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Loyal Bowlers Find Tiny Alley Is in a League of Its Own

Times Staff Writer

Running a bowling alley is a big job--even if it’s the smallest alley in Los Angeles County.

Ask Bob Berger, owner of the eight-lane Montrose Bowling Center, which the Los Angeles Bowling Assn. says is the smallest public bowling alley in the county.

“It’s too much work for one guy,” said Berger, a La Crescenta resident who also works 40 hours a week supervising the manufacture of computer parts at a Glendale firm.

Berger routinely works 16-hour days, seven days a week with his two jobs. At night and on weekends he runs the bowling alley, renting out shoes, making hamburgers, serving drinks and keeping on eye on temperamental pin-spotting machines.

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Losing Money

With only one employee to work weekdays, Berger said, he has little time to spare. He said the bowling alley, which he bought three years ago, has been losing money.

“I’d rather sell the place,” he said.

But Berger’s regular patrons scoff at the mention of selling the bowling alley that has become their second home. The customers enjoy Berger and his bowling alley too much to let him sell it, they say.

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Jeff Zungali, 29, said the Montrose alley is about the only place in Los Angeles that has the comfortable atmosphere of the small Pennsylvania town where he grew up.

“This is like Arnold’s of ‘Happy Days,’ ” Zungali said.

Used as Movie Location

Indeed, the storefront bowling alley, tucked in among retail stores in the Montrose Shopping Park, looks like it belongs in 1950s Milwaukee, setting for the “Happy Days” television episodes. It is used occasionally as a movie location, most recently “Teen Wolf.”

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On a recent Friday evening, Jake, a black-and-white dog, waited patiently on the sidewalk outside the bowling alley, his orange water dish nearby. His owner, a regular patron, was inside having a beer with friends.

Jukebox music competed with electronic beeps and whistles of video games, and regulars helped themselves to drinks in the cooler behind the lunch counter, leaving money by the cash register while Berger was busy elsewhere.

Glossy beer and baseball posters cover the walls. The menu is simple, offering hamburgers, fries, hot dogs, shakes and drinks.

Mixture of Customers

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Serious bowling wouldn’t begin for another couple of hours, at 8 p.m., Berger said. Six bowling leagues take up most lanes Monday through Thursday, he said.

Berger said he seldom has trouble with his customers, a mixture of juveniles, families and senior citizens.

“I can handle the kids,” Berger said. “Sometimes I send them away for a week, but they always come back. I tell them, ‘If you can behave, I will let you come back in.’ ”

Patrons seemed more interested in visiting and exchanging stories than in knocking down pins.

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“People like the atmosphere here, but we can’t compete with the bigger houses,” Berger said. “I can’t have big leagues because there aren’t enough lanes, and people who are too lazy to figure out their own scores go to the big houses where the computer figures it out automatically.”

Erratic Machines

As Berger was talking, the machine on lane one refused to return bowling balls to four teen-age girls. Berger went to the back of the machine and fixed the problem. It happened again a few minutes later and Berger asked the group to move to an adjacent lane.

A mechanic Berger pays to fix the erratic machines sometimes is just as temperamental, he said. On a busy Sunday several weeks ago, Berger said, he spent eight hours operating the mechanical relays by hand before the mechanic arrived.

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Berger can’t afford to replace the machines, he said. Pin spotters at the alley have been racking up games since 1958. The alley uses AMF Bowling Products machines, a type introduced in 1956 as the game’s first automatic pin spotters, said Howard Reifeiss, an AMF spokesman.

The Montrose bowling alley has been operating 50 years, Berger said. But the lunch business isn’t as good as he would like and the yearly lease he pays to AMF for his pin spotters eats up profits, he said.

If a buyer could be found, he would sell the place.

“Bowling isn’t even one of my hobbies,” said Berger.

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