The rumble of balls rolling down the lanes and crashing into pins together with the laughter of friends are the sounds of a night at Funtime Bowl.
“This is a classic bowling experience,” said Jaqui Flynn, 33, of Lenox Park, on a recent Thursday night. Flynn was there with a crowd of people who work in the nonprofit world and bowl in the Charities of Atlanta United through Sporting Events, or CAUSE, bowling league.
The overhead screens keep scores, but no one is really paying attention. Neon orange, blue, green and yellow shapes painted along the back wall reflect on the oiled bowling lanes. Pitchers of beer are on several tables. The thump of loud pop music encourages some to shake their hips.
“It is always hopping here on a Saturday night and you have to wait to get a lane,” Flynn said. “I just really like the laid-back atmosphere. The food’s good and cheap.”
Flynn works at the Boys & Girls Club and bowls for the Knucklers. Other teams totaling about 30 people in the league include the Carter Center’s Gutter Fingers and Trees Atlanta’s Shady Dealers.
“Funtime is like the classic bowling alley,” said Duncan Ross-Kinzie, who works at the Carter Center. “It’s a little dingy, has cheap beer… You come here and all you do is bowl.”
Funtime Bowl opened in 1958 in the Northeast Plaza on Buford Highway and thrived during the bowling industry’s golden age of the 1960s and ’70s, when millions of Americans joined leagues, professional bowlers made more money than NFL players and pro tournaments were regularly broadcast on network TV.
There were approximately 12,000 bowling centers operating across the country in the mid-1960s, according to White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group. The Kansas City architecture and development firm’s research includes the bowling industry.
The sport’s popularity waned beginning in the 1980s as people quit joining leagues and bowling centers began shutting down. Today, there are approximately 3,700 bowling centers in the U.S., according to White Hutchinson.
Affordability is key
Luke Brundidge, 60, has worked at Funtime Bowl for 25 years. He started as a counter employee and is now the manager. Competitive leagues kept the center packed when he started working in 1994.
“Originally, bowling was about team-building and camaraderie,” he said. “But then leagues started to go by the wayside.”
In the early to mid-2000s, a revival of the sport was underway. Arcade games, big-screen TVs, music, strobe lights, updated chairs and tables were added to Funtime Bowl to attract new customers. “Cosmic bowling” with black lights and glow-in-the-dark balls and painted walls now happens every weekend.
“You have to have it to survive,” Brundidge said.
Children’s birthday parties were packaged. And the menu expanded to include craft beer and $5 well drinks.
Affordability is key to Funtime Bowl’s success. Prices range from $2.75 to $4.50 per game; shoe rental ranges from $2.75 to $3.25. A plate of chicken fingers costs $6.50. For $6.75, you can get a hamburger and fries or tater tots.
Owner Ellen Brown if Dunwoody said business is good and she caters to leagues to create a niche for Funtime Bowl where bowling remains the focus. One league has bowled there every Wednesday for 20 years.
Her major concern is what the city of Brookhaven wants for Northeast Plaza.
The city is constructing the Peachtree Creek Greenway behind the shopping center. The multiuse path, which eventually might connect to the Atlanta BeltLine, is intended by city officials to bring redevelopment to Buford Highway.
City officials secretly bid on the second Amazon headquarters in 2017, paying an architectural design firm more than $45,000 to create dramatic drawings as part of a bid named “Project Passport.” The illustrations showed a major campus at Northeast Plaza and a smaller campus at Corporate Square.
“I believe Brookhaven is trying to upscale the area,” Brown said. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do with that center.”
Before it was Funtime Bowl
When Brundidge started working at Funtime Bowl, the center was named Jim Maxey’s Tornado Lanes for an owner who purchased the center in 1990. Before then, it was named Northeast Plaza Lanes. The bowling center’s original name in 1958 was O’Neil’s Bowlerama.
Maxey was a well-known competitive bowler who earned a spot in the United States Bowling Congress Hall of Fame in 1984. The USBC is the national governing body of bowling.
Brundidge said Maxey only competed regionally “because he had a business to run.” Other bowlers urged him to go national and join the Professional Bowlers Association because of his skill, but Brundidge said Maxey was dedicated to running Tornado Lanes and his other bowling businesses in Chamblee, Decatur, Fayetteville and Forest Park.
“He was Mr. Bowling in the Southeast,” Brundridge said.
After Maxey died, his wife sold off the businesses, Brundridge said. Ellen Brown purchased the bowling center in 2005 with her now ex-husband. The bowling center’s official name registered with the Secretary of State remains Jim Maxey’s Tornado Lanes.
Joanne Taylor, 76, has worked at Funtime Bowl’s concession stand for more 20 years and cooks up pizza and pours beer three times a week. She started working there after she lost her job at the JCPenney’s department store in Northeast Plaza when it closed.
“I’ve just always enjoyed working with the public,” she said
Another longtime employee is Cesar Quezada, 33, who has literally worked behind the scenes for 12 years oiling and tinkering with the massive machinery behind the back wall.
When a ball gets stuck, a pinspotter malfunctions or a sweep bar takes someone’s spare, Brundridge speaks into a microphone at the front counter and announces the problem to Quezada over the loudspeaker.
It is almost deafening in the narrow passageway where Quezada works as balls loudly crack into pins and against the back wall of the lanes.
“I’m used to it, but it’s loud,” he said.
Born in Nicaragua, Quezada moved to the U.S. when he was 19. Quezada said he’d only been exposed to bowling through the TV show “The Simpsons” before he started working at Funtime Bowl.
He lives on Buford Highway and was walking through Northeast Plaza in 2007 when he saw the “Bowling” sign over the doorway. Curious, he walked down the stairs and asked about a job. He was told to come in the next morning to start. He continues to walk to work.
Amid luxury lanes, dive-y is better for some
The bowling industry shifted its focus even further than “cosmic bowling” to become “family entertainment centers” or “boutique” bowling venues in recent years. The newer centers cater to young professionals and upper-class families with disposable income. This class of bowlers expects clean carpets, a menu with something other than fried food and their beer served in a glass. And they want options other than bowling.
Stars and Strikes opened its first family entertainment center in Cumming in 2005. Its Sandy Springs location is packed with arcade rooms, laser tag, bumper cars and escape rooms. There is also a private VIP bowling room with eight lanes. At Stars and Strikes, an adult party costs $26.99 per person for two hours on the lanes.
The Painted Pin in Buckhead opened in 2014 and describes itself as an “upscale boutique bar, bowling and entertainment venue” where visitors can play giant Jenga if bowling is not their game.
It costs $25 per hour per lane to bowl at the Painted Pin on weekdays and $35 per hour on weekends. Shoe rental is $4.50. The menu includes wood-fired pizzas for $14 and such signature drinks as the Buckhead Betty.
At Bowlmor in Chamblee on the Dunwoody border, a plate of lamb lollipops can be delivered to a lane when hunger strikes. Online reservations at Bowlmor for a party of five adults and four children begin at about $152, not including food and drinks or credit for the arcade games.
The trendier, high-end bowling centers are not for everyone, however.
“That’s not what we want,” said Dana Russell, 26, sipping her cup of beer. “I like it here because it’s cheap and it’s fun.”
“That’s not what bowling is,” Brian Marafino, 26, said. “Bowling is beer, french fries and friends. Here, it is a nice, simple, enjoyable atmosphere … the Painted Pin is extra. It’s pricey.”
Mike Vinciquerra, 48, said he grew up bowling as a child of the 1970s. Funtime Bowl’s “old-school style” and cheap prices keeps him coming back.
And for Mary Johnson, 45, who comes from Cobb County to bowl once a week, Funtime Bowl “has a lot character.”
“Even the paintings are quaint,” she said of the center’s mural-style art. “It’s not like those more modern ones.”
Local bowling centers
2175 Savoy Drive, Chamblee
3285 Buford Highway in Northeast Plaza, Brookhaven
Stars and Strikes
8767 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs
The Painted Pin
737 Miami Circle NE, Buckhead