The Bowling Classic finals at North End Alleys, sponsored by The Tacoma Times, Feb. 26, 1945. Photo courtesy of Northwest Room at The Tacoma Public Library, (Richards Studio D18980-1)
Bowling has been a key facet of American life for ages. Though the sport has been around since before the Revolution, with evidence of variations of the sport brought to the states by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, it wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 1960s that bowling really blossomed in the United States.
It was around then that the automatic pinsetter — a tool that helped attract community members to the bowling centers that suddenly were cropping up — was invented.
For Reggie Frederick, nostalgic memories around the sport begin during that 1960s boom time, when he was in elementary school. He is quick to recall rolling his first ball at Chalet Bowl — known originally as the North End Alleys — in Tacoma’s Proctor District when he was about 8 years old.
“There were no bumpers,” he said. “They were still 30-some years away. I shot a 32. I was really proud.” When Frederick turned 13, he joined a league at New Frontier Lanes, a bowling center that also gave him his first job.
Bowling has continued to be an integral part of Frederick’s life. Chalet Bowl, which he now runs, was established in 1941 and is recognized as the oldest operating bowling alley in Washington. Frederick’s love for bowling kept him around while working there under the previous owner, Jim Stevenson, and at other bowling centers through college. Frederick purchased the popular Tacoma bowling alley with his late wife, Nancy, on May 1, 1984.
Billy Frederick coowns Chalet with his wife, Alyson, and father, Reggie. Billy and Alyson joined the family business in 2006 and have kept the alley successfully operating in Tacoma’s Proctor district ever since. Photo by Jeff Hobson
“(We) walked in with (our sons) — Billy who was 3, and Jon, who was 5 months old — (and) the rest is history,” Frederick said.
Through the years, Frederick put his profits back into the business and refurbished the space little by little. He said Chalet has made about $2 million in renovations in total.
Today, Frederick co-owns Chalet with his son, Billy, and Billy’s wife, Alyson. Billy and Alyson joined the family business in 2006 and have kept the alley successfully operating in Proctor ever since.
Going Through Changes and Surviving
Bowling’s place in culture has undergone a major transition during Frederick’s time. Having witnessed the evolution across nearly six decades, he vividly remembers that period in the 1960s — where league bowling generated about “90 percent of the revenue” for businesses — to today, when leagues generate less than 50 percent of the overall bowling business. To wit, the United States Bowling Congress reported 4.1 million members of associated men’s, women’s, and youth leagues during 1997-98. That membership dropped to 1.21 million in the 2019-20 season.
Rainier School Bowling Alley in Buckley. Photo by Kevin Hong
Kevin Hong, a Seattle elementary teacher, tournament bowler, and Pacific Northwest-based photographer who documents bowling centers across the country online to “preserve, revive interest in, and educate about bowling’s past” with his Maple+Pine: American Bowling Comes of Age website, knows that decline too well, witnessing numerous centers close during his career.
“We’ve lost a lot of bowling centers in Seattle and Tacoma because the land is extremely valuable to other types of business,” he said. “I’m thinking of Leilani Lanes — sort of a landmark (for) everybody who grew up in Seattle bowling. … Sunset Bowl was open 24 hours and was just down the hill from the University of Washington. … Both of those landmark places are now condos or apartments.”
Seattle First Baptist Church in Seattle.
What we see today are two distinctly different types of bowling centers.
There are family-run bowling alleys such as Chalet Bowl, Tacoma Towers (1957), Secoma Lanes (1959), Kent Bowl (1958), and Daffodil Bowl (1957), which have stayed afloat in part by upgrading and introducing other ways to entice customers, such as expanding food and beverage options.
Westside Lanes in Olympia.
And there also are contemporary centers such as Bowlero or Round1 — also known as FECs (Family Entertainment Centers) — that cater to the openplay customer, with multi-anchored entertainment centers being crucial parts of the overall package.
Locally, Bowlero announced its acquisition of ACME Bowl in Tukwila in October 2018 and opened its doors a year later. Bowlero features “40 signature blacklight lanes, laneside lounge seating, and huge high-definition video walls that bring bowling to an entirely new level,” according to a news release.
Rocket Alley in Arlington.
“The level of customer service we provide is elevated,” said Brandon Soeum, Bowlero operations supervisor. “We really make sure that every guest in here has a special experience, making sure the venue itself is an entertainment venue, not just the bowling alley — (it’s) something more than that.”
Soeum noted that business is “definitely on the rise” as Bowlero continues to host birthday parties, corporate parties, and regular outings. He believes that old-school bowling alleys could benefit from other forms of entertainment.
“With the sheer amount of attention that most people tend to have, I think adding other (forms) of entertainment for someone while they’re in a single place really does make a big difference,” he said. “Giving people more than just bowling. …”
Though many small bowling centers can’t compete with the offerings of the larger, more handsomely budgeted chains, Frederick at Chalet Bowl said customer loyalty is largely what’s kept the business afloat all these years. Through their small center, the Frederick family has been able to cultivate meaningful relationships with guests, fostered in part by the business’s hospitality to league bowlers who come back week after week.
“League bowling is a big mainstream for us,” Billy Frederick said. “It keeps us going in the evening times when most folks are getting out from work. Monday through Friday nights, we have bowling leagues, and they’re all full. I’d say we have approximately 250 league bowlers that come every week.”
Billy noted that Chalet Bowl was among the many small mom-and-pop shops that were significantly impeded by COVID. But as the pandemic has become more manageable, if not quite yet a memory, Chalet Bowl is regaining steady business, he said.
“Things really picked up quite a bit for us,” Billy Frederick said. “We’ve been busy ever since the summertime, (whereas) summertime for the bowling industry (in general) is really slow. We stayed busy and steady all summer long, which was the first of almost 40 years of us owning the bowling alley.”
The workforce has posed a challenge for business owners such as Frederick, who said that while finding qualified labor as an employer is tough, “You learn to deal with it.” Frederick said he hopes bowling continues to thrive in the future.
Eagles bowlers at North End Alleys on September 13, 1945. Photo courtesy of Northwest Room at The Tacoma Public Library, (Richards Studio D20178-3)
Brad Swartz, owner of Puyallup’s Daffodil Bowl, also believes being family-owned has kept his center successful. Daffodil Bowl is a Puyallup institution that first opened its doors in 1957. Since taking over in 2018 from previous owner Chuck Linn — who owned the center for more than two decades — Swartz said business has exploded, and revenue “has gone up about 22 percent."
“At this point, it’s such a successful location,” he said. “From my understanding, (it’s) one of the busiest bowling facilities of its type. … We have an unusually high-quality group of cooks, and my wife (Diana) runs the bowling centers six days a week. (It’s also) the coaching (and mentorship) from the former owner, Chuck.”
Like the Fredericks at Chalet Bowl, Swartz and his team have made improvements and remodeled the center to keep it up to date. Daffodil Bowl is a 24-lane entertainment center that offers open bowling, leagues, youth programs, lessons, an arcade, and more. The Rockin’ Bowl Café and Bar also has added to the center’s success.
On a macro level, bowling expert and photographer Hong is among the many bowlers who will continue bowling for as long as he can. But has witnessed how the bowling industry has shifted from “league- and competition-based to being more (for the) younger crowd,” who appreciate the technology and added entertainment.
“I just hope that we can hang on,” Hong said of the industry. “I worry that we’re going to run out of places to bowl. I hope that places can hang on and that we still have places to bowl in five or 10 years.”
Stephanie Quiroz is a staff writer and designer at South Sound.