What feels more Americana than a game of bowling, preferably accompanied by a hot dog or basket of fries?
Anthropologists have dated versions of the game back to thousands of years before Christ was born. The game we now play, sometimes known as “candlestick bowling,” can be traced to 1880 in Massachusetts. Here in Petaluma bowling has been available, often alongside deep-fried dishes, since the 1930s.
It began with only two lanes in the basement of the Rendezvous bar at the corner of Washington and Petaluma Boulevard. Then the Croci family built Petaluma Bowling Parlor at 27 Kentucky St., where the Strand Theatre once stood. On opening night, Sept. 30, 1939, mayor Jasper Woodson threw out the first ball, christening the seven-lane venue for years of play.
Even back then, food and drink were an important part of the business model. The newly renovated space boasted a small restaurant with sandwiches and piping hot coffee, which could be delivered right to a customer’s lane.
“A most modern ‘bar’ where only soft drinks and refreshments will be served, has been installed across from the main entrance of the building. There Miss Arnoldine Berri will be in charge. An accomplished bowler, Miss Berri will be on hand at all times to give advice to women playing at the alleys, and when time permits, she will be more than willing to give personal pointers and instruction to beginners,” stated a 1939 Argus-Courier article about the opening of the alley.
The business thrived, quickly outgrowing the space. As bowling exploded in popularity, both as a league sport and as a family activity, the lanes were usually booked and patrons had trouble finding parking in the downtown corridor.
In 1959, John Croci opened Boulevard Bowl at 1100 Petaluma Blvd. S., where the alley still sits today, albeit with a slightly different name. Packed with 20 lanes and 170 parking spots, the Crocis envisioned a family fun center that would also appeal to semi-professional leagues. Of course, such a modernized facility needed an expansive restaurant. The Crocis spared no expense designing an eatery that celebrated the soda shop culture popular at the time.
“The bowlers every whim and want will be catered to, including food and drink,” wrote the Argus-Courier in an April 16, 1959 article. “The alley includes a fountain and grill seating 35 persons and a bar and cocktail lounge with a fireplace that will accommodate another 20 to 25. The concourse is equipped with a standup bar for patrons to watch the action.”
The bowling alley was a major success. Within a matter of years, it was open 24-hours, catering not just to the bowling fanatics, but to bored teens looking for a place to hang out afterhours. As business continued to boom, the Crocis began to carry a lot of weight in the community.
In 1987, Rich Croci was running the family business. Thanks to the popularity of films like Tom Cruise’s 1986 “The Color of Money,” pool halls were all the rage at that moment. Most pool tables were located in bars, and not seen as an appropriate game or place for children. For that reason, the Petaluma City Council prohibited children under 18 from playing billiards. Rich Croci successfully petitioned the City Council to change that ban, which allowed kids to enjoy the pool tables at Boulevard Bowl.