by FRED EISENHAMMER
MISSION HILLS — It’s time to mourn the passing of yet another San Fernando Valley bowling center. This time it’s Mission Hills Bowl, which will be closing May 31 after a run of nearly 41 years. Bill Mossontte, the managing partner of Mission Hills Bowl, made the surprise announcement to about 25 of his employees last week and then wrote a first-person story in the California Bowling News explaining his action. It was an insurance and affordability issue, wrote Mossontte, who owns varying ownership stakes in many other Los Angeles area bowling centers, including Corbin Bowl in Tarzana. “We are faced with spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars to do electrical and plumbing upgrades to the 65-year-old building or we have been informed our insurance will be non-renewed,” Mossontte wrote. He added that it “wasn’t possible to continue” with just a “few years remaining on our existing lease and no chance at a new lease.” The closing represents a devastating blow to about 1,100 bowlers who participate in league play at the north San Fernando Valley bowling center and are faced with scrambling to find a replacement center. “This is home. It’s always been home,” said Mike Brandt, who has rolled five perfect games and has been a regular league player at Mission Hills Bowl for more than 20 years. “You could come down any time and see your friends. And the [center’s] personnel are always terrific. People are always coming by who you could relax with and have a good time. The pro shop’s Rusty [Bryant] and Karl [Kurtz] – they just don’t get better than that.” Brandt’s wife, Francis, echoed those sentiments. “It’s like my second home – with no reservations,” she said, smiling. “We’re going to miss it.” Only six years earlier, another iconic bowling center closed –AMF Rocket Bowl in Chatsworth. That landmark had been in business for 47 years. The closing of Rocket Bowl – known as Comet Bowl when it opened in 1962 – represented a similarly heavy blow to players.
“It’s a very sad and emotional day for me. It’s been 41 years of my life.” So said Bill Mossontte, the managing partner of Mission Hills Bowl, which will be closing May 31. Mossontte launched the bowling center on Sepulveda Boulevard in the north San Fernando Valley on Aug. 16, 1974. Since then, the bowling center has enjoyed many highlights and has served some of the top bowlers in the area and nationwide. For a 25-year period, the bowling center grabbed national attention when it hosted a Western Women’s Professional Bowlers tournament on an annual basis. “We were very successful at it and stopped about three or four years ago when participation was dwindling,” Mossontte said. The biggest names in women’s bowling took part in that tournament, which included USBC Hall-of-Famers Tish Johnson and Robin Romeo. Both of those bowlers, incidentally, have used Mission Hills Bowl as their home bowling center and have rolled numerous perfect games and 800 series there. Another bowler who made a name for himself at Mission Hills Bowl was Bryan Alpert, who bowled a 299, 300 and 800 series with each hand in the 1996-97 season. That means that Alpert rolled in that one year a 299 left-handed and right-handed and the same for a 300 and 800 series. Alpert, now the manager of Corbin Bowl in Tarzana, racked up all those scores at the Mission Hills bowling center.
After the closing of Rocket Bowl, Keith Kitti spoke of his sadness of losing a treasured facility – much the way Mission Hills Bowl players are now feeling. “The center was part of the Golden Age of bowling,” said Kitti, who was Rocket Bowl’s facility manager when it shut. “And it just added another chapter to the end of the era. It wasn’t so much a business as a gathering of friends. It was a watering hole of sorts. It was a place where the same people gathered for 52 weeks a year and they would come not planning to spend a dime as much as to engage and talk.” The 24-lane Mission Hills Bowl is among about 25 Valley area bowling centers to shut in the past 30 years. It’s common knowledge that bowling centers have been closing every year across the country because of the financial difficulties they face. Only two years ago, Bowlmor swooped in to rescue the huge AMF Bowling Worldwide chain from bankruptcy. At the time, Bowlmor was a chain of six upscale bowling houses known for its Las Vegas-style sports look and lane-side food and drink service. Bowlmor was the only company willing to bid on AMF, which had fallen into bankruptcy for the second time in 10 years. Tom Shannon, now the chief executive officer, chairman and president of Bowlmor AMF, has said that if Bowlmor had not entered the picture, AMF would likely have been forced to sell its bowling centers – or would have closed its facilities. So financial conditions have been crimping the style of many bowling houses. Many of the Mission Hills Bowl staff members and players had suspected that its beloved center was running out of time. David Critchfield, who works at Mission Hills Bowl as a customer service manager, has been with the facility for 20 years. He said he was not totally surprised when Mossontte announced that the facility was planning to close. “We knew it would be sooner or later,” he said. “We just didn’t think it would come this quickly.”
“At the time it happened, I wasn’t aware of the impact it would have,” said Alpert,” whose feat earned him recognition as the USBC ambidextrous record holder – a mark that stands today. He now has rolled approximately 30 800 series and 60 perfect games and bowls just as well with either hand. Alpert called Mission Hills Bowl a “bowling landmark. It’s an unusual bowling center because it was so full of die-hard bowlers. It was old school. Bowlers went there just to bowl . . . You have to tip your cap to the bowling center. It was 41 great years.” Eric Forkel, perhaps the best professional bowler to come out of the San Fernando Valley, also has been a well-known presence at Mission Hills Bowl. He sent an email expressing his disappointment about the news of the center’s imminent closure. “I spent a lot of time practicing there back in the ’80s and ’90s,” wrote Forkel, now a Henderson, Nev., resident. “Bill was always a great proprietor and was a fan of scratch bowling. I hate to see the old centers go and all the nostalgia with it. “Back in the ’80s, my coach ran the Pro Shop there and I was there a lot. It seems like more and more that these great old places are going away, kind of like the dinosaurs, I guess. Wow, I guess that makes me a fossil too.” And Johnnie Englehart, arguably the top bowler in the L.A. area, has been a regular in Mission Hills Bowl’s ultra-competitive Thursday night scratch league. Mission Hills Bowl has hosted a West Coast Senior Tour tournament six times between 2006 and 2012. “It’s a great bowling center. Too bad it went down,” said Dick Sanders, the WCST’s owner and director. Another feather in the cap of Mission Hills Bowl is its league program, which enlists a whopping 1,100 bowlers, many of whom are of the high-roller variety. “We’re way up there [in league participation],” Mossontte said. “We have many more than other bowling alleys, especially in L.A. I’ve always been a big proponent of leagues.” One of the more heart-warming stories is that a Mission Hills Bowl league named the “Friday Foxes” is still alive and well. That all-women, Friday-morning league started when the bowling center opened. “The women were all in their 20s,” Mossontte said, “and some [of the same] women are still there. We had a lot more then, but we still have 20-30.” The bowling center also has had a special-needs program and has made a special effort to help disadvantaged bowlers find a niche through bowling. “We’ve turned around a lot of lives through bowling,” Mossontte said. Bowling centers have been closing across the nation each year – especially the ones that don’t own the land at their site. And that was the case with Mission Hills Bowl. “The owner of [our] shopping center said when the lease is up, ‘it’s over,’ ” Mossontte said. “It’s not viable to have a bowling center when you can have a building twice as big and collect eight times the rent. “Land is very valuable and the worst thing you can put on land is a bowling center.” The Mission Hills Bowl lease still had four years to run, but Mossontte was faced with insurance issues that required several hundred thousand dollars in improvements. “It was just pure economics,” he said about the closing. He expects the bowling center will be torn down and that the entire shopping center will be revamped. Mossontte said his “No. 1 priority” now is to look after his employees. “No. 2,” he said, is to find a new home for his bowlers. “I want them to land somewhere,” he said. Mossontte remains the owner in varying stakes in many other bowling centers, such as Corbin Bowl and Valencia Lanes in the Santa Clarita Valley. “It’s been a pleasure to be a bowling proprietor and I’ll continue to be one,” said Mossontte, adding that “the best friends I’ve made have been bowlers – without question.”