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Today is May 23, 2022

Stranger things

Mississippi’s 1980s pizza restaurant museum

By Steven Ward

Stranger things

Some people collect stamps. Others like to acquire antique furniture, comic books, or baseball cards.

Damon Breland collects animatronic bands and memorabilia from 1980s-era pizza restaurants.

You read that right.

The 43-year-old Walthall County resident and Magnolia Electric member has turned an old country convenience store into a museum of sorts — a place where other 1980s kids can step back in time to experience the nostalgic thrill of trading arcade tickets for stuffed toys.

Smitty’s Super Service Station on Highway 48 East in Sandy Hook is Breland’s tribute to his 1980s youth and a site for his out-of-control pizza restaurant memorabilia collection.

“I began my collection in 2001. It started out with lots of small trinkets, dolls, t-shirts, records — things that you would have gotten for redeeming your tickets from the arcade. My mom even found a couple of the plush stuffed dolls that were mine from childhood,” Breland said.

Breland’s collection took a turn to the extreme in 2003 when he won an entire set of the animatronic Rock-afire Explosion band characters from the 1980s pizza chain, Showbiz Pizza Place.

“I got them directly from Creative Engineering, the company that produced them in the 80s. From 2003 until 2005 they sat in my father’s garage while I worked on repairing them. During that time, I never envisioned more than having them set up in a large room or garage. The idea for a museum was still several more years away.”

The project took Breland another two years to complete including refurbishment of the characters and their installation on a proper stage. Over the years, the collection expanded. In 2015, Breland garnered a set of old Chuck E Cheese animatronics including a vintage Pizza Time Theater balcony stage. In 2019, Breland added an arcade.

Breland said his love of pizza restaurant memorabilia harkens back to a simpler time and place.

“As a child growing up in the 80s, I got to go to Pizza Time Theater — that’s what Chuck E Cheese was called back then — and Showbiz Pizza Place as a reward for good grades in school. I vividly remember going to locations in Jackson, Hattiesburg, and Gulfport. In the 80s there were no cell phones or computers, and home game consoles were just starting,” Breland said.

“So, to go to one of these restaurants was like a family trip. Where else other than say Disney could you go to see shows by animatronics and full arcades with games, skee ball, and other kiddie delights? It was a nice escape.”

Breland may be full of “useless animatronic pizza restaurant knowledge,” but he said he doesn’t consider his hobby strange or weird.

“Everyone loves something. It’s all part of our Americana history.”

“I would say that it helps foster a sense of community — that when you build your interests into something that helps draw in other ‘weirdos’ and gives everyone who shares the interest a sense of belonging and that they’re not alone in their quirky obsessions. It can be a very obscure niche kind of thing, but if it brings others happiness, it’s not weird by any means,” he said.

 

The public can visit Smitty’s via appointment in advance. Visit smittyssuperservice.com/contact.html or email billybob@smittyssuperservice.com for more information.

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