Chicago’s alternative jazz clubs in the early 70’s launched the careers of a few male vocalists. Charles Elton Cheese was not among them. When the scene fizzled in ’75, no mainstream bands had any desire for an avante garde scatman.
With a gig every night, and more drugs and women than he could possibly consume, life seemed almost too grand, but when the gigs and women dried up he was left with only stories, and needles. By 1976, Charles was living on the streets and eating from the dumpsters of the same clubs where only a year before he was a cult hero.
Two years later, by one of the oddest twist of fates I’ve ever encountered, he was a household name. I sat down with Mr. Cheese on the veranda overlooking his vineyard in Sonoma Valley. He’s clean now, and has been for over twenty years. He maintains a facade of enthusiasm, which crumbles to reveal a bitter heart when he talks about his past.
Jason: Such a beautiful property.
Charles: Thanks, man. I bought it from one of the Coppolas a few years ago when he partnered with his brother.
Jason: You talking about Frances Ford Coppola’s brother. He sold you this property when he went to work at Coppola vineyards?
Jason: It’s perfect. Everything a man could want.
Charles: Wow, really? If it doesn’t matter how I got it, I suppose you’re right.
Jason: You have some guilt about your success?
Charles: Nah, not guilt. Just embarrassment. Spin Magazine said I was the Lou Reed of a musical genre that never caught on. Now look at me. I couldn’t be less like Lou Reed if I were Donald Trump.
Jason: I remember that. It was the last time you gave an interview.
Charles: Yea, well, I wasn’t very clear-headed when I gave it. I was shooting up speedballs the whole time. I was out of my mind with anger and jealousy. The day before, I’d been trying to catch seagulls for dinner when I saw my old best friend Peter Cetera [one time singer of the popular band Chicago, who later went on to chart many times in his solo career] in his brand new speed boat. He pretended like he didn’t even know who I was. Then this Spin Magazine jack-off told me I could have been Lou Reed and it was the perfect emotional storm. I started screaming and blacked-out. It’s been 30 years and I still think about it every day.
Jason: Have you spoken to Peter Cetera?
Charles: We email occasionally. I guess his grandkids love the restaurant.
Jason: How did you get started in Pizza? What happened between the spin interview and the opening of your first location just a year later?
Charles: It didn’t start with Pizza, that was added later. It began with the character. I got arrested shortly after the interview for robbing a 7 year old kid. It was my first offense, so the judge gave me community service. He felt like I needed a little perspective on true suffering, so he made me entertain kids at the hospital. At first I would go in there and do my scat for them, but I think it was a little over their heads. I tried singing, but I never had a really good voice. I’m not very talented, which is kind of a prerequisite to entertainment.
Jason: So you decided to put on a costume.
Charles: Exactly. I really did want to make these kids feel better, and think I was just making it worse for them because I was so bad. One of the nurses told me her husband had a huge mouse costume in the garage that I could try out.
Jason: And the kids loved it.
Charles: It was incredible. All I had to do was walk in and talk in a high voice and their faces brightened up. I did that for about a week before I met Nolan.
Jason: You’re talking about Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and your future business partner.
Charles: The one and only. His kid was in the hospital for some small thing. I’m not even sure what it was. When Nolan saw how much the kids dug my mouse character, he asked for my number. He called me the next day, and well, the rest is history.
Jason: Charles Elton Cheese became Chuck E. Cheese.
Charles: The saddest, most disappointing, but incredibly lucrative transformation of all time.
Jason: From Lou Reed to a rodent pizza mogul.
Charles: Well put.
Charles had to cut the interview short after receiving a call from his lawyer. The jury had returned with a verdict in a lawsuit involving a child who became trapped in the popular tube maze at the Chuck E. Cheese in South Central, LA. Mr. Cheese had to get to the courthouse as soon as possible. His private jet was waiting.