This story was originally published in July 2016. It re-aired on Nov. 25, 2016 as part of The California Report Magazine's "Hidden Gems" series.
In recent years, Highland Park has become one of the hippest areas of Los Angeles. Located in the northeast section of L.A. between South Pasadena and Glendale, the neighborhood has enjoyed a rebirth after years of gang violence. Bars, boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and record stores have sprung up on Figueroa Street, and now an aging, decrepit bowling alley unlike any other in the city has reopened to reclaim its 1927 glory.
When Highland Park Bowl first opened its doors, Prohibition was in full effect. That didn’t stop the good times at the lanes; the place was a social mecca offering a lot more than just bowling.
“In the very front you had a pharmacy, the other side you had a live music room, in the back you had the bowling, and then upstairs you had doctors' offices,” says Bobby Green. He’s a partner in The 1933 Group, a design firm that renovates and operates themed bars throughout L.A. “So what you would do is come here, go upstairs, get a prescription for whiskey, come down to the pharmacy, get your whiskey and then hang out. Watch a band and go bowling.”
Before Green and his partners took over, the business had been a beloved punk rock dump called Mr. T’s Bowl, offering music, booze and no bowling.
“I used to come to Mr. T's Bowl in the '90s and 2000s and saw a lot of bands here,” Green recalls. “I had no idea what was hiding behind all these layers and layers of fake walls and dropped ceilings.”
What he found during the 18-month, $1.5 million rehab on the aging Spanish Revival building was about five decades of junk.
“In all that trash were the ball returns, the racks of bowling balls, boxes and boxes of bowling pins,” he says. “They didn't throw anything away, I don't even think they owned a Dumpster.”
Designer Green is the man responsible for the look of the place. It’s an eight-lane love letter to noir, a cavernous space where period detail blends seamlessly with artistic touches. Vintage pennants line the walls listing team names. From 1931, you have the Hell Cats, the Mix Ups, the Wamos and the Pin Heads. Old bowling pins have been converted to lamps, and chandeliers created from the guts of pin setting machines hang above the horseshoe bars.
“I didn't throw a single good thing away,” says Green. “Anything that meant something or had some significance to Mr. T’s or Highland Park Bowl we saved and either put into display cases or repurposed into decor.”
And for Green, the job was a joy.
“I've been immersed in the word of vintage for so long I don't think I could design a modern space if I tried, and if I did it wouldn't be true to me, it wouldn't feel authentic. But American heritage I could design all day.”
Doug Hartwell is visiting from Massachusetts. He’s just finished a brutal game in which he took quite a beating. Luckily, there were drinks involved to ease the pain.
“All the bowling alleys, where we are, are fancy and everything is plastic and this is all wood and leather,” says Hartwell. “But the aesthetics make it look like it's been here forever. It’s a really cool place.”
Oblivion Westwood is yelling.
“Oh I got a strike! Who did that for me? OH YEAH! Teamwork guys, that's teamwork!”
Of course, outbursts in a bowling alley as ball connects with pins are de rigueur, and in Westwood’s party, there’s plenty of that happening.
“We’re a yelling bunch of people,” she admits. “There’s going to be lots of yelling.” The bunch she’s talking about are members of the Varsity Brawlers roller derby team, part of the L.A. Derby Dolls crew. The ladies are here tonight to celebrate the marriage of team member Sushi, who eloped to Hawaii.
“We’ve got Fleetwood Smack, Absolut Jayhem, Jade to Black, Jagerbomb, NY Skate of Mind and Mary Poppums,” says Westwood, listing her fellow Brawlers. It’s their first time at the alley, and it seems to be working for them.
“It's fabulous. They did a great job restoring it, love all of the vintage details,” she says. “You can tell they spent a lot of time and energy paying attention to the details, and that's awesome.”
Her team practices nearby in the community of El Sereno, and Westwood lives in downtown L.A. She’s witnessed the changing face of parts east.
“I think that Highland Park in general is super up-and-coming,” she says. “I think [the alley] offers a lot to the neighborhood, but also brings some of that history back, which is so important, to not lose that.”
Though Los Angeles has not always embraced the history of its aging structures, Bobby Green says that could be a thing of the past.
“L.A. looks for what it’s going to build next,” says Green. “I think L.A.'s been that way for decades, but I do sense a change. People are relooking at buildings and spaces and saying, ‘Wait a minute, why don't we just restore it?’ ”