Over the summer I heard about a really nifty retro bowling alley in town, but it’s on the west side, which makes it about as convenient and enjoyable to travel to as Dar es Salaam. I reckoned it could be years before I ever had occasion to visit that part of the city; but as it happened I recently had a board-game meetup in the library right across the street.*
Visiting Mahall’s Twenty Lanes was essentially stepping through a window into my early childhood. The sign on the side of the building recalls the golden age of bowling—1950s, maybe early 60s. You can bet the “Mahall’s” is backlit at night, too:
The sign above the front entrance is even more classic, though sadly not working properly:
Oddly, the twenty lanes are divided between two floors. I spoke to the attendant, a friendly guy with a beard that would make Santa jealous, and old enough to have been part of the original décor. He said that the upper floor had originally been a dance hall, and had later been converted to bowling lanes. When I asked him how old the masking units (the panels in front of the pinsetting machines) were, he perked up noticeably. I got the idea that visitors with cameras come tramping through all the time, but a real bowler was a rarity.
It kept striking me (hur-hur-hur), after bowling for years in modern houses, how austere this bowling alley seemed. No score monitors. No blaring, thumping music. No TV every four lanes. You wouldn’t normally think of a bowling center as a “quiet” place, but with only one lane in use, I could hear everything that happened in front and in back (where people were bowling and behind the pinsetters, respectively). I noticed the distinct slap of rental shoes on the approach. The sounds of pins falling into position in the pinsetter, some sixty feet from the foul line, were separated by brief moments of near silence.
In short, I was transported back to an idyllic time, when it was considered acceptable to pay attention to something besides mass media for hours on end
The masking units were indeed about fifty years old, and are of the oldest type I can remember, with the crowns that light up when you roll a strike. Higher up on the far wall was a anachronism: an abstract mural in pastel colors, with no apparent function except perhaps to remind people they were in a bowling alley in case they looked too far upward and got disoriented. Everything else in the house qualified as an antique.
Oddly, the ball returns were paired up, four lanes apart. A bowler on, say, lane 6 would have to cross lane 5 to collect her ball.
When these lanes were new, the numbers of the pins left up after the first ball would appear on the masking unit. Alas, the pin number (heh) lights no longer function, but if you click on Plate 4, below, to get the large version, you can clearly see the darkened numbers. The ball indicators (1, lit up in green, at left, and 2, at right) still work, though.
The intercom system consisted of a first-generation touch-tone phone
, with the two most important numbers—the bar and front desk, in that order—affixed in hand-punched Dymo
tape lettering. The only thing that could possibly make the scene any more retro would have been mimeographed notices, still damp and redolent of industrial solvents.
Of course, the bowlers have to keep score themselves. According to a newspaper review of Mahall’s, the staff spend a large chunk of their time teaching (or reminding) people how to keep score. The two oval depressions in this score table (Plate 6, below) once held cavernous, aluminum ashtrays that by the end of league night would be overflowing with still-smoldering cigarette butts floating in a sea of ashes. (That’s one dimension of the retro bowling experience I’m glad to miss.)
A closer look at the score table reveals a diagram of the pins in a typical Apollo-age font.
The ball returns look like something that modern safety regulations have long since made illegal, but in fact these crude devices work as well at keeping the balls accessible and slowing them down to safe (but not ridiculously slow) speeds as anything newer. (Note that the reset buttons are numbered, because each return services two lanes on the same side of it. Bet that causes all sorts of trouble with experienced bowlers used to the regular arrangement.) Also, the hand dryers on newfangled ball returns just don’t deliver air like the old ones did. Lean over one of these babies and your eyes
will dry out, let alone your hands.
I sure wish I lived within a parsec of this place. Bowling in a league there would practically overload my nostalgia lobe.
*Or so I thought. I didn’t know that Lakewood had two
public libraries, and of course the one I found on Google Maps was the wrong one. The librarian kindly gave me directions to the right one, but I ignored the details because the city map in my car would point me to the right spot. Got to my car and remembered that my map was in Kathy’s car. Amazingly, I found the other library on my second approximation, mostly by finding the shortest line between local downtown and the police station, and extrapolating.