A Dark Alley : Wonderbowl Closes, and Bowlers Wonder, ‘Where Now?’

LA TIMES
By DICK WAGNER
MAY 22, 1986 • TIMES STAFF WRITER

DOWNEY — Of its 64 lanes, 63 were dark, and on the one that wasn’t a couple practiced for the last tournament. For 27 years the place had been a constant commotion of spares and strikes, but now there was only a hollow, pathetic clatter of tenpins. The couple was on a team called Never Too Late. They knew, though, that it was. Wonderbowl was dying fast.

When Amos and Marie Zucca finished practicing Friday afternoon, two days before Wonderbowl closed, they watched as a man rolled the house balls–black ones and blue ones with white swirls, all scarred by the years–over the carpet, past the 11th Frame Lounge, the lockers and the pro shop and out the door where they were loaded onto a truck. The video games had already disappeared. The lanes themselves would soon go too.

The mournful voice of B. B. King came over a radio–” The thrill is gone , it’s gone away for good .”

Wonderbowl’s demise would, as it has turned out, be needless. The place wasn’t even sick. It was killed, actually, by economic and business decisions.

And the bowlers grieve.

“This is our recreation spot,” Amos Zucca said of the low brick building that sits on five acres amid the commercial sprawl of East Firestone Boulevard. “There won’t be another one. It’s a damn shame, a tragedy.”

The Zuccas live in Downey, a short drive from Wonderbowl. “We now have to travel 10 miles each way to La Habra for bowling,” Marie said.

Her husband said: “We’ve made a lot of nice acquaintances here. We’ll probably never see them again.”

The Zuccas, regulars at Wonderbowl for five years, are among about 2,200 bowlers who have had to scramble for a new place to bowl. Cassie Jones, Wonderbowl’s program director, has tried to help them get into leagues at other lanes.

“It’s sad,” she said, sitting in her office next to a box of trophies, the last that would be given out. “Our market can’t hold the number of bowlers we have. The closest alley is Del Rio (on Florence Boulevard in Downey). They have 32 lanes. No way they can hold their bowlers and mine. Someone’s going to be left out.”

Frank Kietz, a consultant for the Bowling News in Burbank and one of the first bowlers at Wonderbowl when it opened in 1959, said, “You can figure there will be 800 to 1,000 bowlers who can’t find a place to bowl.”

Out of jobs are 35 to 40 employees of the Brunswick Corp., which operated the center. Along with the bowlers, balls and lanes, Brunswick is trying to relocate them at other centers. “But some are not working at all,” said Jones, who will go to a bowling center in Rancho Cucamonga.

Wonderbowl was built at the outset of the bowling boom in 1959 for $2.7 million, a plush emporium that had sleek lanes (32 on each side) for as far as the eye could see, automatic pinsetters and a clean atmosphere devoid of the beer-joint aura of the small, older bowling alleys.

Movie stars promoted the place, which was one of the first 64-lane centers and one of the largest on the West Coast. The pro tour made one of its stops there until a shortage of hotels in the area made that unfeasible.

“A lot of people used to come here just because it was Wonderbowl,” said Cassie Jones. “Years ago, unless you bowled here, you weren’t a tournament bowler.”

And Karen Bruce, the current bookkeeper, added, “Wonderbowl was really the place.”

And not just for bowling. There was a bar, a restaurant, a billiards room, a playroom for children and the Gold Crown room, which saw weddings and banquets and dances for teen-agers.

“The place was fabulous,” said Elmer Junge of Redondo Beach, Wonderbowl’s first manager. “It was busy all night.”

Junge returned Sunday to watch the last tournament.

“It looked awful dreary,” he said. “At 5 o’clock, the manager said that was it.”

For about the last year, rumors flew like pins around Wonderbowl. The main one was that the Mullikin Medical Center of Downey was moving in. “Everything was hush-hush,” Jones said. She said doctors and architects would show up, asking to inspect the air conditioning or the roof.

Richard Bruce, who was the manager the last 2 1/2 years, said, “The fire inspector came in one day and said he saw the plans for the medical center.”

The bowlers heard that the owner of the building had jacked up the rent sky-high.

Which was true.

Brunswick, which operates 165 bowling centers in the United States, Canada and Europe, learned of the rent increase last fall when its 20-year contract with Wonderbowl expired. The owners of the building, which had been charging $6,500 a month, told Brunswick it would now have to pay around $20,000.

“That was his way of getting us out (for the medical center),” said Richard Bruce, referring to Rod Barker, one of the owners and a partner in the Hawthorne-based Wonderbowl Properties.

But Barker told The Times: “It was more of a time thing. They had a 10-year option but they wanted to sign a five-year lease. It was just a business decision. If Brunswick would have paid what we wanted, we’d have loved to have continued to have them as tenants.”

But a Brunswick official, who requested anonymity, said from the corporation’s headquarters in Skokie, Ill., that the bottom line was the rent increase.

“From our standpoint it was prohibitive,” she said. “They were asking between $225,000 and $300,000 a year. We had to do what made economic sense. We weren’t able to negotiate a happy medium.”

Bruce said the center would take in about $100,000 a month from all of its operations, with the net income being between $20,000 and $25,000. Bowling cost $1.60 a game, and for league bowlers, $8 a week.

When Brunswick decided to pull out in November, the September-to-April winter league season was well under way and it seemed 2,200 bowlers would be left out in the cold.

“How could I explain this to the bowlers, some of whom have been with us 20 years?” the Brunswick official said. She said she asked Barker to name a price so they could at least finish the season, and that Barker agreed to extend the lease with a rent of $12,000 a month.

“Call it blackmail, holdup or a gentlemen’s agreement,” she said. “It was worth it to keep the good name of Brunswick.”

Brunswick said it tried to renegotiate in February but said Barker refused. On Feb. 24, Brunswick sent letters to the bowlers to inform them there would be no fall leagues.

But to the delight of the bowlers, the deal with Mullikin Medical Center apparently has fallen through.

“I hope he goes broke,” said Jones, referring to Barker. “All he had to do was sit back and collect $12,000 a month and have it made. Greed will get you. He deserved it. He made 2,200 people depressed.”

Barker, who has owned the building since 1981, said Monday: “We’ve had negotiations with other tenants but none have worked. There is nothing concrete on Mullikin. We had a close deal with them, but they didn’t want to sign for that much of a building.”

Because Mullikin said it needed only 25,000 to 30,000 square feet, one plan had the medical center occupying part of the building and a restaurant and various shops in the rest.

Mike Noll, associate administrator for Mullikin, which is currently at 7840 E. Firestone Blvd., said the medical center is still negotiating with Barker to move into the Wonderbowl building and said, “It’s not over yet.”

It is over for Wonderbowl, despite efforts to save it.

The bowlers petitioned the city to maintain the alley, saying that “Downey falls short in wholesome recreation,” but the petition was never delivered to the city because one of the bowlers thought that it was illegal because it was signed on both sides.

And Wonderbowl Properties, discovering itself without a tenant, made an 11th-hour attempt to get Brunswick back.

“They asked last week if we would reconsider,” said Adrian Sackowicz, Brunswick’s public relations director. “But it was impossible, because technically we had given all our business (bowlers and equipment) away.”

It appears everyone has come out a loser–Brunswick, which said Wonderbowl was a profitable center; Barker, who now has a soon-to-be empty 70,000-square-foot building, and the bowlers.

There were few bowlers but a lot of memories Friday. The leaders of the various leagues were listed on the “Ever-Wonder-What’s-Happening?” bulletin board as if things were still humming along. The Trouble Shooters, the Winsome Wonders, the Honeymooners, the Cellar Dwellers, the Magic 7, Tryin Like Hell, R We Having Fun Yet, and the gangs from the Manufacturing League–Atlas Safe and Cleveland Electric.

Will they re-form at some other bowling alley or disband forever?

There were Polaroid photos of bowlers who had excelled and had been paraded to the Gold Crown Room to be honored.

A man identified as Pedro Gonzalez stares at the camera and holds a ball with “297″ printed on it. He rolled that last Dec. 1. And there was a picture of Hank Hubert with the caption: “Bowling in the Manufacturing League on Wednesday night, he put together games of 223, 246 and 233 for a 702 series. Nice shootin’, Hank.”

You wonder . . . Did Pedro know Hank? If so, will they ever share the camaraderie of a bowling night again? And where?

Now the Zuccas had left, following the house balls out, and Scott Valtos, who was manning the front desk, flipped a switch. Now, all 64 lanes were dark. Behind him the red and green rental shoes were in their slots. There was nothing to do. The home office had just called and said they were taking out the foul lights.

“That’s when I got depressed,” Valtos said.

From the radio the Eagles sang: “I get the feeling I may know you, as a lover and a friend. But this voice keeps whispering in my other ear, tells me I may never see you again.”