest Cafe - but usually they are stiff and a bit unconvincing. Not so with this somewhat sedate but very lifelike orangutan built for the Landry's Downtown Aquarium in Denver.
From the good to the bad: nothing is more boring than bad animatronics. And a barely bobbing Bobby babbling about police procedure? What possible use could this serve?
Sometimes the animatronic action is good, but the concept...well, who thought that the floating ghost head of a borscht belt comedian would really excite the masses? I guess animatronics are catching on in the Catskills.
In that other vacation mecca, Las Vegas, the "Disneyfication" has turned it into an animatronic boom town that is proving most of Hunter S Thompson's weirdest apocalyptic trips to be not that far from reality. For instance, how about a 15 foot long frog singing "Lowrider" in the lobby of the Wynn Hotel?
Meanwhile, at the Ganapati Festival in India, the animatronics incite anarchy!
But after all that, the true future of animatronics may lie not in the theme parks, but in those small diversions we can bring home. My house is already filling up with screaming robot monkeys, moving Halloween gags, and dancing doo-dads. But even I don't yet have Wall*E thrashing to the theme from Bonanza.