All-automatic and often with a twist (glow-in-the-dark games, anyone?), bowling isn’t what it used to be. But in the Midwest, where the sport first flourished, some patrons and alley owners take pride in maintaining the game’s vintage charm.Back in the day, bowling was big.
After World War II, the advent of automatic pinsetters spurred a building boom in bowling alleys; Harry Truman even installed lanes in the White House. Bowling was as much a spectator sport as a pastime, with televised big-money tournaments and shows like Jackpot Bowling, which featured stars such as Milton Berle, frequently gracing the airwaves. And the Midwest — where Detroit still leads the nation in the number of league bowlers registered with the United States Bowling Congress — has been the longtime epicenter. Like on the South Side of Chicago, where every year since 1921, the Petersen Classic tournament has lured bowlers from all over the world. The original host alley, Archer-35th Recreation, had infamously tough lanes that made breaking 200 as tough as batting .400. But it succumbed to a leaky roof in 1993, at which time the tournament was relocated to a suburban Chicago bowling center. Or in St. Louis, the home of the Hermann Undertakers, a five-man squad that set a
team scoring record in 1937 that stood for 21 years before it was broken by another St. Louis team, the Budweisers, in 1958 — on the same lanes (seven and eight) at the same St. Louis bowling alley, Floriss Lanes, where the Undertakers made history. The ?Budweiser record stood for nearly 36 years. But Floriss Lanes, once a haven for bowlers, closed long ago. Thankfully, not every ten-pin gem has met the same fate. There remain some alleys across the Midwest where the sport is gloriously stuck in time.
2725 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, Mo. • (314) 645-5308 • www.saratogalanes.com
Second-story bowling alleys used to be no big deal in St. Louis. “When I was a kid,” says Jim Barton, owner of Saratoga Lanes, which was founded in 1916, “there were about five of them.”
No longer. Located in Maplewood, one of dozens of municipalities that ring St. Louis proper, Saratoga Lanes, the oldest bowling alley in the metropolitan area, now boasts the only lanes in the region that are on the second floor of a building.
Unlike many alleys built in the World War I era as adjuncts to saloons, Saratoga was conceived as a bowling alley first, which may have helped it survive Prohibition, according to a successful 2008 application for the National Register of Historic Places. Women were welcomed, with mixed leagues starting here as early as 1933, 20 years before it became common for men and women to bowl together in league play. The region’s top teams competed? in tournaments at Saratoga, and the eight lanes, worn out, were replaced in the 1940s. A few years ago, rather than replace them again, Barton covered the lanes with a synthetic protective product that will allow the wood that shows through to last forever.
The eventual introduction of automatic pinsetters spelled the end of many second-floor alleys in buildings that couldn’t take the weight. But not Saratoga Lanes, where pinsetters were added in the mid-1950s as part of a remodeling that helped the alley survive competition from larger suburban bowling centers that were springing up.
The pool room features regulation-size Brunswick tables from the 1940s. The 31-star flag on the wall is a replica of a 19th-century model, and the national anthem is played before league play begins — a tradition that dates back a decade. Barton remodeled the place three years ago, but you wouldn’t know it. He says he paid a premium for new carpet and wall paneling that intentionally looks dated. Automatic scoring equipment was never considered.
“We redid everything,” says Barton, a bowling lifer who started out cleaning ashtrays in an alley when he was a teenager. “We made it look like it’s 1958. We didn’t want to change what Saratoga Lanes looked like.”
Private parties are a lifeblood here; Barton says he holds as many as 400 in a year. He has opened two other eight-lane alleys — one in St. Louis and another in Davenport, Iowa — since acquiring Saratoga Lanes in 1989. He doesn’t plan on going anywhere, and he has no interest in running anything bigger than 12 lanes.
“What I’m opening up is not just a bowling alley,” Barton says. “I’m opening up entertainment centers that have bowling alleys in them.”