Forget about “bowling alone” -- a phrase that reflects political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s observation that you can measure America’s weakening sense of community by the decline in bowling leagues.
In Costa Mesa, you can’t bowl at all.
The city’s last bowling alley -- the landmark Kona Lanes, sporting a neon Tiki marquee outside and 40 wood-floor alleys inside -- quietly closed after 45 years of strikes, spares and splits.
Plans are uncertain for the site, which is owned by the Segerstrom family. Costa Mesa officials recently rejected a proposed Kohl’s department store for the corner lot and no fresh proposal has surfaced.
Regardless, the building at Harbor Boulevard and Adams Street will probably be razed, along with an adjacent -- and already closed -- movie theater and ice-skating rink.
Beyond the sadness of local bowlers, preservationists are lamenting the loss of another example of Southern California’s postwar Googie architecture, a mix of Space Age optimism, flamboyant neon lights and ostentatious rooflines meant to attract motorists like moths.
“With each one that goes down, a part of that history is gone with it,” said Adriene Biondo, chair of the Commercial Council committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which seeks to preserve Southern California architecture. “When you look at the ‘60s, everywhere you drove looked different. Now everything becomes an average-looking landscape. It’s really a shame. I hate to see that go.”
Known for Excesses
In some ways, Googie is the class clown of architecture, adopting cartoonish excesses of windows and overhangs to catch the eye. The name comes from the former Googie coffee shop, which opened in a Space Age building in 1949 at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards in Los Angeles.
Some examples, like Kona Lanes, also embrace ‘60s Polynesian Tiki influences, and look like a cross between “The Jetsons” and “The Flintstones,” with fieldstone walls, large angled eaves and an inherent sense of campiness.
“It’s fun and optimistic even though it’s very excessive-looking,” Biondo said.
Jack Mann, whose family has owned Kona Lanes since 1980, said Segerstrom officials informed them last year that they wanted to renovate the property, and gave the Manns first dibs on refurbishing the business. But Mann said it would cost $10 million to $20 million to make the lanes competitive, more money than the family was comfortable investing in rented space.
So they decided to close. The Manns still own bowling alleys in San Dimas, Riverside and Tustin.
End of an Icon
Tiki aficionado Kevin Bullat of Huntington Beach sees the closure as the death of another icon of California’s beach-and-car culture.
“We treasure those places and go to visit them before they meet their demise,” said Bullat, who arranged a recent outing at Kona Lanes even though he and his friends don’t bowl. “The bowling alleys are going fast, that Polynesian type of architecture. But there are a number of folks who have gone into restoring those.”
He cited the Bahooka restaurant in Rosemead and Sam’s Seafood in Sunset Beach as still-standing examples of the style. Many others, he said, have disappeared under what he referred to as the “Mission Viejo-ization” of Southern California, with homogenized strip malls anchoring neighborhoods of cookie-cutter houses.
“Look at Huntington Beach. The old downtown was skanky and cheesy but it had something,” Bullat said, arguing that renovations in recent years have stripped the city center of its uniqueness. “Mission Viejo is the antithesis of style, and that’s what’s happening everywhere.”
For Billy Folsom, the loss of Kona Lanes is personal.
“That’s where I learned to bowl,” said Folsom, who grew up within walking distance of Kona Lanes and still lives about 100 yards away. “That’s where my children learned to bowl. Now they’re tearing down my childhood.”
Among bowlers, Kona Lanes was less an architectural emblem than a place to get together and have fun. Replacing it with a store robs the community of an alternative, and replaces it with something easily found elsewhere in town, Folsom said.
Other cities, from Long Beach to Fullerton, have used local idiosyncrasies to define their retail cores, he said.
“In Costa Mesa, we’ve done none of that,” Folsom said. “Costa Mesa is rapidly running out of color. Our character has just been lost and I think it’s a shame.”
Late last week, regular bowlers trickled in to buy mementos -- old pins, shoes and bowling balls -- as workers prepared for a large sale of fixtures and other items stored up over nearly a half-century of doing business. Inside, generations of stale beer and cigarette smoke give the alley a musty aroma, the smells of a place with history.
“I met my husband here 40 years ago,” said Karen Shafer, who showed up for her regular Thursday noon Jingle Bells league -- this time not to bowl, but to reminisce. “It’s going to be missed. There’s nothing to do around here now.”
The Jingle Bells league began within a few years of the Kona Lanes opening, and the women talked Thursday of the decades of memories, and the even larger collection of the forgotten moments that make up life.
“There’s an awful lot of people this affects,” said Barbara Kilmer, cradling a banged-up bowling pin with the dates “1958-2003" scrawled in black marker on the side.
The draw, said Lou Ann Towner of Huntington Beach, was the people, “the hometown feeling,” and the sense of community that grew from sharing countless hours together over a generation of time.
“I started here when this place opened,” Towner said, holding several folded T-shirts over her arm like a waiter’s towel. “I’m just depressed.”