Bowling is an age-old sport that dates back to ancient Egyptian civilization, but in the United States, it wasn't until 1895 when the rules of the game were drawn up in New York City, and ten years later, the International Bowling Board was formed. In Southern California, the postwar-era economic boom, growing middle class and widening suburban sprawl of the 1950s created a need among the increasing number of nuclear families to engage in simple, fun, cost-effective entertainment and bowling was the most popular leisure activity to meet those demands.
Bowling-alley architecture quickly became an outward expression of the spirit of optimism inside these new family-friendly midcentury pleasure palaces and now, the buildings are the subject of an exhibition at A+D Architecture and Design Museum: "Bowlarama: California Bowling Architecture 1954-1964." We asked exhibition curator Chris Nichols, a longtime Los Angeles preservationist, why California was such a hotspot for the futuristic, whimsical design that transformed simple bowling alleys into iconic architectural marvels.
As a Hollywood Heritage board member and erstwhile chairman of the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee, Nichols knows his architecture. His vast personal collection of '50s-era material on Los Angeles design (including bowling alleys) provided a solid starting point for Bowlarama! Nichols also hit up nearly every local institution that could help, including USC, UCLA and the Los Angeles Public Library. But the show isn't just filled with postcards, photos and drawings.
"All the big three-dimensional pieces [are] from friends's collections," Nichols explains. "We pulled them from loft walls and excavated them from garages. One particularly outlandish creature was lifted out of Charles Phoenix's kitchen."
Nichols came up with the idea for a bowling exhibition after leading a bus tour about San Gabriel Valley architecture for the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee (ModCom). One of his guests was then-96-year-old retired architect Gordon Powers, whose firm Powers, Daly and DeRosa designed dozens of California bowling alleys, including the Covina Bowl.
Like many other bowling alleys of the 1950s, Covina Bowl was a one-stop recreation facility with a dining area and cocktail lounge, along with a barber shop, beauty parlor and even free childcare.
Bowling's current widespread popularity dates back to the 1936 invention of the automatic pinsetter, which replaced "pinboys" as the foremost method of configuring the bowling pins at the end of the lanes. As a result, modern bowling centers could operate 24/7, thus inviting bored housewives, stressed-out businessmen and restless teenagers from the suburbs into a much more savory environment than the often all-male bawdy pool halls that beckoned servicemen, bachelors and wayward husbands during the Depression Era and World War II.
Meanwhile, the unique nature of California's bowling architecture was a direct result of SoCal's expansive real estate as well as the freedom to experiment with new styles. "The wildest of these centers were built in far flung new suburbs of the '50s that had previously been orange groves. It was a blank canvas," Nichols points out, adding that SoCal's burgeoning rockets industry also provided space-age inspiration.
While the designs originated in the west, they eventually spread eastward to the rest of the country. "The most elaborate bowling centers came from California," Nichols explains. "Eastern operators came here to observe and hired L.A. architects to create 'California style' centers around the country."
Sadly, these once futuristic facilities eventually became relics of the past, owing to continuous land development and a diminishing appreciation for midcentury architecture. Despite these setbacks, however, bowling still remains a popular sport worldwide.
"Upscale trends like fancy food, subdued lighting and deluxe furniture have introduced a new group to the sport," Nichols observes. "Something like 70 million Americans went bowling last year. It's still thriving but different than it was 50 years ago."
Yet the question remains, can "Bowlarama!" transcend the midcentury kitsch factor and actually bring about a genuine appreciation for bygone bowling architecture?
"I hope people realize how epic and amazing these palaces were - how unbelievably cool and beautiful they were when they were new, before decades of use and changes wore down their original energy," Nichols responds. "I hope people will go have a fun night bowling at one of these awesome '50s pin palaces."
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