The long-standing downtown entertainment venue Bowl America is enjoying new corporate ownership with plans for a modern spiff-up.
The August 2021 sale from the Bowl America company to the well-capitalized Bowlero Corp. has brought investment capital that will provide fresh painting of ceilings and exterior, and more televisions, says general manager Willie Wilcox.
The 48 ten-pin lanes that opened in Falls Church in 1960 have continued to attract league players and leisure-pursuers in all age groups.
Richmond-based Bowlero bills itself as the “world’s largest owner of bowling centers and owner of the Professional Bowlers Association.” Founded in the late 1990s by Chairman and CEO Tom Shannon, it runs 300 bowling alleys nationwide serving an estimated 28 million patrons yearly on 12,000 lanes managed by 8,000 employees, the corporation says.
Most recently Bowlero opened 36 lanes in the former Macy’s at Tyson’s Galleria. That marked its fifth Washington-area location, including sites in Arlington’s Crystal City, Annandale, Centerville and Bethesda, Md.
Alexandria-headquartered Bowl America, two years after its debut alley opened in 1958 off of Shirley Highway, was first locally with automatic pin-setting. It opened its Falls Church center originally with 24 ten-pin lanes and 24 duck-pin lanes. But with a duck-pin alley just down South Maple Ave. (now the site of Tax Analysts), it converted to all ten-pin and purchased the building in 1979, according to a timeline filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In 2006, when the F.C. City Council, the Planning Commission and area developers were maneuvering to stimulate a new city center, a proposal emerged to move Bowl America to the other side of Annandale Rd. But that plan was superseded by the emergence of the nearby WB-Harris-Teeter complex.
Today’s Bowl America—the name will change to Bowlero after remodeling is done this fall — is a far cry from the days when “pin boys” tackled the tedious task of resetting pins by hand. After bowlers type their names into a keyboard, the electronic scoreboard displays them like celebrities. The screens at appropriate times flash letters spelling “S-T-R-I-K-E” and other graphics celebrating small victories. A “spare finder” image suggests where to aim that crucial second shot. Absent the old paper-and-pencil scoresheets, today’s players must remember to note their final score before it vanishes.
Revolving advertising for the ever-tempting food counter flashes brightly lit, mouth-watering illustrations of “loaded fries.” The renovations will upgrade the menu, says Wilcox, who boasts 25 years in the business, 10 at Bowl America, where he supervises 40 employees.
Along the aging brick walls are large block letters spelling “WOW” and “YES.” Beside the registration desk sits a nostalgia arcade — prize-fetching mini-cranes, video games and an instant photo booth.
Bowl America is open seven days from 4-11 p.m., with league play in the evenings. Prices vary strategically to reflect peak hours. After $5.69 for shoe rental, that means $5.99 per person, per game Monday-Thursday. On Fridays the price rises to $10.39 after 6:00; Saturdays it’s $7.39 until 6:00, then $10.39, and on Sunday $7.39 before 6:00 but only $5.99 evenings.
Children’s parties remain common, though kids’ body sizes are better suited to the old-time duck-pin balls. Three lanes at each end contain rubber bumpers that spare (so to speak) the two-handed-hurling young ones from the anguish of rolling a gutterball.
Bowling in the 21st century remains a popular pastime for men and women, easy to comprehend but tough to excel at. There is joy on faces, and perfect strangers slap each other high-fives.
Even during the pandemic, “we didn’t lose a lot of money,” Wilcox says, though managers socially distanced assigned lanes at six-foot intervals. (Bowlero’s executives boasted that Covid didn’t delay any openings, yet staff wore protective masks, sanitized all areas and limited bowlers to four-to-six per lane.)
A sign at the Falls Church lanes now reads, “We’re hiring.”