SOUTH SALT LAKE — Last October, when an uninsured drunken driver scored a quite unintended strike and knocked down the 41-foot sign with the bowling ball and pin on top that had been standing for 61 years, the obvious thing to do was put up a cheaper sign.
Nobody builds signs like that anymore. It would cost way more to fix it — $30,000 — than it cost to put it up in the first place. And it wasn’t like people by now didn’t know that Bonwood Bowl was located at 2500 S. Main.
But hold on a minute, said the five children of Woodrow and Bonnie White, the couple who gave their names — Bon from Bonnie and Wood from Woodrow — to that sign and the bowling center they opened in 1957.
The venture was as much about pleasure as it was about business. Woodrow, a lawyer, and his wife, Bonnie, were avid bowlers. How appealing was it to own your own lanes? When you weren’t using them, other people would pay to use them. And in the 1950s, a lot of people bowled. From 1957, the year after Brunswick came out with its A1 automatic pinsetter that revolutionized the industry, through 1963, the number of bowling alleys in America doubled.
The Whites caught that wave at the beginning. They opened with 18 lanes, all of them equipped with Brunswick A1 pinsetters. Demand was so high that a year later they added 10 more lanes. In 1972 they added an additional 14, for a total of 42.
Woodrow kept his day job. His brother Verdi, a part-owner, ran the day-to-day operations at Bonwood, while Bonnie organized women’s leagues and personally did her part to make sure the lanes stayed full.
Having a ringside seat to all this action were Woodrow and Bonnie’s kids. Matt was 10 when Bonwood opened, Dean 9, Emma 6, Scott 2 and Liz would come along two years later.
Matt remembers his first job at the new alley like it was yesterday: emptying ashtrays.
In the no-smoking era, “that’s now a lost art,” he smiles.
He soon graduated to pin chaser, the term for the person who fixes the automatic pinsetter if it malfunctions, and finally to working the desk, which is where all the Whites eventually wound up.
“Just a good family business,” says Scott, who remembers bringing his boombox and friends with him after hours when he was in high school. “I think that was always what we’ve been known for, a family values place.”
Emma remembers when her father would pile everyone in the car and drive around the valley to check out how the competition was doing. They’d go to the other big centers, like nearby Ritz Classic with its 76 lanes, and Woody would send the kids in “to see how busy they were.”
Ritz Classic kept an eye on Bonwood, too, as evidenced by the 90-foot bowling pin — more than twice the height of the Bonwood sign — it erected outside its front door on State Street in 1958 — an iconic structure that is still standing even though the bowling alley is now the Ritz Classic Apartments.
But Bonwood Bowl lives on, showing no indication of slowing down.
“Business now, it’s good,” says Scott, a retired financial adviser who notes that the $180,000 mortgage his parents took out on the property 62 years ago has long since been paid off, leaving the business debt-free.
Bonwood remains very much a family operation. When Verdi White retired as manager, Dean White took over. When Dean recently retired, his son Todd assumed the reins.
Matt, Dean, Emma, Scott and Liz are second-generation owners of the business they inherited from their parents.
Last October, when the uninsured drunken driver crashed into the sign, they first put their business hats on, reasoning why it made perfect financial sense to just go with a more generic sign.
But their emotions soon took over.
“That sign is a symbol of our family and our business,” says Scott. “Plus it’s part of the community.”4 comments on this story
Anyone who has seen “The Book of Mormon” musical would know what Scott means. During a slideshow that runs during the play showing unique Salt Lake area landmarks, there’s a photograph of the Bonwood Bowl sign.
To commemorate the second rising of the sign, the White family invited dignitaries from South Salt Lake, the Utah Historical Society and other community leaders to a ceremony last Wednesday.
They also rolled back their prices 62 years, charging 57 cents for drinks, fries and a line of bowling.
For a brief span in time, it was 1957 all over again, with a brand-new sign out front to prove it.