TASHIE LEMAITRE balances on one leg, bends her knee, draws her right arm back and lets fly, flinging a bowling ball down the lane. And into the gutter. Trying again, she lets loose of the ball between her legs while doing the splits — and knocks down four pins.
Oh, well. It’s not like she was working on a 300 game. LeMaitre turns around, laughs and high-fives her sister, Novella LeMaitre, and their friend, Sara Sanchez.
“We have a really good time bowling,” Sanchez says.
The three college students are working on their twisty trick shots at the laid-back Garage on Capitol Hill, a 14-lane bowling alley that, on this spring night, seems to be hosting a convention for beautiful young people. Here, bowling is something to do while ordering drinks from one of seven bars and eating pork belly gyros made by the house chef. This is what the future of bowling looks like.
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Much of Seattle’s bowling past is long gone. Six alleys have closed in the past eight years, and now only 15 remain in the Greater Seattle area, a third the number that stood a half-century ago.
But here’s the funny thing: We’re still bowling, even if it’s getting harder to find a lane. By focusing on kids and PBR-drinking hipsters, by welcoming birthday parties and corporate events, by making it more about entertainment than competition, bowling is surviving. Thriving, even. In Seattle, 22 percent of adults slipped into those funny-looking shoes and rolled the rock at least once last year, slightly higher than the national average.
Bowling is fun. It’s easy. It’s cheap. Older bowlers are drawn back by sweet memories of simpler times. The sound of pins crashing after a well-placed shot. Warm grease dripping to the elbow after taking the first bite of a deliciously juicy cheeseburger. Maybe even the electricity of a first kiss. (Before eating that cheeseburger, we hope.) Young bowlers, in their ironic T-shirts and cool hats, hang out at the fancy new boutique alleys.
We bowl because we can. It just looks a little different from what it did when there were more bowling alleys than Starbucks around here.
ON THE SAME night our Capitol Hill heroes are rolling balls backward, Hugh Miller is one of 225 league bowlers at Kenmore Lanes who care very much about their scores.
Miller, a 57-year-old from Mercer Island, looks out at bowling lanes and sees not an entertainment venue but an athletic field. That figures. The left-hander won seven events on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, three more on the PBA50 Tour, and last year claimed the men’s doubles and Masters titles at the World Senior Championships in Las Vegas.
He’s a serious bowler, and Kenmore Lanes is a place for serious bowling.
Wearing a T-shirt that reads “Game of Throws: The winners are coming,” Miller rolls a 279, sharing stories with old friends and new between strikes. A couple lanes over from Miller, Jeff Knapp rolls a perfect 300 game.
The noise is deafening and nonstop. A pin autographed by Earl Anthony, the late, great Tacoma pro bowler, is proudly displayed in a glass trophy case. The restaurant/bar is called “The 11th Frame.” You half-expect to see clouds of cigarette smoke, then remember it’s 2014. This is what bowling used to look like all over Seattle.
Kenmore is the area’s biggest bowling alley, with 50 lanes, and its busiest league-bowling center. Kenmore Lanes was built in 1958, one of more than two dozen bowling alleys built in the Seattle area between 1957 and 1962. It was cheap to build, cheap to bowl.
And back then, pro sports weren’t around to compete for your entertainment dollar. Bowling alleys — like fraternal lodges and the neighborhood soda fountain — were popular gathering spots in the postwar era.
The PBA Tour began to make annual stops in the Seattle area in the 1960s. Anthony won his first tournament title, the Heidelberg Open, in 1970 at Ballinger Bowl, now the site of a 24 Hour Fitness. The bowling business was good back then.
Seattle counted more than 30,000 league bowlers in 1970, according to George Cartwright, manager of the Greater Seattle Association of the United States Bowling Congress. Now, though, he says Seattle can claim just 5,500 Seattle USBC members (league bowlers, essentially), which is down from 9,000 as recently as 2008.
Consider a few other numbers: Since 1962, just three bowling alleys have been built in the Seattle area that are still in business — and each of them was built during the past 11 years and would be considered a boutique alley or family entertainment facility.
WHEN JERRY Curulla heard last year that there was a party for the final night of bowling at Robin Hood Lanes in Edmonds, he knew he had to be there. It wouldn’t really be a bowling alley closure without Curulla, who has been the last person to turn out the lights at three in Seattle.
Curulla was head mechanic at Ballard’s Sunset Bowl for 11 years and remembers the last night there in April 2008:
Nobody wanted to leave. They weren’t done drinking, or laughing, or eating chicken wings, and they damn sure weren’t done bowling. With balls still flying down the lanes at 1 in the morning, he did what he had to do, lowering the pin-setting rakes and putting an end to 52 years of bowling.
Curulla helped close up, and by the time he was done sharing hugs and stories with co-workers, he realized he might as well spend the night. He had to be back first thing in the morning anyway to start preparing for the auction. Another Seattle bowling alley to be torn down and sold off, right down to the pins and the beer signs.
Curulla also helped shut down Greenwood’s Leilani Lanes in 2006 and Village Lanes at University Village in 1995. So, of course, he was there the night Robin Hood Lanes closed after 53 years to make way for a Walgreens.
It seems the real estate a bowling alley sits on has become too valuable to be real estate a bowling alley sits on.
Greg Olsen has been executive director of the Washington State Bowling Proprietors’ Association since 1991. He acts as sort of a commissioner for the state’s bowling-alley owners, trying to help them sell their sport. His mantra is “once isn’t enough,” the goal being to get everyone who bowls to bowl one more time. And he’s well aware of the realities of rising property values in Seattle and what that means for bowling.
“Back in the day, when land was affordable, these guys gobbled it up,” Olsen says. “Now someone knocks on an owner’s door and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this deal for you. I can write a check, what will it take?’ ”
Sunset Bowl sold for $13.2 million. Leilani Lanes, owned by the same group, went for $6.25 million. Bowling alleys, especially those with large parking lots, take up a lot of space. And someone can almost always find a way to make more money on that space than by operating a bowling alley.
So we’re left with 15 in the Greater Seattle area, which Cartwright and the USBC define as south of 196th Street in Snohomish County, north of 320th in Federal Way, west to the water, east to the edge of King County.
When a bowling center closes, Cartwright estimates that 25 percent of its bowlers quit bowling.
BUT WHEN one door closes, another opens, right? And sometimes, behind that door stand security guards enforcing a dress code, dance floors where DJs blast electronica music, a gigantic gaming center, a 16-lane bowling alley and a four-lane party room recently reserved by Russell Wilson, his pastor and Justin Bieber.
Welcome to Lucky Strike in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square.
Lucky Strike opened in 2008, part of a chain created by Steven Foster, who started in Southern California in 2003 with a new idea for a bowling alley. He has more than 20 of them now.
Foster says Lucky Strike tries to dazzle with music, art, colors, good food . . . “and with that, bowling, something that is fun, childlike, that you don’t have to be good at, that’s interactive.”
Lucky Strike’s motto: Let loose. Have fun. Be social.
The bar at Foster’s first Lucky Strike in Hollywood is built with the boards from Lane 7 of Hollywood Star Lanes, the iconic Santa Monica Boulevard alley where “The Big Lebowski” was filmed, demolished a month before the opening of the Hollywood Lucky Strike.
“The key is like anything else in life, it’s how it’s presented and offered,” Foster says. “The old style of bowling, as it existed, that was geared toward the more serious league bowler. One bowling center looked like another. That was from a different era. The culture has changed … What we offer is an entirely different beast.”
Lucky Strike, the Garage (opened in 2003) and ACME Bowl, a slick 40-lane bowling alley and entertainment center built across from Westfield Southcenter mall in 2005, are doing boffo business, focusing on atmosphere, food and customer service.
These are not your chain-smoking Aunt Edna’s bowling alleys. They’re making bowling cool, and they’re drawing a young crowd. In Seattle, nearly half the people who bowl are in the 18-to-34 age group. And the median household income of Seattle bowlers is $80,000, which is $9,000 above the metro median household income.
Even Seattle’s oldest bowling alley is getting into the act.
West Seattle Bowl opened Aug. 25, 1948. Longtime owners Michael Gubsch and Andy Carl have renovated a couple times in the past decade, updating the furniture and décor and giving the 32-lane alley a sleek, retro-cool look. Their restaurant, Highstrike Grill, will change your concept of bowling-alley food.
“People tell me they remember the old nachos with Cheez Whiz,” Carl says. “We don’t do Cheez Whiz here.”
But if you’re in the mood for a BLT with avocados and sprouts, or a prawn quesadilla, this is the place.
Gubsch and Carl, who were honored as 2013 national proprietors of the year by Bowling Center Management magazine, have also focused on technology. West Seattle Bowl was one of the first in the country to offer an online reservation system.
West Seattle, like a few other alleys in the area, still has a strong league bowling presence. But they’re finding in bowling there’s room for entertainment and sport, and that there’s nothing wrong with entertainment.
MORE THAN 70 million people bowled at least once last year in the United States, and bowling participation has risen nationally each of the past 10 years.
It’s enough to give a guy like Pat Johns hope.
In 1982, Johns won $105,000 for finishing second in a tournament in Las Vegas. He used the money to buy and run the pro shop at Skyway Park Bowl, then bought Hiline Lanes in Burien in 1994. Bowling is his life. And if he hears one more stupid joke about bowling . . . Seriously, don’t even get him started on the improbable physics of a ball flying 20 feet the wrong direction on a backswing.
Johns, 60, took a break from stocking the soda machines at his old-school, 24-lane alley recently to talk about the game he loves. It was a sunny, midweek early afternoon, and the place was already busy, full of regulars.
“Virtually all my friends are here,” Johns says, explaining the grip the game has on him. “And I’m fine with that.”
Johns began bowling as a kid, and he knows the industry needs to appeal to all the potential li’l bowlers out there. Hiline, like most alleys in the area, participates in Kids Bowl Free and offers junior programs.
Hiline is still popular with league bowlers, but like most alleys also hosts birthday parties and corporate events, turns on the disco lights at night for “cosmic bowling,” puts the bumpers up in the gutters for the kids — anything to get ’em in the door.
It’s the same story all around Seattle.
This spring, Kenmore Lanes hosted “When Furballs Strike 16,” featuring bowlers dressed as furry animals. It’s billed as the “second-largest tournament of its kind in the world” (who’s No. 1 or who, exactly, would be keeping track of that, we can’t say). The event was held on Star Wars Day (look it up, it’s a real thing) and drew a “Furballs Strike” record 198 bowlers, including 79 “fursuiters.”
There’s a new sense of optimism and energy.
“This is the first time in 40 years I really feel like the roller-coaster is heading back up,” Johns says.
The good news is, a lot of people just like bowling.
“The bowling center is a place to go and forget about life for a while,” says Olsen, head of the state’s bowling proprietors’ association. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a great athlete, if you have great coordination . . . you can bowl.”
As long as there’s still some place to do it.
Bill Reader is The Seattle Times deputy sports editor. Benjamin Benschneider is the Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.