“Friends in Low Places” is a staple for any legitimate karaoke catalog. It’s a crowd pleaser — not as daring as Springsteen, far less polarizing than ABBA. You can spot it in the songbook at any karaoke spot, but at Eagle Rock’s All Star Lanes, it’s the chorus that counts. Whoever’s handling the microphone knows to change one line in the chorus, so regulars at the bar can set down their drinks to shout along, in unison but rarely in tune, “Think I’ll slip on down to the All Star Lanes.”
The multipurpose bowling alley sits beside a preschool, at the one end of York Boulevard that gentrification has yet to touch. Many of the businesses and residents here have been around for decades, and the same goes for All Star, which has remained largely unchanged since the ’80s, checkered vinyl floor and all. It’s the closest we’ve got to the late Hollywood Star Lanes of The Big Lebowski fame.
The bowlers and karaoke buffs of Eagle Rock are not All Star’s only patrons. As the sing-alongs drone on, another kind of show starts up in the next room over. Every table inside the alley’s daytime Chinese restaurant, Red Dragon, has been cleared. Amps (brought by one of the billed bands; All Star provides no functioning equipment) dot the corners of a small stage, raised about a foot and a half from the ground. The lights are dimmed, but the restaurant’s everyday decor of crooked oil paintings isn’t removed.
“This place lives in the shade pretty much,” says Matt Kelley, who organizes music at All Star on a volunteer basis. “It’s a total crossover scene. I think that’s what has been bringing people around for as long as it’s been unpolished.”
On any given night, an all-ages door line will spill into the lobby to see whoever booked the space on the alley’s handwritten ledger: a hardcore band like Saviours, an act off of Burger Records, a college radio station staging a night of music, free with valid student ID.
Robert Horton doesn't pay much attention to who’s playing. Four years ago, he was hired as the alley’s mechanic, with the tasks of repairing pin setters and completing basic maintenance. But since the owner fell ill with an unidentified respiratory infection, Horton started managing bookings, running the front desk and renting shoes as well. Tonight, all he knows is the crowd better keep the drinking at the bar and out of the parking lot.
“All we’re interested in is bringing business into the bowling alley,” Horton says. “Whatever we can do to do that, we’re willing to try.”
It has stepped in as an all-ages arts space when venues Pehrspace and the Smell have come under threat of eviction.
Within the last couple of years, that meant booking any shows that came their way. All Star had been hosting events in the restaurant space before Horton arrived four years ago, after leaving a position at Jewel City Bowl in Glendale. But only recently did the space become a regular locale for live music. More than that, it has stepped in as an all-ages arts space when venues Pehrspace in Echo Park and the Smell downtown have come under threat of eviction.
Another plus: All Star takes no cut from the performances. If musicians choose to charge admission at the door (which usually lands between $5 and $8), the money goes directly back to them.
Zach Lewis has repeatedly appeared on All Star’s carpeted stage with bands Hex Horizontal and Prissy Whip. To him, the alley offers a mutually beneficial arrangement for musicians and management.
“Their main motivation isn’t curating music or anything like that,” Lewis says. “They just have a room that’s open, and bands can take advantage of that by doing whatever they want as long as they’re respectful. The space benefits from having people in attendance and the bands benefit from being able to have a lot more control over the shows.”
While any individual can book All Star’s restaurant space for events, creative collectives often serve as DIY booking agencies that select bands and take charge of promotion. Kelley works with Freakout, a volunteer-based organization that has been booking shows exclusively at All Star since 2011. According to Kelley, All Star’s hands-off approach to hosting shows makes it an accessible space for both local and touring musicians, especially those under 21.
“Kids need to book shows here,” Kelley says. “They need to know that it’s way easy to do that. I’m from the Valley, and living there, we definitely wouldn’t get paid for any shows we played.”
All Star hosts its fair share of big-name acts, too, such as Chastity Belt and Warpaint’s Jenny Lee Lindberg. Back in 2007, before shows were a weekly occurrence at All Star, Rilo Kiley made a surprise appearance. These are the names that pack the restaurant, with admission handstamps selling out at the door.
On a Friday at lunchtime, it's a different story. One family has the whole alley to itself. Their lane’s got bumpers up. The rest stay dark. Red Dragon has been restored to its normal state since the previous night, when three bands played and a small pit formed. Now, the tables stand recentered, their white cloths redraped. A member of the maintenance staff is the only one behind the bar, mopping.
Law and Order: SVU plays, muted, on the panel of wall-mounted TVs. Horton plans to replace them with flatscreens soon. His only goal is to keep the lanes alive. Faced with new competitors and the recent transformation of Mr. T’s on Figueroa into Highland Park Bowl, he remains confident that All Star possesses a quality lacking elsewhere: authenticity.
“Don’t get me wrong — I think Highland Park Bowl is gorgeous on the inside,” Horton says. “It looks like the old style, but at the same time, you can tell it’s new. It doesn’t have that older feel to it. That’s what this brings. We have little things missing here and there, so we’re gonna work on it, but we’re not gonna modernize it completely.”
After all, no one’s coming to All Star for craft beer. It’s about tall cans, consistently soggy nachos and the promise that you can leave your car in the parking lot overnight as long as you give Horton a heads-up.
It’s about Horton, too. After all, he’s the first to show up and the last to go home, after every weekly bowler or teen rushing the stage in time to beat curfew. He helps them coexist — and at the end of the day, he's the reason that both groups are so loyal to the place.