Another Kind of Holiday Bowl Tradition
What’s the best way to enjoy life after you’ve survived the Great Depression, helped win World War II, fought racial discrimination and watched your kids grow up and move to the suburbs?
The answer is easy for the mostly black and Asian American seniors who have done all of that and now pack the Holiday Bowl on Crenshaw Boulevard, where they have breakfast with childhood friends, bowl a few games, then maybe smoke a cigarette and have a couple of beers at the bar.
Holiday Bowl might be the only place on the planet where you can have your eggs with either Chinese char siu pork or Louisiana hot links and rice. If it’s not, it’s probably the only place where you can eat like that and bowl.
The 1950s-era bowling alley, coffee shop and bar is also a kind of local museum of tolerance, loyalty and optimism, exhibited through people who have sustained friendships over decades and across racial lines. Their conversations reveal precious details of Los Angeles history as well as unshakable devotion to their friends and the city in which they grew up.
Many of the regulars have lived near the bowling alley since childhood. They caught frogs there when the land was a swampy vacant lot in the 1930s. In 1992, they stood outside and told rioters threatening to burn the place to get lost. The young men obeyed.
Some, like Charlie Tajiri, 73, and Scoby Roberts, 72, meet there daily for breakfast. Many see their friends more often than their children.
Tajiri and Roberts have known each other since they played football together at Dorsey High School. That was in 1940, when the high school was new and jack rabbits ran onto the field during games. In an era in which anything west of Broadway was called the Westside, other kids teased them about how far in the boondocks their campus was located.
Unlike other parts of Los Angeles, some of the areas surrounding the bowling alley’s Crenshaw district neighborhood became ethnically mixed in the late 1920s, when the parents of many of the regulars emigrated from places like Japan, Korea, Louisiana and Texas.
In that tolerant island, Walter Keys, who is white, and Vernon Ward, who is black, became friends on a rainy day in 1933.
“I was looking out the window,” Keys, 69, recalls, “and Vernon [now 70] came up, knocked on the door and asked if he could sit on my porch. We sat there together, and shared a loaf of bread that Vernon pulled out from his raincoat.” Ward and others still spend time at Keys’ nearby house on St. Andrews Place.
Manuel Mejia, 72, said kids were comfortable with the neighborhood’s diversity. Mejia, who came to the area from Mexico as a 5-year-old, was a paperboy for the Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese American newspaper.
The neighborhood friends never insulted one another racially, Keys said. “Even when we got angry we didn’t say anything about it to each other.”
Unfortunately, American society wasn’t so enlightened.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed in December, 1941, Japanese Americans in Los Angeles were rounded up and detained in horse stalls and the parking lot at the Santa Anita racetrack for several months while desert internment camps were being built.
Although the government turned on the Japanese Americans, their friends stuck by them, taking food and clothes to the racetrack for them.
“They didn’t forget us. Their parents made fried chicken and cakes for us,” said Dorothy Tanabe, who remembers the gifts as welcome breaks from the government rations. “They gave us bologna and pickled beets every day. It was terrible.”
After the war, many returned to the area, and the Japanese and black populations swelled as housing barriers fell.
By the time the bowling alley opened in 1958, the Crenshaw district had become one of the largest Japanese American enclaves in Los Angeles.
The current names of the bowling leagues reflect the makeup of the Japanese American community then. There’s the Gardener’s League, the Produce League, the Floral League, which was made up of flower vendors, and the 442nd League, named after the highly decorated Japanese American Army unit.
As the area’s Japanese American population has dropped, the leagues have become mixed. “My team has one black, one Italian, another Japanese and a Korean sponsor. We’re in first place now,” noted Dorothy Tanabe, who bowls in the Floral League.
Tanabe, who is in her 70s, won’t reveal her exact age but lets on that her 162 average is down from a high in the 180s. She bowls three times a week, and on a recent afternoon was passing out pieces of home-baked cake to her friends.
For nearly 30 years the alley was always open, in sync with Cold War work schedules. “The swing shift guys from the aerospace plants would come in around 12 and bowl all night,” recalled Carl Hughes, 60.
The closing of those plants and crime prompted the alley’s owners to start closing at midnight in the late 1980s.
Robbers in the area have no respect for elders. Tanabe gave up bowling at night after she was robbed in her driveway upon returning home a few years ago. If she leaves after sundown she now phones her next-door neighbors, who look out for her as she comes home.
George Furukawa, 80, was shot in the leg during a robbery in the parking lot in 1986.
It took 11 operations for him to walk normally again, but Furukawa can’t tell you about it without grinning. “I’m not able to bowl, but I can still come and have a few beers,” he said, occasionally puffing on a cigarette and sipping beer from a glass filled with ice.
If Furukawa is bitter about anything, it might be the Pontiac that got away. In 1962, the alley started a promotion that awarded a free car to anyone who bowled a 300 game. It was canceled after two bowlers quickly won. Shortly after that, Furukawa hit 300.
Some of the regulars no longer come in late at night, but most say that crime isn’t as much of a problem since security guards were hired.
The bowling alley has become more important to those who remain as other restaurants and gathering spots have closed. The black population has fallen, and Japanese Americans now make up just a tiny part of the area’s increasingly Latino population. Only a handful of Japanese businesses remain.
“It’s a real important part of their lives. It’s somewhere for them to go that’s safe where they can relax, " said Mary Shizuru, who worked in the coffee shop for 30 years before teaming up with cook Fujio Hori to lease it three years ago.
As the city and neighborhood change, the bowling alley is also one of the last links the longtime residents have to their past. Looking across the room at senior citizens who once played marbles with her brothers reminds Dorothy Tanabe of something her parents told her.
“My mom always said there wasn’t a bad kid among us,” she said.