Friday, August 24, 2007

The bell tolls for Bel-Air Bowl

Back in Spring 2004, Toby and I took a self-guided tour of many of the bowling alleys of the Metro East (the St. Louis suburbs in Madison and St. Clair County, IL). We didn’t actually do any bowling on this occasion, as our objective was to find the the most-retro, least-remodeled old-school bowling alley in the area and we were mostly just takin’ pictures and movin’ along.

I never got around to posting the pics on this long-dormant blog, but recent events have reminded me why I started Mid-Century Dream in the first place: Primarily to create a permanent record of some vanishing aspects of American life. So here are some of the 2004 photos, accompanied by a fresh August ’07 update.

  • KNITTIG’S BOWL (Now REDBIRD LANES): 1801 Camp Jackson Rd., East St. Louis IL

God only knows where my original notes went—2004 is, I believe, resting in the old crapped-out PC I used before I wised up and discovered the External Hard Drive and my constant companion, Flash Memory—so I can’t tell you for sure what this bowling alley’s original name was. I do know something about the Knittigs, though: They used to run some lanes in south St. Louis County, and some time after the original Knittig Lanes closed, the founder’s grandson (I think) resurrected the family business on the opposite side of the Mississippi. Taking over the old Cahokia Bowl (someone correct me if I’m wrong!), Tony and Anne Knittig filled the place with memorabilia from the old location and named the lounge in honor of the founder’s nickname: Tycoon’s.

Toby and I visited on a weekday at around 11 a.m., when the place had just opened but no bowlers had yet arrived. We had a nice chat with the lady at the desk, who may have been Anne Knittig. (Someday, I swear I will recover the contents of all my old hard drives and dump them onto an external, releasing a magnificent fountain of information…Information wants to be free, they say!) She told us that the original building had about five lanes added to it several years after opening, and the difference in the brickwork is visible on the exterior if you know where to look. Since we clearly told her we were there not to bowl (this time, anyway) but to soak up the nostalgia and she seemed okay with that, I have no freakin’ idea why we came away with just an exterior photo…but here it is, complete with the giant 2-D bowling pin that no longer stands in the parking lot.

Flash forward to August 2007, when a desire to roll a few balls combined with guilt for never having given the Knittigs’ cool old alleys any business resulted in a trip to the East Side. I’d forgotten what a sad-looking neighborhood the lanes were in; it’s on a forlorn strip dotted with down-at-the-heels used-car lots and body shops and boarded-up cinderblock cafes. While I’d always thought of Knittig’s as being in Cahokia—not a pretty town itself—Google Maps just informed me that the proper address is East St. Louis, which has an even more forlorn reputation for decay and economic depression. Frankly, you probably wouldn’t be seeing a lot of white folks bowling here if the place wasn’t located just a stone’s throw from Interstate 255.

Anyway, I was surprised to see a new sign in place of the big ol’ bowling pin out front: Knittig’s is now Red Bird Lanes. Sound familiar, St. Louisans? Like Knittig’s itself, Red Bird Lanes was a fixture on the south side of St. Louis for many years, and there was quite a hubbub when the popular 24-hour bowling center got bulldozed about 15 years ago and replaced with a Walgreen’s. The Red Bird guys announced that they were hoping to open in a new location, but nothing ever materialized. Could this be their triumphant (if low-key) return?

Well, it’s hard to say. All I learned from Internet searches is that the Knittigs sold the place back around July, and that the new owners have already hosted a prestigious tournament or two. I would’ve gone in and gotten the scoop (and done some bowling, of course), but the place was closed. The hours listed on the spiffy new Red Bird sign suggested that they should’ve been open at this time, but when I peeked through the door I could see a small engine of some kind sitting on the floor a few yards away, busily whirring. It looked like some kind of pump, maybe, and since we’ve had some pretty fierce storms here lately, it’s possible that the Red Bird sprung a leak and they had to take a day or two off to bail the place out. We’ll try the Bird again at a later date.

Determined to get some bowling in, we decided to head to the spectacular Panorama Lanes in nearby Belleville. Then I got lost, which is what I do in Belleville any time I stray from Main Street or Highway 159. Fortunately, we bumped into Bel-Air Bowl, which was another stop on the 2004 tour. But wait! It was now past dinnertime, and the parking lot was still empty? What th’--?! A sign taped to the front door told the story: Bel-Air Bowl was now at a new location on South Belt West, and an accompanying illustration showed the Bel-Air name tucked into the familiar shape of the Panorama’s distinctive neon sign.

Fine—that’s where we were trying to go anyway!
And so we did.
And we finally did some damn bowling!

  • BEL-AIR BOWL (defunct): 1703 North Belt West, Belleville IL

  • (NEW) BEL-AIR BOWL (formerly Panorama Lanes): 200 South Belt West, Belleville IL

So what’s the lowdown on the Panorama-to-Bel-Air conversion? Is it a good thing?

Well, new owner Matt Shellabarger (who also runs St. Clair Bowl) thinks so, and so does longtime Panorama owner Frank Booker, who will stay on to manage the downstairs banquet facilities. And, since Shellabarger recognizes the value of the former Panorama’s well-preserved fifties-futuristic flavor, I think it’s a good thing too.

The old Bel-Air will be missed, and bowling will not be returning to the property due to a deed restriction. (In fact, at this time the facility is still for sale, and it’s a good-sized lot on a busy retail strip.) While the old Bel-Air was just the right age to possess a lot of retro charm, the sad fact is that most remodeling on the site took place when the mid-century look was considered gauche. When we visited in 2004, the last vestiges of its original flavor were found in the fantastic sign, the pastel-tiled restrooms, and the faint whiff of Googie that remained in the main-floor lounge (which was apparently nameless; Curly Joe’s was the downstairs tavern that was not yet open for the evening when we were there). The barroom had a large porthole window, and there were still traces of a fancy drop-ceiling effect that must have been pretty sophisticated in its heyday.

If one of the Belleville bowleries had to die, the Bel-Air was the logical sacrifice. Its stylistic integrity had been compromised, and it had eight fewer lanes than its competitor. The Panorama, meanwhile, appears to be in very good hands. Seller Frank Booker, a very nice gentleman who noticed us taking pictures on our 2004 visit and proudly gave us a history lesson and a tour of the entire building, is still on the job as banquet manager and resident historian (he was interviewed for the local paper here), and Matt Shellabarger is providing enough hindsight and capital to ensure that the new Bel-Air will be a state-of-the-art facility possessing plenty of the old-school flair identified with the sport. The amoeba-shaped recessed red neon ceiling of the snack bar isn’t going anywhere, the outdoor sign is being relettered and relit, and the brand-new lounge furniture is true to the vibe. (Matt’s plans are detailed here.)

Below, a couple of bonus photos from Shellabarger’s awesome-in-its-own-right St. Clair Bowl: The humble but welcoming foyer, and a wonderful mural depicting Belleville landmarks and composed entirely of carpet. Not shown: The impressive upstairs lounge that overlooks the bowling lanes through soundproof windows and offers live music.

  • ST. CLAIR BOWL: 5950 Old Collinsville Road, Fairview Heights IL

As always, any background information, historical data or scuttlebutt of any kind is welcome here! I promise to try to update this blog more often, even though I just became a nearly-full-time college student.