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Photograph by Eric A. Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Bowling San Jose

By Eric A. Carlson

"See them tumbling down ... pledging their love to the ground."

--'Tumbling Tumbleweeds,' by Bob Nolan

GOLDEN 1959--THE YEAR OF THE BOWLING ALLEY. Temples of lacquered pine resonating with 16-pound balls smashing into the pocket. Some of the temples remain: Moonlite Lanes, Alma Bowl, Cambrian Bowl, Fiesta Lanes, Fourth Street Bowl. Most have faded into oblivion. Transformed into Safeway stores or otherwise disfigured and dismantled. Viva Futurama. Adios Downtown Bowl. Adieu Cherry Chase.

Not every temple went quietly into the good night. On February 22, 1961, at 8:35pm, Sherman Oaks' bowling alley exploded. Nooner recounts the horror, "I remember the night well. I still have night sweats and the shakes." The ferocity of the explosion sent bowling balls screaming into the San Jose night. One fell through a woman's ceiling and onto her living room floor--as she was watching TV. Dave Hickey recalls that his mother drove him to the site the following day, where he plucked a charred bowling pin from the smoldering rubble. Legend has it that owner Nick Bebek was having the floors relacquered and a pilot light inadvertently ignited the fumes. A curmudgeon at Cambrian Bowl grumbled that bowling alleys get relacquered all the time without exploding. Rumors of foul play persist. Along with the collapse of the San Jose Electric Light Tower in 1915, this was one of San Jose's most horrific unnatural disasters.

I decided to bowl the remaining circa 1959 San Jose and environs temples--commencing with Moonlite Lanes in Santa Clara. I would need a bowling ball and shoes. Alex Romanowsky operates The Bowling Store at Moonlite Lanes and I recommend him highly. How can one go wrong buying a bowling ball from a man whose last name ends in "owsky"? One can't. Alex fitted me with a 15-pound Jade Pearl Columbia Scout Reactive with an offset puck in the core (for increased mass bias and Rg). Some bowling balls now come with fragrances, such as the Storm Trauma--cinnamon. This is not your father's bowling league. I commenced rolling.

After getting the kinks out at Moonlite, I motored over to the warm bosom of Alma Bowl in Willow Glen. The Food All Restaurant offers tasty snacks. And the Alma Bowl neon sign stands in googie splendor. Like Moonlite, the slant of light is friendly and exudes seedy charm. I found there were still kinks in my game.

On to Cambrian Bowl. I fell immediately in love with the Cambrian Bowl Lounge. Perhaps it was the mural behind the bar--an oil painting of 12 dwarves bowling. Deft brushwork and a Botticellian composition suggest the work of a master. Perhaps Sandro Botticelli himself. Indeed, one of the patrons said that the painting was depicted in a 1960 issue of Look magazine. On this afternoon, old-time San Joseans sat philosophizing. Bonnie Caraccilo, the bartender, told me, "It's more like being with family here than working at a bar." This is a cozy niche of a tavern that hobbits and Fraggles would feel comfortable in. Though perhaps not at the same time.

Just for the heck of it, I drove to Felton Bowl, in Felton. Ten lanes and a tiki lounge. Had a nice chat with Will, the barkeep, about parrots. He spoke highly of Double Yellow-Headed Amazons. A sign next to the bowling alley--I believe for a motel--had faded out entirely--not one letter remained--only blank white and some aging neon tubing. Beyond the beyond.

Saratoga Lanes has been refurbished into a plastic wonderland of video games and playpens. Kids and parents run amuck. One bourgeoisie woman bowler literally snarled at me when I didn't get out of her way fast enough. A scary place.

Fiesta Lanes is impossibly seedy, with a lounge that appears to exist in a high-bay bomb shelter. And Fourth Street Bowl is a jewel that needs further investigation.

Final note: To survive, bowling alleys have resorted to Xtreme bowling on weekend evenings: black lights, loud music, fog machines, laser tracking balls. And they are a popular site for children's birthday parties. A perfect place to turn 10. Or any number.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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