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On an All-Night Roll : Eclectic Bunch of Bowlers Pins Down the Wee Hours on Graveyard Shift at 24-Hour Alley That Brings Back 1950s Feel

June 27, 1993|PHILIP P. PAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COVINA — It is 3 a.m. on a Sunday, and seven members of a local church choir are getting ready for another round of bowling. They have been at it for five hours straight, but they are still on their feet, cheering teammates and exchanging high-fives.

"We usually come for two or three games, but sometimes people get excited and we keep going," said Sonny Pham, one of the choir members.

"This is really his fault," he added, checking his watch and poking his friend Thanh Tran. "He keeps asking for one more game, one more game, one more game."

Tran just shrugs, then returns to the action. After all, they don't have to sing until the noon Mass. Plenty of time for more bowling.

They said they bowl almost every weekend after choir practice, and they always go to Covina Bowl, an old-fashioned bowling house that has been open since 1955. It is the only bowling alley in the San Gabriel Valley that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The choir members are not the only midnight bowlers here. On this particular night, they are joined by an eclectic bunch of college students and couples, serious bowlers and first-timers, as well as a good share of regulars who hit the lanes after working a long night shift.

"People keep coming back for just one more game. That's the way it works. They just keep coming back up here," said Nicolas Torres, who charges players $2.50 a game and rents bowling shoes for $1.50 between 1 and 9 a.m. The 35-year-old Azusa resident has been working the bowling alley's graveyard shift for 10 years.

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Torres says players often get telephone calls at the alley in the middle of the night. Sometimes it is wives hunting down missing husbands, but more often it is friends or family members hoping to join a game.

"It's always different people (at the alley), but most of these aren't real serious bowlers. They just come to spend time," Torres said.

One exception this night is Joel Tatlonghari, a radiology technician from Azusa who has just bowled three consecutive strikes. He and his friends started at 1:30 a.m. and did not stop until nearly 4 a.m.

"It's the only time when we're all not working," said Tatlonghari.

Tatlonghari also plays at other local alleys, but Covina Bowl is his favorite because he bowled his highest score (280) here. He owns six bowling balls, each for a different "lane condition," and he wheels them around in a sturdy plastic case.

"The lanes change daily," he said. "They're pretty good at this time of night, but you have to watch the twists and turns."

Sometimes a friend will call him in the middle of the night, and he will get out of bed to go bowling. "I'm tired before I go out, but usually when I get started, I gain energy. It's like a pick-me-up," he said.

At the other end of the 50-lane bowling alley is a foursome who work the late shift at a steakhouse in San Dimas.

"There are two or three centers that are closer, but we come here for the atmosphere," said Robert Young, a 27-year-old bartender who bowls three or four times a week. "These lanes are real wood and crafted with care."

"These old alleys are so much better," said waitress Heather Blackburn, one of Young's companions. "The new ones feel like you're in some space-age computer center."

Covina Bowl still has a 1950s feel, from the neon clocks on the walls to the ceiling fans. Yellow and green molded plastic chairs are scattered along the hall.

Chris Aiuto sat in one of those chairs the day he bowled his first game as a 12-year-old in 1963. Today he greets players behind the counter during the busy evening shift.

"This at one time was the Taj Mahal of bowling alleys," Aiuto said. Local architectural students still drop by to admire the building's old design, and a Coca-Cola Classic commercial was once filmed here.

The owners, three brothers from Canada, introduced 24-hour bowling 38 years ago. They added 20 more lanes in 1964, and installed automatic computer scoring six years ago, but not much else has changed.

Ruth Reese, a 53-year-old medical assistant and longtime late-night bowler, was upset when the computers were added, but she is happy that Covina Bowl is still open 24 hours.

"This place is nice for families. You don't feel threatened, even after midnight," Reese said. "We didn't want our kids out, so we came here to bowl."

Reese said her family used to go bowling after picnics, playing until 2 or 3 in the morning. The Reeses also have celebrated New Year's Eve here a few times.

A dozen lanes to the right of Reese and her companions is a group of Japanese students. They go to different colleges, so they use Covina Bowl as a weekend meeting place. Sometimes, they make small bets just to keep it interesting.

"There's nothing better than this at night. We don't drink alcohol and we are kind of too old to go to the discos," said Hirokuni Kakuya, a 26-year-old Citrus College student.

Some Covina Bowl employees once tried to persuade the owners to close on weeknights, when business is slowest. The owners refused.

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