The curtains are closed as I enter. All around, frenetic energy pulls at my attention like a toddler pulling at mom’s shirt. Some people are in their seats, others stand, their conversations growing louder and softer like waves toppling onto the beach, yet I remain focused on the curtains, on what’s behind them, on what’s about to happen.
I’ve been waiting all week for this, counting down to it. I’ve been to school, I’ve been to church twice. I’ve prayed and sung and ridden my bike around the neighborhood with my brother as the sun went down. But it was all just a prelude to this; a weeklong opening act.
Sitting in a haze of nervous anticipation, every passing minute feels stretched like taffy. Time blurs and warps and I begin to question, just for a moment, if the curtains will actually open at all. Was it all for naught? The hoping and the countdowns? Have I set myself up for disappointment?
Just as I begin to feel hope slipping through my clammy fingers, the music starts without announcement or introduction, saving me from myself. The curtains begin to slide open and all other noise fades away as the band finally comes into view.
There’s the wolf in a bowtie. There’s the bear dressed like a hillbilly and the mouse in a blonde wig whose ears flap like eyelids. I can see the gorilla in a gold tuxedo playing the keyboard and the dog in a space suit beating the drums behind him. It’s the Rock-afire Explosion, the animatronic robots who comprise the floor show at Showbiz Pizza, and I am elated.
In the early 90s, Showbiz Pizza stood as an almost fabled entity to me. In the days before Discovery Zone swooped in with their tunnels and slides and foam-covered mountains to climb, Showbiz Pizza was the premiere destination for all things birthday in my little suburb. Though its name suggests otherwise, the pizza was actually an afterthought; last on the list of reasons we were ecstatic to be there. No, we were there to play games and take home the prizes we received in exchange for the tickets hours of basketball toss or Whack-a-Mole earned us. I mean, who cares about pizza when you could win a Tiny Toons slap bracelet, a pencil covered in Lisa Frank unicorns, and a pack of Fruit Stripe gum? But even as much as we loved deliriously running around in our socks playing games and jumping in the ball pit again and again, everything came to a halt when it was time for the floor show.
The magic took place along the wall of the dining room where a large circular stage was flanked by two smaller stages. Each lay concealed behind a curtain but at the behest of the music, the curtains slowly opened to reveal the giant animatronic animals dressed in people clothes as they sprang to life under blinking multicolored lights to “sing” covers of songs like “Runaway” by Del Shannon, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs, “Bread and Butter” by The Newbeats, and “Shout” by The Isley Brothers.
The hydraulics that enabled the robot band to twist and move produced a chorus of industrial hissing and clicks which sometimes went unnoticed on account of the loud music but other times were as distractingly audible as a second drum track. Each medley lasted between five and six minutes and as the music faded, the curtains would close and the lights dimmed to black once again, signaling your permission to run back to the arcade as you hoovered another slice of mediocre pepperoni into your mouth on the way.
This concept was, of course, a crude knock-off of the Country Bear Jamboree at Disney World. One of the few phantom memory flashes I have from being at Disney World as a toddler is of the singing bears in the Jamboree because, let’s face it, animals who vocalize are your entire life when you’re a toddler. Robin Hood was a singing fox, Bugs Bunny was a talking rabbit, and Kermit was a sassy frog who doubled as my imaginary best friend. The Fraggles weren’t animals per se but they talked and sang and double-clapped so anything was possible. Bearing this in mind, it’s not a stretch to believe the hillbilly bears at Disney were, in fact, singing to me in real life.
By the time Showbiz Pizza became the centrifugal force in my childhood birthday-going life, I’d long since left behind the illusion and delusion these furry anamorphic robots were real. I knew it was all a show (except for Kermit who was super real and still my best friend) but it didn’t make me love it any less. Whenever I’d hear the music start, I’d abandon my friends in the arcade, race to sit in the front row, and gleefully watch that wolf lip sync in front of a sequin-covered cardboard rainbow.
One of the final times I went to Showbiz Pizza was for my brother’s birthday. We were going through a Dick Tracy phase—the movie with Warren Beatty and Madonna had come out and we thought the campy, over-the-top villains with names like Flat Top and Mumbles were big fun—and all he wanted for his birthday were the action figures of those movie mobsters. After watching him open his presents and attempting to disguise my wildfire jealousy over all the cool crap he got with excitement, everyone dispersed to play games or dive back into the ball pit. You’re never supposed to dive into a ball pit but you did. I, however, stuck around, waiting for the curtains to open and reveal the next number by the madcap band of robots dressed as animals dressed as humans.
The pizza was gone, the cake had been eaten, and though there were more games to play, I waited. As I did, my eyes scanned the curtain and I noticed something. Something strange. Something curious. Part of the curtain had become hung up on a corner of the stage and as such, anyone could see behind it without much effort at all.
Being an inquisitive and sneaky child, it took about half a second for me to run up and poke my head in the gap created by the snagged curtain. Silent and unmoving, the band stood stoic in the dark, their plastic eyes staring straight ahead, unblinking and lifeless. It was my own Oz moment, a peek behind the curtain, and the youthful magic they once possessed seemed to flake off and blow away. Though I still enjoyed seeing the animals shake their hips to vaguely familiar pop music, it never felt quite as charming as it had before.
We make a choice to believe. God, Santa, the Loch Ness Monster, the good in people–they all require making a conscious choice to believe in their realness. With some of them, we believe until we’re given a reason not to. We find the letters we wrote to Santa in the back of mom’s closet and The Night Before Christmas abruptly shifts from memoir to fiction. We learn about the hoaxes which have tried to perpetuate the story of Nessie for the purpose of selling Loch Ness memorabilia and we mentally slide her into the category with other urban legends like Bigfoot and Walt Disney’s frozen head. To that end, I shudder at the fact that right now in Times Square, there’s a five-year-old who has yet to lose the innocence of make believe but will, somewhere between the TKTS booth and the Naked Cowboy, witness a Minnie Mouse take off her costume’s head so the tiny woman inside can chain smoke at the intersection of 44th and Broadway.
Much like that kid, I’ve seen some illusions disappear recently. The first was the illusion I would naturally slim down and become healthier thanks to a cocktail of it’s-worked-in-the-past, metabolism, and positive thoughts. This should’ve been a no-brainer but I had to change my eating habits and join a gym with a pool in order for any of that to take place. Which it is. Slow and steady. Healthy. Habit-forming. New.
The second is the illusion I can change people. This was a tough one because I have a lot of opinions about how to fix the world and ourselves but I’ve learned I can’t change anyone. It doesn’t matter if the foundation on which they stand is a harmful fallacy or if it rails against rudimentary common sense. There are simply some people who can’t be changed. They’ve made the decision not to; to concretize. On top of that, there’s only so much you can say and usually, you’re not the one to say it anyway.
The third was the illusion career advancement or projects, passions or bylines would serve as no-slip ladder rungs for my growth from here to there. It turns out, getting there an inside job. It’s taking care of your self. It’s taking care of others. It’s letting them take care of you. It’s long phone calls about nothing. It’s naps with your person. It’s laughing relentlessly together on Splash Mountain.
When I wound up at Disney World a few years ago for a friend’s 30th birthday, everyone else had an earlier flight home so I spent a couple extra hours at the park after they left. Alone, I wandered through the Magic Kingdom. Living in New York conditions you to be able to hold your own when you’re by yourself and at the Happiest Place on Earth, I was content to do so. As I walked toward Splash Mountain, I saw the sign for the Country Bear Jamboree and sort of absent-mindedly wandered inside. It had been twenty years since I’d seen those animatronic bears put on a show but as I sat down on the bench and waited for them to do their hillbilly thing, I felt like a kid all over again.
I was sitting near Max, the buck mounted on the wall who comes to life alongside the bison and the moose. I love a good moose. When he “came to life,” I could hear the clicking of his plastic eyelids and it reminded me of my afternoons at Showbiz Pizza. Obviously the quality of the Jamboree is lightyears ahead of the Carrollton, Texas, Showbiz Pizza, but the innocent magic of those happy robotic bears hearkened back to what made Showbiz so great. It reminded me that all the disillusionment in the world couldn’t snuff out that part of us that just wants to believe like we did when we were kids.
We’re in such a hurry to “grow up” when we’re young. What a mistake that is. I’m 36 and I’d much rather go to Disney World than an uppity spa retreat or vineyard tour any day. As a matter of fact, I have every intention of working the door at the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland when I retire. It’s okay to close the curtain again and just enjoy what we enjoy. Some illusions need to break as we’re confronted with the realities of our humanness but that afternoon, as I watched the Disney floorshow featuring a bunch of over-sized robot hillbilly teddy bears, I felt the palpable wonder of the innocence of believing.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here.