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

May 22, 1986|DICK WAGNER | 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."

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