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Fans Again Hope to Save a Symbol of L.A. Diversity

Landmark: Bowling alley and its coffee shop drew multiethnic clientele for decades and survived riots. Now it's been sold.

May 03, 2000|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles was burning the first time they saved the Holiday Bowl, on an April afternoon in 1992. As rioters approached, a band of senior citizens emerged from the coffee shop and bowling alley on Crenshaw Boulevard to face them.

The seniors, Asian Americans and African Americans, had seen and survived worse: the Great Depression, World War II combat and internment by their own government. When the rioters saw what they were up against, they moved on.

Now the Crenshaw district landmark, where people have fallen in love with Los Angeles and each other for 42 years, has been sold. And after the business shuts down Saturday, it is doubtful that the new owners will revive the place as a bowling alley.

Some say that with the selling of the Holiday Bowl, Los Angeles has sold a bit of its soul.

A man who defended the building in 1992 said he told rioters to leave it alone because "it's not the white folks' bowling alley." As someone familiar with the rioters, he knew that would keep them away. He also knew the declaration was wrong.

The Holiday Bowl was the white folks' bowling alley. It was the black folks' bowling alley, the Japanese folks' bowling alley, the Koreans' bowling alley and that of anybody else who showed up to bowl, bet, eat, drink, smoke or shoot pool.

Regulars say that in its prime in the 1960s, Tina Turner ate there. So did Tom Bradley. And Gorgeous George. And Mister Moto.

Today the coffee shop may be the only place on Earth to have a breakfast of eggs, rice and your choice of Chinese char siu pork or Louisiana hot links. If it's not, it's probably the only place where you can eat like that and bowl.

The Crenshaw district was racially mixed long before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Some Holiday Bowl regulars have been friends since the 1930s, when they caught frogs on the swampy lot where the zigzag-roof coffee shop would later be built.

They recall sustaining each other through World War II, when Japanese Americans held in bleak relocation camps corresponded with their African American friends slogging through battlefields in Burma, assuring each other that their lots would surely improve.

Peace and prosperity did come, and by 1958 a group of Japanese American investors back from war and the camps had enough money to build the bowling alley. It was a place where Japanese American and African American bowling leagues were welcome when the American Bowling Congress maintained a blanket racial ban.

Aerospace and other high-wage manufacturing jobs abounded. Company leagues kept the bowling alley open 24 hours a day for swing shift workers.

Nightclubs also thrived in the neighborhood, sending after-hours crowds to the coffee shop. Ann Saito, 61, was one of the clubgoers who straggled into the Holiday Bowl with a group of girlfriends after bar closings. She can't forget one night in 1958.

"I was in that corner," she said, gesturing toward a table. "It was a booth then, and someone was throwing wadded-up napkins at me."

The culprit was a boy from Hawaii in a Produce League bowling shirt who later became her husband.

"This is where I became Japanese," said Saito, who is of Danish ancestry.

Years after that encounter, one of Saito's sons would meet his wife there.

Lawyer Michael Yamaki, 52, also courted his wife, local television news anchor Tritia Toyota, there. One reason Yamaki and his friends hung out at the bowl was the odd mix of people who wandered in. He once saw pro football player Earl McCullough bowling with O.J. Simpson. On another night, wrestler Bobo Brazil wandered in, followed shortly by archrival Fred Blassie, the man who popularized the put-down "pencil-necked geek."

The bowl also saw bits of the dark sides of Japanese American life, Yamaki said. As a college student he made late-night trips there with his mother, community activist Martha Yamaki, to round up wayward Yellow Brotherhood gang members. The Yamakis took the teenagers to their home, often to help them recover from barbiturate overdoses.

Business at the bowl began to fade in the late 1980s, regulars and workers say. Its closing hours were cut back, first to midnight and then to 10 p.m.

Marshall Siskin, whose family has owned the property since 1939, said the bowling alley has been struggling for a decade. The building is now in escrow, and Siskin said he doubts that the new owner, whom he declined to identify, will use it for a bowling alley.

Coffee shop waitress Jacqueline Sowell has formed a group hoping to save the place. They want the property declared a cultural monument to prevent its demolition, and hope they can convince the new owner to run a bowling alley.

Her movement has drawn not only local seniors but younger residents interested in preserving the building's architecture. On Tuesday, a dozen of them stood along Crenshaw Boulevard, holding placards reading, "Save Our Community."

Eight years after the street was torn by rioting, Angelenos again stood up to save the Holiday. This time, drivers in luxury cars, flatbed trucks and jalopies blared their horns in support.

"There's something like that on every corner in America," said Venice resident Michael Palumbo, 38, pointing at a new Pep Boys store across the street. Holiday Bowl "is something beautiful and unique to Los Angeles."

The bowling leagues already have arranged to move elsewhere, but Palumbo said another protest will be held Saturday morning.

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