Once Upon a Time, There Was Bowling in Bernal Heights

I really loved the tale Eric Fermon told earlier this week about growing up during the 1970s in the Bernal Heights Projects on Ellsworth Street. But did you happen to catch this line he tucked in there?

Learning how to bowl at Mission Bowl while participating in a Saturday morning youth bowling league and looking forward to eating the best french fries on the planet there, and knowing that with just the right amount of ketchup they were extra-extra special.

That caught my eye. Bowling? At Mission Bowl? WHAAAAAATT!!!???

I’m a history geek, but I’d never heard of Mission Bowl. So what was it? And more importantly, where was it???

The brilliant Vicky Walker of the Bernal History Project provided the answer: Mission Bowl — or Sports Center Bowl, as it was formally called — used to occupy the lot at 3333 Mission that is now home to the large residential complex and Big Lots store, kitty-corner across the street from our Taoist Safeway.

But before we get to that, let’s back up a few decades to recall what that site looked like before Mission Bowl — and the reason why I was confused about its existence. My understanding had been that the present-day site of the Big Lots etc. used to be a streetcar repair facility operated by the Market Street Railway Company. And indeed, for the first half of the 20th century, that’s exactly what it was. Here’s how the “car barn” looked in 1921:

And here’s another view looking north up Mission Street in 1928. (Notice how the tracks have a switch that heads into the building on the right):

I knew about the Mission Car House, so I thought I understood the history of that site. But apparently, there was a gap in my timeline. Sometime between the time when the Car House was torn down and the Big Lots was constructed, the site had been home to the postwar Sports Center Bowling facility, aka Mission Bowl, which is shown in the image at the top of this post.

I found this little remembrance about Sports Center Bowl on Facebook:

This bowling alley was the epitome of 50’s and 60’s ambience. Dimly lit and smoky. A simpler times vibe with Dan O’Glove as your host. He was a great promoter of the sport of bowling. His Sports Center Bowl attracted the elite adult bowlers in not only San Francisco, but of the bay area and even southern California. His 32 lane house was a staple of AMF theme houses. Located at 29th and Mission streets in San Francisco. Home to The Washington Birthday Tournament. Such Pro and elite bowlers as Terry and Mike Leong ran the Pro Shop. Woman’s pro bowler Vesma Grinfelds was a regular when not on tour. Notable juniors and future adult stars to have frequent the lanes were Wayne Chester and Joe Goldstein. A 1 to 4 board shot was the norm and pot games were always flowing. The counter served up delicious American food fair right out of the 50’s and 60’s and the pinball machines were always full of adults and kids jockeying to play!

That “American food fair” [sic] presumably included the french fries Eric Fermon remembers so fondly. It also offered ample parking on the roof, via Coleridge Street:

So there you have it. Sadly, Mission Bowl is gone without a trace, and with it, Bernal Heights lost its bowling alley. But on the bright side, bowling is set for a revival in the Mission District, with new lanes planned for the Mission Bowling Club, which hopes to open in February on 17th Street near South Van Ness.

HISTORICAL PHOTOS: via the awesome San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection

33 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time, There Was Bowling in Bernal Heights

  1. Ah Mission Bowl. My folks used to sneak out of the house after we were all asleep for a quick ‘date’ down there for some coffee and pie. I’m guessing early 70’s. The last time they went, it must have been 11:00 or so at night, they had to dive under the table of their booth as there was some sort of gang hit going on, bullets flying all over the place. Heard about it the next morning, pretty sure that was their last visit.

  2. The last guy to own the bowling alley was named Jerry Lucy and he also owned the lots behind my house where he used to dump the wood bowling lanes when he replaced them. I’d look out my living room window to see a pile wooden lanes…..not a pretty site.

  3. Great post about the Historical La Lenguan bowling palace!

    But I’m confused, where was there bowling in Bernal Heights?

  4. I thought Roccapulco site, formerly Cesar’s Latin Palace, used to be a bowling alley. Certainly looks like it on the inside.

  5. Don’t forget the even more historical part of the story, the development of the lot as a pioneering mixed-use low-income housing/retail development. From the New York Times:

    “NATIONAL NOTEBOOK: San Francisco; Housing Built Over a Store
    Published: October 23, 1988

    WHAT is believed to be the first donation in the country of air rights over a privately owned commercial facility to build low-income housing has been made by Standard Brands Paint Company to the Bernal Heights Community Foundation in San Francisco.

    Coleridge Park Homes, 49 studio and one-bedroom units for the low-income elderly and the handicapped, with a two-bedroom unit for the manager, is being put up over a new Standard Brands Home Improvement Center in a neighborhood with rapidly rising rents.

    The $5 million project is being financed with a $2 million, 20-year permanent mortgage at a below-market interest rate from Metropolitan Life Foundation, an affiliate of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company; a $1.34 million Federal housing action grant and $1.31 million from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Economic Development, in addition to the Standard Brands donations.

    Besides the air-rights gift, for which it got a $600,000 tax write-off, Standard Brands gave $231,000 to reinforce the roof of the 15,400-square-foot store.


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  7. Sports Center closed in 1978 (I think around the end of August). The building remained for around 7 years until renovated (I think Standard Brands Paints?). It had some interesting features to it. There were acutally 31 lanes because Lane 1 was removed (sometime in the 1960s, I think), to add a walkway for the technicians to enter and exit behind the lanes. I don’t know if it was a fire code issue or a matter of convenience. But Lane 2 remained the original lane, with an older AMF automatic pinsetter and an overground ball return. The other 30 lanes had newer automatic pinsetters and underground ball returns.

    There were 3 exits from what I recall. There was the front entrance off Mission St. (west side of the building), which was the typical, multidoor entrance for a large building. There was an entrance in the back (east side of the building), which went to the lower level of the parking garage. There were stairs to go up to the upper level of the parking garage, which was off Coleman as a prior reader noted. There was also a side exit (south side of the building), which was between the restrooms/locker rooms (east of the exit) and the bar (west of the exit).

    Also between the bar and the restrooms was a vacant area that housed the pinball machines (usually 3).

    The bar was elevated. From the east side (next to the pinball machines) there was a ramp leading up into the bar. From west side, next to the coffee shop, was a ramp (I think; it could have been stairs) leading up to the bar. The bar itself faced to the north, toward the lanes, and you could get a decent view of lanes 21-28 IIRC. Behind the bar (to the south) were tables and lounges. Very 1950s, old school bar. I remember it being a very comfortable place and I used to go in there at times with my dad after he’d finished practicing bowling. I think drinks near the end (mid-1970s) were 60 cents.

    The coffee shop was excellent and was just east of the bar. I remember they had delicious oatmeal cookies, excellent fountain sodas (Green River was my favorite), and yes, probably the best french fries I’ve ever had. They were shoestring, and cooked to perfection (almost crispy). And their burgers were fantastic. This was a perfect place for a kid under 10, like myself, to go have an old-school coffee shop meal cooked with trans fats, back when cholesterol counts didn’t mean anything except to the most progressive of doctors.

    To the east of the coffee shop was a large banquet room. It was a typical meeting room for league meetings, end of season bowling banquets, and such. I don’t know whether outside groups booked it for anything.

    To the west of the restrooms was the Pro Shop.

    The north side of the building contained the 31 lanes.

    There was also an upstairs, which I never got to see. My dad told me there was something up there like a restaurant, but there was a fire that destroyed a bunch of that upstairs area, apparently.

    I remember the parking garage and entering the bowling alley. What I can’t remember out there was whether there were other doors that led to behind the lanes and whether there were storage closets or anything else back there.

  8. I forgot to mention that my dad, Mark Gonzalez, was a legend there. For years when I was bowling, through the mid-1990s, there were people I’d meet who remembered him from Sports Center, Castle Lanes, and Westlake Bowl.

  9. Actually, “Mission Bowl” was a 12-lane establishment, with a small snack bar, located on Mission St. near Army (Cesar Chavez Blvd. now) adjecent to the old Sears store (which was located right on the corner of Army and Mission). At the time, I believe it was owned by Johnny Swanson, who also owned Westlake Bowl at approximately the same time in history. I believe it ceased operations sometime in the early 70’s, the building be re-purposed as a night club, perhaps now a bar.

    “Sports Center” Bowl was known just as “Sports Center” or “Sports Center Bowl,” although located just a few blocks south (and on the other side of Mission Street) from Mission Bowl. I spent much time in both establishments in the 60’s and 70’s and actually met my first wife at Sports Center in 1972 !

    • Jack, you’re exactly right. Mission Bowl was a separate house across the street and north of Sports Center. As a teenager in the early 60s, I first bowled in the junior league on Saturday morning. I then graduated the the senior leagues, then onto the ABC as an adult. I have fond memories of “Gennie St. Clare” (who ran the AJBC Saturday morning leagues) and “Joe Pontus,” who worked behind the desk. I also remember “Dan O”Glove” puffing on a large cigar as he walked through the concourse area. Too bad it’s gone.

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  11. I’m glad that Jack Steven’s responded— saves me a lot of typing—– it was short and neat and right to the point and most important soooooo correct— 2 thumbs up Jack–

  12. I have many memories of Sports Center Bowl. As a youth bowler I remember coming here with Primo Liberatore, owner of L & L Lanes in Sebastopol, and a group of my youth bowling friends. We were recruited to keep score while Primo bowled in the aforementioned Washington Birthday Singles tournament. While we were keeping score a woman allegedly came in and shot her husband, or lover (I think his name was Leroy Skruggs, and as it was told to me, he was obsessed with bowling). Tom Collins (you can’t make this stuff up!), a local politician, tried to revive the man on the approach. He came back to our lanes with blood dripping from his slacks and Primo said, “You’re not going to bowl like that!” Collins replied, “I’ve still got a chance,” and Primo’s reply was “Well, I don’t.” And we left.
    Years later I remember bowling in the event and winning it and/or placing second in the mid 1970’s. The shot was definitely off the edge. It was almost impossible to throw a gutter, but if you hit the third board it was a bucket. Don Bell also bowled very well here and won this event a few times. The shot was made for his down-and-in delivery.
    Ah, memories.

    • Wow My Friend I’ve Waited For 4 Decades To Here Somebody Mention That Nite When Leroy Was Killed I Was There Too I Am Dale Ray Smith The Young Black Bowler 16 Years Old When I Won The Washington Tournament Maybe You Remember When They Called Me The KID I Was Taught By Don Bell And Dave Soutar Came In And Gave Me A Few Pointers. The White Got That Was My Foster Father Use To Bring Me And My Brother Thee It Was My Second Home I Also Bowled In Guys And Doll League With Tony And Dottie Please Tell Me You Remember When I Won The Handicap Washington Tournament,

      • I remember when you won the Washington Birthday Classic. I fact i remember so much more that happened at Sports center back in the 1960’s and early 70’s.

      • Thank u so much for response. So much has happened since then. Many tragedies. One being my Daughter who died at the age of 38. From drugs and alcohol abuse. I’ve also had my share today I’ve been clean and sober 15 years. Hey let me ask u do u think I was a pretty good Bowler at 16 years old?

        Sent from my iPhone


      • This brother said he remember win I won. Maybe u can connect with him

        Sent from my iPhone


  13. Hello to all,
    There were two bowling alleys in the Bernal Heights neighborhood when I was growing up.
    Mission Bowl was where Cesars Palace dance hall is/was and Sports Center Bowl was at
    Virginia and Mission near 29th street. I should know, I was a pinsetter at both in the late forties.
    I was born at 79 Manchester Street and also lived at 262 Precita Ave.

    • I Would Love To Chat With You I Was The 16 year old kid Who Won The Washington Handicap Tournament In The Early 70’s Dale Smith I Was Also Thee When Leroy Was Shot To Death By His Wife

  14. Those Were The Days I Am Dale RAy Smith Young Black Kid Who Won The Washington Handicap Tournament Dose Anybody Remember Me

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