Perhaps no cultural institution embodies the utopian dream of postwar Los Angeles quite like the bowling alley. Massive single-story structures offering family fun, greasy food, and plenty of free parking, they represent all the things that enticed millions of Americans to hop on Route 66 and head out West back in the day. Of course, the city has changed quite a bit over the last 60 years or so, and many once-great bowling centers are struggling to keep up.
Many alleys have disappeared. Last year, Mission Hills Bowl tore up its lanes and shipped them to Vietnam. Hollywood Star Lanes, immortalized in The Big Lebowski, closed its doors in 2002. Two years before that, the Holiday Bowl—a Crenshaw Boulevard staple where residents bowled through the 1992 riots—closed its Armet & Davis-designed doors for good. Now, many of the remaining alleys from the golden age of bowling have been bought up by 10-pin titan Bowlmor AMF Corp. With more than a dozen locations in the LA area, the company is now renovating many of the older sites that it operates.
Bowlmor AMF Corp. formed in 2013 when Bowlmor bought out the struggling AMF Bowling Worldwide Inc. That made the company the largest bowling alley operator in the world, and added three Westside locations to its portfolio. Bay Shore Lanes (renamed Bowlmor Santa Monica) and Mar Vista Lanes (now Bowlero Mar Vista) have already received thorough makeovers, and the former El Dorado Lanes will be reopening as Bowlero Los Angeles at the end of the month.
The renovations have preserved many elements of the classic midcentury designs of these sites, but ultimately left them with a more sleek and modern vibe. Flatscreens and projectors are everywhere, not only displaying goofy animations after a strike or gutterball, but broadcasting sports or TV shows. The lights are dimmed and the lanes are illuminated under a black light that makes the balls and pins glow. It makes for a clubby atmosphere meant to appeal to younger and more casual bowlers.
Of course, these changes have not gone over particularly well with those Walter Sobchaks of the world, for whom bowling is a way of life. One of the hallmarks of Bowlmor's business strategy over the years has been deemphasizing league bowling in favor of more profitable private parties and specials aimed at families and young professionals. The company also alienated many longtime bowlers by evicting beloved diner Pepy's during renovations to Bowlero Mar Vista. The venerable coffee shop was replaced by a food and drink area serving traditional bar fare. Yelp reviews of both Bowlero Mar Vista and Bowlmor Santa Monica are filled with complaints about high prices and long waits for a lane.
Still, long waits are certainly a good sign for the future of what was once America's favorite sort-of-sport. And in spite of some controversial changes, Bowlmor AMF has done a nice job preserving parts of the classic Googie aesthetic that made these alleys so appealing in the first place. The exteriors of Bowlero Mar Vista and Bowlmor Santa Monica (above) certainly have that familiar "come bowl with us" look, and so far (knock on wood) the company has left the recently acquired Covina Bowl—a true midcentury masterpiece—well enough alone. Of course, for those looking for that truly vintage 10-pin experience, there's always the blessedly stuck-in-time—and independently operated—Shatto 39 Lanes in Koreatown (still advertising regular holiday hours on their terrible website).
- Westchester is now up Bowlmor’s Alley [Argonaut News]
- Mapping 15 of Los Angeles's Most Glorious Remaining Googies [Curbed LA]
- On the Film's 15th Anniversary, Mapping The Big Lebowski [Curbed]