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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Southern Bowling Lanes — Memphis' "Bowling Palace"

Posted By on Thu, Mar 11, 2010 at 10:17 AM

Southern Bowling Lanes
  • Southern Bowling Lanes
The owners of Southern Bowling Lanes, which opened in 1941 at 299 North Cleveland, called the place "The Bowling Palace of America."

Wow, that's really saying something, isn't it? But back then, you have to understand that bowling was a sport often undertaken in converted buildings and basements, with poor lighting, no air conditioning, and more inconveniences than a medieval torture chamber. Or so I gather from the glowing press releases about this establishment.

Thank goodness the Southern, built for a whopping $150,000, changed all that. Not only were its 24 gleaming hardwood lanes well-lighted and air-conditioned, it boasted the unheard of luxury of "having no posts to mar the beauty of the alleys." Despite a rather traditional Colonial Revival exterior (as shown on this old matchbook), the interior featured "the latest streamlined effects," including such marvels as spacious dressing rooms for men and women bowlers, a restaurant, a ladies powder room, and a gadget called a "teliscore" for keeping track of the games.

The Southern Bowling Lanes' grand opening took place on August 11, 1941, with "dignitaries of the city, sports world, and other walks of life" singing the "Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." That was just to open the show. These various celebrities — who included the president of the Memphis Bowling League, the president of the American Bowling Congress, and a fellow named Jim Kelly, identified as "the South's oldest bowler" — then dedicated each alley, one at a time (all 24 of them!) with grandiose speeches and ribbon-cuttings.

After that, the crowds witnessed a thrilling bowling exhibition put on by a team from St. Louis called — get this — Hermann's Undertakers.

I promise you I am not making this up. The grand opening was such a big deal, in fact, that it was broadcast live on WMPS radio. Now, I have to say right here that I can think of a few sports that really don't "translate" well over radio broadcasts, and at the top of that list would be BOWLING. But then, the Lauderdales have not brought home many bowling trophies recently, so perhaps it's hard for me to imagine the sweaty rush of hearing a 7-10 split over the airwaves.

Everyone at the bowling lanes got a real thrill on the morning of April 29, 1944, when an out-of-control U.S. Army B-25 bomber, having some kind of engine trouble, soared low over Tech High School and smashed into the parking lot behind the bowling alley. Everyone on the plane was killed, along with members of a family living in a house on Claybrook. To learn more about that event, go here.

The Southern Bowling Lanes was a popular place, that's for sure. In the 1950s, the owners added the city's first automatic pin-setting machines, something called "an all-new Magic Triangle signaling," and new "AMF streamlined decor," featuring rows of seats made out of "plastic glass." It was so special it even garnered a mention in LOOK magazine.

Other, fancier alleys — National Lanes on Quince, the Imperial Lanes on Summer, opened in newer, fancier neighborhoods, and the Southern Bowling Lanes finally closed in the late 1960s. The big building is still there, though so transformed on the outside with fake stonework and garish paint that it's hardly recognizable as the same building shown on the old matchbook cover. Here's the inside of that same cover:


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