Everyone remembers the greeting, “Hey, Mel!” That was what most people said when they entered Los Banos Bowl and greeted owner Mel Soares.
It wasn’t just locals that greeted him; there were some pretty famous guys too. John Brodie, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and professional wrestler Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, Jose “Pepper” Gomez, and Kinji Shibuya all used the “Hey, Mel” greeting when entering the Bowl.
Tom Soares, the owner’s son, remarked that, at that time, Stevens and Gomez were considered enemies. At the bowling alley, though, they would just laugh and joke with each other, he said.
Los Banos Bowl officially opened May 27, 1961, with 12 lanes, pool tables, a lounge and a restaurant called the Coffee Lane, which would become famous in its own right.
The general contractor of the building was Ted Falasco.
Los Banos residents eagerly awaited the opening, as bowling was popular at the time. There were many leagues already going strong in other communities. New leagues began to form in Los Banos on March 31 in anticipation of the new lanes.
The new bowling alley was the late Mel Soares’ second and the second bowling alley in Los Banos. The honor of the first belonged to Tiny Philips at Tinys Waffle Shop, which had closed before the new alley opened. Los Banos Bowl opened in what is now the Save Mart Shopping Center. It was located in the area occupied by El Rodeo Restaurant.
Regulars at the bowling alley included local perfect 300 game bowlers Ed Teicheira, Frankie Souza and Dino Turri.
According to Tom Soares, arguably the best bowler could have been 17-year-old Chuck Ware, who was good enough to win the city league championship against several adult men.
Randy Ware, Chuck’s older brother, commented, “We practically lived there at the bowling alley. Most teens spent their time there.”
We are sure there were some good female bowlers, too, but thus far their names have eluded us.
Other regulars and bowlers included Joe Cardoza and Viro Marciochi,who were the president and vice president respectively of the Los Banos Bowlers Association. Frank Costa and Al Peres were also regulars. It was Costa who got the ball rolling with a 299 game — one pin shy of a perfect game — early in the history of the Bowl.
Mel’s wife, Clara, told us that while she enjoyed the bowling alley, she was too busy raising 10 kids to get involved in it.
Pool playing was done more for recreation than competition. However, Soares recalls out-of-town bartender John Greco playing local resident Scott McClendon 8-ball and 9-ball throughout the night. Insurance man Bill Zurilgen was also a darn good pool player, Soares said.
Another story often told was when a policeman used his radar gun to track the speed of his bowling ball. It seemed that the bowling alley was the major source of entertainment in Los Banos.
Not to be overlooked is the Coffee Lane managed by Angie Palermo. Although everyone talks about the great food, the most popular seemed to the jubilee sandwich, said Dennis Soares, another son.
He enjoyed the sandwich so much that friend Darby Worthy made him one after duplicating the famous recipe.
Ms. Worthy, retired school employee, said, “We would each lunch in there regularly, and I just loved that sandwich. I love to cook, so I asked Angie for the recipe; she told me I would have to figure it out. I kept bringing her a sandwich and she would always say, ‘You’re close but not quite.’ Finally, right before she closed, I bought her one and she said. ‘You got it.’ I made one for Dennis last year, and he loved it.”
As other forms of entertainment began to emerge in the 1980s, the excitement of bowling began to lose its luster. Mel Soares sold his interest in the bowling alley to night manager Dino Turri, who kept the bowling alley alive until the property was demolished to make way for the Save Mart Shopping Center.
As plans surfaced to demolish the alley, bowling enthusiasts passed petitions trying to save a favorite hangout. Over the years, many people have discussed the viability of developing a bowling alley here, but no plans have materialized.
We are indebted to the Milliken Museum, as well as the Soares family, for the information in this story.
“Ask Us” is produced by Tim McNally’s Advanced Placement American Government class at Los Banos High School. Do you have a question about the history of Los Banos? Submit it to Mr. McNally’s class by e-mail to email@example.com, by phone to 826-6033 or by mail to Los Banos High School, 1966 South 11th Street, Los Banos, California 93635.