Old Dog, New Tricks
Turns out there's life yet in Showbiz Pizza's animatronic band, the Rock-afire Explosion
While the 2008 release of the third season of Family Jewels was retiring platoons of Kiss Army boots across the country, some die-hard music fans were just "Stumbling" on to pop culture's newest call to arms: The Rock-afire Explosion's YouTube version of "Love in This Club." Posted by the Rock-afire's biggest fan, Chris Thrash, the video has received millions of hits and effectively saved the frontman, gorilla Fatz Geronimo, from the two most common comeback outlets tenuously popularized by his fellow 1980s pop icons: reality TV and VH1's Where Are They Now?. Showbiz Pizza's former house band – an animatronic collective that included Dook LaRue, the drumming dog, and Mitzi Mozzerella, a singing mouse – can now be found online, performing dozens of recent hits, including the White Stripe's "Conquest" and Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." Filmmakers Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason cataloged the robot band's rise, fall, and recent renaissance in their first feature-length documentary, The Rock-afire Explosion.
"I came across a video that [Thrash] had put up of his Rock-afire performing 'Ms. [New] Booty,' by Bubba Sparxxx, and a couple other ones he had done at the time," says Thomason, the film's writer. "I was just intrigued by the videos. And seeing the Rock-afire again brought back a lot of memories I didn't even know I had." Thomason passed the videos on to editor/director Brett Whitcomb, and the two started trying to contact Thrash online. It was difficult at first. "He was receiving thousands of e-mails a day by then," explains Whitcomb. "People wanted him to program a song or their band's music."
In an effort to preserve what they consider a piece of their childhood while highlighting memorable characters, Whitcomb and Thomason focused their film on Thrash, a working-class resident of Phenix City, Ala., who saved up to buy one of the last, unused, and complete Rock-afire Explosions. "To me," explains Thrash, "and perhaps others, [the Rock-afire] is a symbol of childhood. An escape to a world that was simpler – less complicated. Fun! It functions for me as a hobby, like anyone else who has a hobby," says Thrash. "Mine is just a little unusual." Thrash purchased his set with no previous programming experience, which provided a challenge. "A lot of people think [the characters] just move to the beat of the music. That is totally wrong! Every little thing you see in a show was manually programmed, saved, and overlapped. Over and over again."
Thrash's popular performances helped centralize a small but loyal online community set on repopularizing the previous staple of childhood pizza parties. Since the filming of the documentary, Thrash has opened his own Showbiz Pizza, where his Rock-afire routinely performs. This leaves much of the online performances appearing today in the hands of Aaron Fechter, the documentary's co-star and the Rock-afire's original creator. At Fechter's website, www.starsof.com/fans, fans can now bid on the next song to be "Rock-afired." The two most recent winners? Nine Inch Nails' "1,000,000" and Jump Jump Dance Dance's "Do It for Love."
The Rock-afire Explosion screens Sunday, Feb. 8, 7pm, at the Alamo Ritz. Director Brett Whitcomb and Rock-afire star Billy Bob Bear will be in attendance at the all-you-can-eat pizza party. Additional screenings happen throughout the week. See www.originalalamo.com for more info.