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Dealers of Vintage Clothing Resurrecting a Striking Old Look

February 02, 1990|KATHRYN BOLD | Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Darlene, Bob, Betty and Chuck--their names remain enshrined in embroidery on old bowling shirts.

Little did they suspect that those bowling shirts, with their tacky ads for Al's Diner and the Corner Bar stitched on back like miniature billboards, would someday be treasured as quaint souvenirs from America's happy days.

After all, "bowling shirts are not good looking," says Donna Saucedo, who nevertheless owns 20 of them.

Completely lacking in pretension, the classic bowling shirts worn by league bowlers in the '50s never aspired to high fashion. Who cared about looking chic when you had a bowling ball attached to your fingers?

Today, men and women looking for a bit of nostalgia dig through thrift stores and used-clothing shops in search of old bowling shirts, sometimes paying $50 or more for a particularly splendid find.

In Orange County, owners of vintage-clothing shops say classic bowling shirts have become so trendy that they're having trouble keeping them on the racks.

"We sold out of them at Christmas," says Saucedo, owner of Gasoline Alley, a vintage-clothing shop in Orange. "People bought them like crazy. They think they're funny."

Saucedo has sold them to teen-agers, rockabillies, yuppies and "anyone having a '50s party." The one place they don't seem to end up is in bowling alleys.

"I have a great one called Dan," says Ernie Zalk, owner of Tippecanoe, a vintage-clothing store in Laguna Beach.

He has bowling shirts shipped in from all over the country.

"Usually we'll get five or six shirts from one person who was in a league," he says. "They go fast."

Authentic bowling shirts have become increasingly scarce, especially the festive ones with lavish embroidery and two-tone colors, such as pink with black collars and stripes.

"The good ones we keep. My whole family wears them," Saucedo says. "The others we sell for about $25 and up."

To satisfy demand, she's ordering a line of "new repros," classic-style bowling shirts in two-tone colors with pleated or "biswing" backs, now sold by bowling shirt manufacturers that have belatedly jumped on the craze.

Most serious bowlers still wear the three-button, polyester-knit shirts seen in professional tournaments.

"Bowlers think they're golfers," complains Roger Bentley, owner of Bentley's Pro Shop in Anaheim. "If you watch the pros, you'll see they all wear these polo-style shirts that golfers wear."

Since so many recreational bowlers have been asking for the classic shirts, Bentley has decided to stock up on the repros for spring.

"I'm banking on it," he says, surveying his racks of polo shirts. "I'm getting rid of all this stuff."

Classic bowling shirts, notably the King Louies, Nat Nasts and Hiltons, have a roomy, boxy shape and double pleats in back, making them ideal for cranking the ball back and letting it fly down the lanes.

The shirts fostered team spirit. The sponsor--usually a brewery or local diner but sometimes a more exotic patron, such as a funeral parlor, topless bar or, in one strange case, a submarine--bought matching shirts for its team. The players bore the sponsor's embroidered ads on their backs and had their names stitched on the front, usually above the pocket.

"They're funny to collect," Saucedo says. "They're so bizarre, and I like all the weird names."

Her shirts promote everything from a bar called the Happy Hour, with a martini stitched on back, to Grandma's Cookies. Some have elaborate embroidery work, including a Hawaiian girl in a grass skirt dancing the hula under a palm tree, a matador fighting a bull and a red devil.

The National Bowling Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Louis considers the shirts to be museum pieces and displays about 50 at a time from its wide collection.

Among the gems entrusted to the museum: a shirt worn by a Cleveland police officer sponsored by the Berry Funeral Home. The shirt has a casket embroidered on the back with the arm of the deceased dangling over the side, still holding a bowling ball.

Short-sleeved bowling shirts became popular in alleys during the bowling boom of the '50s. Before then, bowlers wore long-sleeved shirts and sometimes ties.

Many manufacturers claimed to invent the shirt, but King Louie became the best known among the contenders, in part because of its "Shoot 300 for 300 bucks!" promotion, which awarded cash to anyone bowling a perfect game while wearing a King Louie shirt. The company credits its late vice president, Vic Lerner, with the shirts' design.

"Lerner was in a bowling league, and his team wanted a shirt," says Michael Robinson, vice president of King Louie International in Kansas City. "The company had been a sportswear manufacturer, but then it started turning out bowling shirts."

The shirts remained popular until the bowling boom ended in the '60s.

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