Goodbye, Nude Bowling

The last days of Kona Lanes

Closing a bowling alley is a lot more complicated than you might think, if you think of it at all. That which isn't sold off or donated has to be junked. For a week, the staff at Kona Lanes in Costa Mesa did brisk business selling old bowling balls, pins and even shoes—$5 for each. One afternoon a couple in their late 30s came in from Long Beach. They said they wanted to buy 30 bowling balls to landscape their yard. While the guy went to an ATM to get some cash, the woman retrieved a shopping cart from the parking lot and then went to the ball racks. Eventually she rolled the shopping cart up to the desk with 20 balls–every remaining blue and green or other colored ball left in the alley.

She said her yard used to have a bowling-ball perimeter, until they were all stolen. By the time the guy returns with money, staff has convinced the woman to buy a case of 10 bowling pins and a pair of shoes. Their total bill came to $155.

Not long after they left a blonde walked in. She hugged a few staff members and then walked out crying, cradling a pink bowling ball like a baby.

"People are asking to buy the small tile off the floor outside the door," said Juanita Johnson, the slight yet authoritative woman who has managed Kona Lanes for the past 11 years. "People want to put in bids on the orange chairs. Apparently they're more valuable than we thought. People are grabbing old uniform shirts used before I started here. People are asking to buy the original bar furniture, the old cash registers and office equipment. Some of that is older than I am. Some of the things people are asking for I never would have thought of—the wood on the lanes and the approaches."

The end is not far off. People are bidding on TVs and old equipment, but a lot of junk has been tossed out. Johnson is trying to sort it all out.

"You know that dumpster we brought in out front on Tuesday? We've had divers in there every day," she says. "You name it, someone wants it."

Wants it, but unfortunately not Kona Lanes. The 40-lane Polynesian/Googie bowling alley/landmark officially closed on Sunday night, May 18, after 45 years in business. Its future—beyond getting flattened by bulldozers contracted by landowner Henry Segerstrom—is unknown.

Like many alleys, Kona tried numerous gimmicks to build crowds. It hosted rock concerts. It supported a Polynesian/Western-themed restaurant called the Kona Korral. It even advertised "nude bowling," but that was just a scam to get people to come inside.

In the last days, owner Jack Mann was very busy. Taking a break behind the front desk, he sighed. "The Segerstroms are hell-bent on taking down the building real quick," he said. "But we have always had a good relationship with them. Remember it's an expensive piece of property and they're not making any money off it. We were here five years longer than we were supposed to be. Our lease ended in 1996. We've been month-to-month since then."

Mann explained that he originally wanted to keep the lanes open until the end of May, but so many people thought he'd already closed that it became too expensive to stay open past the 18th. His electricity bill alone was $5,000 a month. Mann has owned Kona Lanes since 1980. His family has owned bowling alleys throughout Southern California for many years. Bowling is in their blood. Kinda.

"Ironically, nobody in my family is a bowler," he said. "We can tell you all the technical information about bowling, but we don't bowl."

* * *

From a Kona Lanes ad in a very yellowed copy of the Jan. 12, 1969, edition of the newspaper OC Bowler:

Every league bowler wins a quality human hair wig. . . . And we emphasize the word "Quality."

* * *

Just a few days before locking the doors forever, Mann stood by the lane-selection desk, looking it over. "This is all original equipment," he said. "It's pretty amazing."

Some of that original equipment included the following:

•Hand scoring tables. Virtually every bowling alley in America has computerized scoring tables, but not Kona Lanes. "Mostly I'll remember the fact that I kept my own score," said Brandy Lyon, a 22-year-old Huntington Beach resident who bowled at Kona Lanes many times. "There was nowhere else you could do that."

•Pinsetting machines. Installed with everything else when Kona Lanes opened in 1958, the pinsetters look like massive orange front-loading washing machines—but without glass doors. Metal identification plates riveted to each facade list 56 separate patented inventions. They are true contraptions, full of gears, wheels, springs, wires, nuts, bolts, pistons, rams, levers, belts, flywheels, mechanical counters, wooden planks, steel plates, switches, toggles, buttons, cranks, bars and motors. They look like a combination weaving loom and medieval torturing device. Everywhere you look there are "Pull Power & Motor Plugs Before Entering Machine" warnings.

According to Mann, a bowling supply company purchased every pinsetter. Mann would not reveal the price. By May 29, every machine was pulled out of the building, dismantled and hauled away.

•A "Bowler's Valet" vending machine. Inside were items deemed essential to the bowler, items never priced higher than $1.25: Shoelaces, "Shur-Hook Fingers," cheap novelty gags, Curad bandages, Anacin tablets, wristbands and a thick wax crayon to "apply to shoes for a smooth approach."

Mann said quarters were still being fed into the machine as late as 1990.


From left: Old vending machine stocked with laces,
pain relievers and novelties was sold;
last Kona Lanes owner Jack Mann;
vintage pinsetters have a date with the refurbishing plant;
some carted off scoring tables;
Alice doesn't bowl here anymore.

* * *

Curt and Linda Horst of Fountain Valley stand at the approaches–the hardwood area before the lane–near Lane 15, staring at the inch-thick hard maple flooring. Curt is tall, wearing a white T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. He has a ponytail coming out from beneath a white BMW cap, and a blond-turning-gray handlebar mustache.

They say they want to buy a couple of lanes' worth of hard maple wood.

"I like the wood," Curt says. "It's kind of neat that it's from a bowling alley. I like stuff like that. I'd like to put this wood in my office. We already have barn wood we took out of an old house on Lido that we use for paneling."

Linda shakes her head. "I don't think it looks very good," she says. "But he thinks it looks great."

I ask them what they remember most about Kona Lanes.

"I've lived here since 1961," he said. "I don't remember bowling here. I think I came a couple times for one of those 'Rock and Bowl' shows, but never to bowl. My dad used to tell me about these Hawaiian luaus they used to have. I wish I could tell you that I came here and bowled a 300 game back in 1972, but I can't. Sorry."

* * *

Aaron Turlis is in his mid-20s. He's worked the Kona Lanes counter for the past two lonely months. He got the job by responding to a want ad in the paper.

"I only found out the place was closing when I answered the ad," he said. "But I took the job anyway. I knew it would be a blast."

Turlis said he all but grew up at Kona Lanes. "I used to come here with my mom when she was in a league called Parents Without Partners," he remembered. "It was almost like an escape. I was here constantly. I wanted to be here more than home. It really was my home away from home."

Eventually, Turlis began bowling in his own kids' league, "New Kids on the Lanes."

"You know," he suddenly recalled, "I had my first date here."

"What was his name?" asked another counter attendant standing nearby.

"Actually, I still liked girls back then," said Turlis, laughing.

* * *

While cleaning out one of the offices, a staff member found a plain white flier from 1993 advertising Kona Lanes' 35th anniversary. It read, in part:

At one time, Kona Lanes was "the place to be" in Costa Mesa. The center was open 24 hours and had a coffee shop and popular piano bar. The coffee shop has since been replaced by the Island Grill and the piano bar has given way to the popular karaoke where patrons get the opportunity to sing in front of their friends with accompaniment from CDs.

Staff said the flier had been posted on a wall for the last decade.

* * *

At 1:16 p.m. on may 31, as workers began slicing up the lanes and long after all 40 pinsetters had been hauled away, Weekly photographer James Bunoan bowled the last frame in the history of Kona Lanes. He assures us it was a strike.

* * *

A month before Kona Lanes closed, a man walked in, ambled over the hand-laid, one-inch ceramic tile painted pink, green, black and white that covered the entrance, through the glass doors and beneath the sign boasting "Through these doors pass the world's GREATEST BOWLERS." He nodded to an attendant near a vending machine selling Aquafina water and then took a seat behind Lane 30, where a couple was bowling.

He wore a fishing hat and said his name was Mark. He spoke slowly, like it was a struggle to form even these words. After a few minutes he went up to the couple and asked the girl if she remembered him. The girl said she did not. Mark watched them awhile and then went back to his chair.

Not long after, another girl came in.

"Mark, how are you doing?" she asked.

"Fine," he said.

"I haven't seen you in awhile and I've wondered if you're okay."

"I'm fine."

They talked a bit. After a time, Mark said he'd forgotten the girl's name.

"Janet," she said, pausing. "Well, it was nice seeing you."

He watched her leave, walked back to his seat by Lane 30 and watched the people bowl.

I asked Johnson about patrons coming in and getting emotional. She starts to tell me, and then stops. I think she's just collecting her thoughts, but after a few moments I realize she's all choked up. I step away and then watch her walk quickly to her office. I don't see her for nearly a half-hour. But when I run into her again, she seems better.

"Sometimes," she said, "the easiest thing to do is just open a drawer and empty it."

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