The Showboat Lives On In Las Vegas Bowling Lore

by Dave Williams

For anyone that is over the age of 40, the name Showboat conjures up the game of bowling, where thousands of Californian’s enjoyed their sweeper bowling event, from leagues that promoted a weekend in Las Vegas following a season of bowling enjoyment in their hometown.

The Showboat was also one of the most famous stops on the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Tour, where many pro’s gave up the fight and decided to retire in the city known for high temperatures, low living expenses, and a fascination with bowlers.

As Bob Johnson (former editor of the California Bowling News, and now Senior Editor of Bowlers Journal International) looked back upon the Showboat in a recent article entitled “Ghosts of the Showboat” (Bowlers Journal International, December 2018), I could not help but reminisce about the years of enjoyment that I had working in bowling’s 21st century capital.

With the exception of Sam’s Town, all of the bowling centers that were in existence when I lived in Las Vegas are gone. One of the first to go was New College Park Bowl, where I worked for a year as a Manager Trainee, and later for a brief stint as Manager while AMF shuffled around management candidates before finally deciding upon Mike Monyak.

Mike was a part of AMF’s management development program and working at AMF Bowlero Lanes in Tacoma, Washington, when he got the call regarding a position in Las Vegas. His positive attitude and devotion to the game have rewarded him nicely, as he is now the manager of the 64 lane South Point Bowling Center on South Las Vegas Boulevard.

Other bowling centers that have closed since my departure from Las Vegas include Arizona Charlie’s (nee Charleston Heights Bowl), West Hill Lanes, the El Rancho Bowling Lanes, and even the Nellis 300 Lanes at Nellis Air Force Base.

Charleston Heights Bowl was a special place for “retired” professional bowlers. On my only day off from duties at New College Park Bowl, I participated in the Las Vegas All Stars League at Charleston Heights. It was like bowling in a PBA regional event with all of the ex-professionals that participated.

In my only full season in Las Vegas, I was fortunate to average 222 in the Las Vegas All Stars, and a blistering 226 at New College Park, the highest individual average recorded in the Southern Nevada Men’s Bowling Association for the 1978-79 season.

While 226 doesn’t seem like that unusual of an average today, in 1978 it was quite the exception. I have often said that I was a professional league bowler, because I just couldn’t handle the grueling 42 or 56 game qualifying schedules of the PBA on a weekly basis; but for a three game weekly stint, I was able to set association average records in almost every location that AMF positioned me for sales and marketing duties.

As I searched the internet for articles on the former bowling centers that have closed since my departure from Las Vegas, I could not help but notice that there are two primary owners of most bowling center properties in Las Vegas today – Station Casinos and Boyd Gaming.

It would appear that these two companies have capitalized on the attraction that bowling has for gamblers… something that Showboat founder Joe Kelley recognized when bowling was setting installation records across the country after the successful introduction of automated bowling machines in the late 1950’s.

The two aforementioned companies have made Las Vegas the bowling capital of the world in 2019. Among the approximate 700 bowling lanes in Las Vegas today, Station Casinos accounts for 282 lanes, and Boyd Gaming for 242 of the bowling drives.

Surprisingly, Station Casinos is the owner of the former Showboat property. According to an article that appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (March 24, 2000), Harrahs Entertainment purchased Showboat Incorporated in 1998, and sold the Las Vegas property to VSS Enterprises in 2000.

Harrahs refused to sell the Showboat name, not wanting the VSS property to be confused with the Showboat Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, or their own Harrahs Las Vegas on the Strip that resembled a showboat. As a result, VSS Enterprises renamed the Las Vegas Showboat, christening it the Castaways.

Photo provided by Frenchy Letourneau of International Bowling Media.

Another Las Vegas Review-Journal article (June 27, 2003) goes on to report that VSS could never make a go of the operation, and filed for bankruptcy protection in 2003. That’s when Station Casinos stepped in and purchased the Castaways. Their primary interest was in the grandfathered gambling license, after determining that there were structural concerns with the building. Demolition of the facility began in July of 2005.

Could Bob Johnson’s “Ghosts of the Showboat” article prove to be clairvoyant, and the property come back to life as one of Station Casinos mega-bowling operations? For local residents, who truly loved this location away from the Strip and downtown Vegas, the idea is thought provoking and brings back fond memories of the original owners of the Showboat that brought so many innovative ideas to casino operations… including bowling!