Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Things To Do

He was lost. A Chuck E. Cheese robot helped him find his way.

TAMPA — Jared Sanchez’s master bedroom has the vibe of a novelty pizza restaurant for children, with an electric bill to match. It’s close to $400 a month.

Lights spell out “The King” in every direction. There are 50-inch monitors, arcade machines, mint condition He-Mans. The floor is a black-and-white checkerboard.

Then there’s the live wire that is Sanchez himself. Seated at his control center, his frosted tips perfectly gelled, he taps his foot in a sparkly Air Jordan. His shirt says “The King is back.”

This is a 37-year-old man living his dream. The dream of finding an obscure Chuck E. Cheese robot from his childhood and bringing it back to life.

To his left, a 10-foot metal skeleton with creepy eyeballs the size of baseballs stares down. To his right, two 700-pound lions with the same blue eyes stand idle in the sequined costumes he sewed for them. He taps a button and the lions come alive. They dance, strum guitars and sing a parody of a booming Bon Jovi song, a sharp “pfft, pfft, pfft” shooting from their pneumatic cylinders.

These are the Kings.

“All it takes is the right person to see this, and we could make a television show out of this, like easily,” Sanchez yells over the music. “And I have people saying, ‘Oh, it’s old technology, it’s old technology.’ Well, that’s what they told Jim Henson. That’s exactly what they told him!”

He takes a pull from a vape pen, checks wires and changes inputs. He sings along with the Kings.

It’s King life! It’s my new endeavorrr! This is gonna rock for-ev-errrr! I just wanna sing while I’m aliiiive!

• • •

Sanchez was scarred by his 12th birthday. It was 1992 and his parents brought him to Chuck E. Cheese in Albuquerque, as they had many times before.

At the time, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre featured a full band of animatronic, human-sized animals . It was a wild, futuristic concept when Atari founder Nolan Bushnell convinced the company to open the first Chuck E. Cheese’s in 1977.

But young Sanchez didn’t care about Chuck E., Helen Henny or the rest. He was enraptured by the King — a giant, Elvis-impersonating lion that performed in the lounge, its own corner of the restaurant.

“He moved so smoothly, it looked to me as if he was real,” Sanchez said of the King. “All the other robots moved like robots. ”

That year, Sanchez remembers rushing to the King’s stage only to find an empty space and a woman sweeping the floor.

“Son, they done threw that thing out months ago.”

Heartbroken and without answers, he forced his parents to leave and go to Pistol Pete’s Pizzeria.

For the next two decades, he had a recurring nightmare. He’d be walking into Chuck E. Cheese about to see the King again, but just as he turned the corner, he’d wake up.

• • •

The King was collateral damage in the great pizza wars of the 1980s, ending with Chuck E. Cheese’s bankruptcy and takeover by corporate arch enemy, Showbiz Pizza. Shortly before the company failed, a few Kings were converted to King Kats, Michael Jackson impersonators meant to keep up with the times. It was probably too little, too late.

Most Kings were tossed out, destroyed or auctioned as stores closed or were remodeled under Showbiz’s new vision. Separate lounges, the King’s domain, were eliminated, said Michael Scherpenberg, an amateur Chuck E. Cheese historian in Texas who maintains a Dolly Dimples piano-playing hippo in his living room.

Showbiz robots were stripped of their fur and rubber skin and Frankensteined into Chuck E. Cheese branded characters. Training videos detailing this nightmarish process have survived on YouTube.

After high school and four years in the Navy, Sanchez moved to Florida and worked as a stocker at Walmart before moving to the vision center and eventually becoming a licensed optician.

He loved video games, so for a while, he created custom, multigame arcade machines as a business. He realized optical software was bad, so he taught himself to code and sold his own software for managing optical practices. He wasn’t really satisfied.

He eventually ended up back with Walmart, and after a couple years, he said, landed a $93,000-a-year job as a corporate project supervisor. But spending weeks at a time on the road got to him. Knowing before the employees when their store would be closing, or having to fire someone personally, made him sick. He left the position after a year, wiped out by the stress.

“I didn’t know what a nervous breakdown was then,” he says now. “But it was a nervous breakdown.”

It was around this time that the first King arrived.

• • •

The King’s disappearance had bugged Sanchez for years. In the mid-1990s, he’d sit in the library at his military boarding school on weekends, when other cadets left campus, scouring the early internet for info on the King.

It was nearly a decade before he found anything, but in 2006, a King suddenly appeared on eBay for $25,000.

It was an impossible sum, but Sanchez started emailing owner Arthur Green in Saugerties, N.Y. — for another 10 years. He explained how much he adored the King. He sent childhood photos of himself at Chuck E. Cheese.

Green, who supplies props for films and TV, relented in 2015.

“He was, uh, persistent. A nice persistent,” Green said. “I actually had people offer me more money, but Jared deserved it. I knew he was the one who could get it going again. ... So we let him make payments, and we don’t do payments.”

Sanchez eventually paid Green $10,000. The King arrived in Tampa on a truck in 2016.

After sitting in storage for decades, it was shot. Squirrels had stuffed its fuzzy head full of acorns. Sanchez spent months replacing its cylinders and learning to sew so he could fit him with new fur. He figured out how to make the King work with a modern computer instead of its old reel-to-reel machine, and learned to painstakingly program each of its movements.

At the same time, he was an emotional wreck. He was trying medications from his doctor with little success. He stayed cooped up in his house for weeks, watching videos he’d made of the King.

The King was the one thing that had comforted him through his life. That, and singing.

“That’s when me and the King kind of started blending.”

If he wanted the King to live on, it was up to him. If he wanted more King videos to watch, he’d have to make them.

So, he remodeled his master bedroom into a studio and started writing and recording parody songs. He took voice lessons, bought a professional microphone and used green-screen special effects. He spent weeks perfecting videos and posted them to his YouTube channel.

He took a job with Nationwide Vision on Dale Mabry but avoided getting into a work situation that would keep him away from his creative passion. When he gets home, he makes King videos into the middle of the night. I Got the King Set on You. Do You Believe in King? The Power of King.

His partner of 14 years sits in the den watching TV and listens to Sanchez sing.

“Oh my God,” Brent Culver will say.

“I’m glad that take is done,” Sanchez will say.

“What was that? Take 200?”

A few months ago, Sanchez heard about another King at Captain Dave’s roller rink in Michigan. He gave Captain Dave $2,500 and returned with King No. 2 in his passenger seat. He made a pit stop at Jungle Jim’s, a bizarre grocery store near Cincinnati with a dilapidated King on display. Sanchez wheeled the King in a shopping cart to visit “his brother.”

A few weeks ago, he heard from a guy in Texas who had a couple more Kings in storage in Ocoee. Sanchez helped the man clean out the storage unit and let him sleep at his house. He got the Kings in exchange.

Now, he owns four Kings out of seven he believes exist. He has a few thousand YouTube subscribers.

Parents email him, he said. Autistic children are calmed by the YouTube videos. He sent one boy a piece of the King’s fur. The mother cried.

His goal is build his YouTube following up to 100,000 subscribers. That, he says, would bring in about $5,000 a month and allow him to run the King full time. His channel currently makes about $30 a month.

Then there could be a TV show, and then, who knows? Maybe a kids restaurant, with a salon attached and a bar for the dads to play retro video games in and the Kings performing live for an audience again.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.

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