Oct. 05--At some point, Aaron Fechter may appreciate the irony of losing part of his downtown Orlando warehouse to an exploding tank of gas.
After all, back in the day, he got rich manufacturing an animatronic band there known as The Rock-afire Explosion.
But right now, he has practical matters to deal with: electricity to restore and water to remove; machines to fix and inventory to salvage. Fechter has been working nonstop since the blast 10 days ago rattled nearby buildings.
He's staying up until 4 or 5 a.m., hoping to repair the damage and get his alternative-fuel project back on track.
"You get some momentum going," he said, "and you just don't want to stop."
That's how he operates.
An inventor with a flair for music and a degree in finance, Fechter was a CEO and millionaire before he was 30. In 1982, Fortune Magazine called him "a prodigy of automatons," when his creatures -- created in the Orlando warehouse -- became headliners at ShowBiz Pizza Placejoints across the country.
The Rock-afire Explosion had six members, including Fatz Geronimo, a gorilla on keyboards, and Billy Bob Brockali, a bass-playing bear who doubled as the ShowBiz mascot. Voiced by Fechter and a crew of local musicians, the band thrilled -- and occasionally creeped out -- kids wired on soda and pizza.
As ShowBiz expanded, so did Fechter's company, Creative Engineering Inc.
Money poured in, and the Jefferson Street site teemed with workers making the latex faces and metal skeletons of Fatz, Beach Bear and Looney Bird. At its peak, CEI had 300 employees building 70 shows a year. Fortune said each cost $90,000.
When ShowBiz opened its 100th store -- in Texas -- Fechter donned a Billy Bob suit and arrived by helicopter to mingle with fans.
"It was like being a rock star," he says.
But like every good rock-'n'-roll story, it couldn't last. And in 1983, Fechter got a call from ShowBiz. Stop production, the company said, we're not opening any more restaurants. The company had grown too quickly, expenses had soared, and ShowBiz couldn't afford Fatz and friends.
ShowBiz merged with rival Chuck E. Cheese, which was also struggling, ultimately asking for the rights to the Rock-afire Explosion. Fechter refused.
"These were my characters, and I thought I might do something with them in the future," he said. "So I walked away."
And he's stayed away -- at least off the public radar -- until his latest project exploded (literally) onto the downtown scene. After years of anonymity, Fechter and the 80-year-old warehouse that holds his ideas were back in the news.
"Careful, it's still wet here."
Armed with a flashlight, Fechter is in the basement, sucking water from the carpet with a contraption he invented years ago. It looks like R2-D2 fitted with a wet-vac hose.
Progress is slow, because it's just Fechter and an assistant. Professional crews are expensive, and Fechter doesn't have insurance.
Things have been tight for years, ever since Fechter lost his savings in the real-estate crash. The rest of his money went into inventions that always felt this close to paying off.
During his career, Fechter has created a machine that removes leaves from pools, a device that drains water from roofs and, he says, one of the most popular arcade games of all time: Whac-A-Mole. Well, he didn't actually invent it. He improved the design of a similar game but never made a dime because he failed to patent it.
In the 1990s, he thought he had a winner. He spent $1.5 million developing an email machine that looks like the device used by court reporters. Dubbed the "Anti-Gravity Freedom Machine," it was promoted as the "easiest way to stay in touch."
But it was late to the digital party and never took off.
"I put a lot of money in inventions that didn't pan out," Fechter says. "I don't say I 'wasted' it. That's like saying you wasted money going fishing. I 'spent' it."
Fechter is sitting on a workout bench in his jumbled, jampacked office.