Watering Holes of Petaluma: Former Orbit Room still flying

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THE WATERING HOLES OF PETALUMA

This is the second in a five-part series exploring the historic bars of Petaluma and surrounding areas. In part three, running next week, we take a visit to one of the last existing “neighborhood bars” in Petaluma, Ray’s Tavern, established in 1947.

There’s no sound quite like that of a 15-pound bowling ball colliding noisily into 10 upright wooden pins. It’s a loud, percussive and musical sound, one that marries velocity and violence with happiness and joy in a distinctively delightful way. That’s the music that’s always playing in the distant background when you are inside the 60-year-old bar at AMF Boulevard Lanes, near the southernmost end of Petaluma Boulevard.

“You hear it, but you don’t hear it,” smiles Ernie Quinn, one of the establishment’s team of bartenders. His job includes accommodating customers inside the attractively old-school lounge — complete with couch in front of a stone fireplace, and plenty of dark wood and glittering glass — and pouring drinks ordered at the “lane side” window/counter overlooking the action outside, where many bowlers prefer to grab a beer and return to their game.

The place used to be called The Orbit Room, due to the space race-theme reflected in the décor the bar proudly displayed from the time it was opened in 1959 until the bowling alley was purchased a few years ago by the national AMF chain. Now, gone are the rockets and planets on the walls, though the comfortably imposing rock fireplace in the corner still remains.

“It’s gas now, though,” allows AMF Boulevard Lanes manager Sarah Pettinger. “Things change. We have old-timers who talk about the Orbit Room and the space stuff. This is a little less colorful than that, I’m guessing, but it’s nice and relaxing, unless there’s a football game on in here. Then it can get pretty lively.”

When the Boulevard Bowl first opened on April 18, 1959, the facility was state-of-the-art for the time. Owned by the father-and-son team of John and Richard Crocci, the sprawling attraction was a huge step up from their previous operation, Petaluma Bowl (established in the 1930s), a smaller, seven-lane alley on Kentucky Street, across from Heebe Jeebe General Store. When Boulevard Bowl first opened, in addition to The Orbit Room, the place boasted a Lund’s Coffee Shop, a pro-shop, a daycare center and locker rooms. The most exciting part of the brand new entertainment spot was its automated pin-setting machinery, replacing the humans whose job it had been to run out and manually reset the pins themselves.

As it so happened, John Croci died of a heart attack at the age of 68, less than two years after Boulevard Bowl opened. And true to form, according to his daughter-in-law Pat, Croce died while bowling. That was in March of 1961, though there are some who say that Croce could just as easily have died in the Orbit Room, one of his favorite places in the world.

Behind the front counter of the bowling alley, Pettinger keeps a clipping of a 2015 “Toolin’ Around Town” column, from the Argus-Courier, in which Harlan Osborne talks with Pat Croce, giving a basic history lesson of the place, including some oft-asked-about details of beloved The Orbit Room.

“It’s good for when people want to know things,” she says, confirming that for many longtime Petalumans, the Orbit Room still carries a lot of fond memories. “Some of the folks who play in the leagues, who’ve been coming here for decades, they have a lot of colorful stories about the old days.”

There was a time, for instance, when there would be a bowling ball in a bag for every adult sitting at the bar after a game.

THE WATERING HOLES OF PETALUMA

This is the second in a five-part series exploring the historic bars of Petaluma and surrounding areas. In part three, running next week, we take a visit to one of the last existing “neighborhood bars” in Petaluma, Ray’s Tavern, established in 1947.

“That’s not so much anymore,” admits Quinn, pouring a tall Racer 5 for a customer. “Not so many people have their own bowling balls, but some do, mostly the older folks.” He mentions that, while “old-timers” talk of a time when the Orbit was its own destination (a hangout for non-bowlers too), these days, the bar is mainly populated by bowlers on league nights. The more bowlers, the busier the bar, though during the games themselves, most use the side window.

“There are people in this town who don’t even know there’s a bowling alley here, and most don’t know that this place, the bar, is here at all,” Quinn says. “But it’s nice and quiet, sometimes, so there are some folks who bring a computer in and sit in the corner, have a beer, and get some work done.” The facility has no wifi, however, he admits with a smile, so such visitors bring their own portable “hotspots.”

Quinn, a former Brinks security guard, has been working at the bowling alley since spontaneously asking if there was anything he could do around the place part-time.

“I used to come hangout here on Fridays and Saturdays, after work, and one day I was talking to the manager and joked that since I was here all the time they should put me to work,” he says. “So they did. I started out cleaning the lanes and putting balls away, but gradually I started doing other things, including maintenance on the machinery. Then, when they needed a bartender, I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Since I’m trained to do a lot of things, there are days when I run from one task to the other, back and forth. It’s okay. I like staying busy.

“And a bowling alley,” he adds, “in or out of the bar, is a good place for keeping busy.”

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