Remembering Thunderbird Lanes

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Thunderbird Lanes, 1555 N. Mountain Ave., was a bowling alley just below the 10 Freeway in Ontario that operated from 1960 until about 1991. It was torn down in 1996 to make way for the Edwards 14 multiplex. A vertical pole sign spelled out the name Thunderbird and was crowned by a neon-edged bird, wings extended.

As Charles Phoenix’s “Cruising the Pomona Valley, 1930 Thru 1970,” the source of the above rendering, put it:

“Visible from miles around, perched high above the action below, the giant spread eagle thunderbird with a 17 foot wingspan was aglow in yellow neon and alive with red light bulb eyes.”

I never bowled there, arriving after the center closed, but I remember the sign being just tall enough that from the freeway the bird could be seen peeking above the barrier.

At the Ontario Library’s Model Colony History Room, I paged through some phone books for information. The nifty 1960 ad at right notes that the Thunderbird, 1555 N. Mountain Ave., had 32 lanes and “free instruction.” The 1968 ad boasts that the Thunderbird had a “Daytime Housewives’ Leagues” (!) and was open 24 hours (!!). Definitely a good era for bowlers.

By the 1980 ad, the only portion still open 24/7 was the Thunderbird’s coffee shop, named the Trucker’s Spot. Makes me wonder if passing truckers had been among the night-owl bowling crowd.

Anyway, as I said, the bowling alley was demolished, but the Thunderbird figure atop the sign was saved, repaired and placed in the city’s Museum of History and Art. That’s the bird below. The museum, at 225 S. Lemon Ave. (essentially, the southeast corner of Holt and Euclid), is definitely worth a visit.

You’re encouraged to leave a comment if you have a memory of the Thunderbird, or even if you just think the bird is cool.

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  • barbara f

    The leather numbers indicating shoe size were stitched on each back of the rental bowling shoes. White with red trim and white numbers. Thirty five cents or so to get a pair, leaving your street shoes as collateral.

    Sitting in chairs by the counter to tie on the temporary shoes, all so as to take three long strides and a skid up to the white line marking the beginning of the lane. A beep would sound or a light would flash if you were so much as a toe across when letting the ball go to careen down the lane (usually landing and spinning noisily in the plastic gutter).

    The old gentleman renting the shoes early on even set used shoes aside to dry and he went so far as to disinfect them in some way, treating the insides with a sprinkle of powder. They were thoughtful, because you could even rent a towel to wipe your ball or hands as well. In the ball turnaround, there was a rush of air coming from small holes in a vent you wave your hand over supposedly to dry your fingers before picking up the ball. So strong was the gust, girls’s bangs lifted slightly.

    Noisy with the crack of pins as almost all lanes were going, and added to that I recall the stuttered electronic peeps, dings, and squeaks of the pinball machines. Food was expensive there and usually only adults took up the counter chairs in the restaurant, and men would be drinking beer even in the daytime. I went there only a few times on Saturday daytime outings shortly after the place opened. It was new and seemed pricey by contemporary standards.

  • Ms. Lois

    I remember bowling here a lot. Also the courthouse was across the street. When I was 19 years old I was put on a case. For lunch they walked us across the street. We had to stay together and we couldn’t talk to people we saw. Fun memories!

  • barbara f

    The lanes were bright new maple, brilliantly reflecting the sheen of high glossed spar varnish or some other plastic protective coating. Acres of lanes, each engineered to be straight as arrows.

    The seating where you lounged awaiting a turn to bowl included a pair of built-in light maple table tops teetering atop metal supports coming up from the floor (the wood was bright, of the same pressed composite manufacture as new school desks) to accommodate the large score keeping sheets, and there were several large press buttons on the side.

    One button would illuminate the score sheet on a board above the lane for all to see in league bowling. The other button would flash up the lane number, to summon a waitress. In the Saturday daytime for kids, these buttons weren’t in use.

    Also provided were rounded plastic couchlike or benchlike tub seating of some unmemorable utilitarian color, let’s say light or dark gray. Personal effects such as sweaters, purses, eyeglasses, magazines, or newspapers always slipped off the plastic seating and onto the floor.

    Kids learning to bowl were given lighter and brightly colored balls, I guess designed to look like fun and balloons, let’s say orange and white or turquoise and white swirled orbs.

    Those new to the game released the ball in unimaginable and potentially damaging displays … swinging the arm back, losing grip, and dropping the ball behind them on the floor with a horrendous thud. Others threw balls wildly into a neighboring lane. Others used the slo-mo technique, where the ball once released slowly spun its way down the lane barely lacking energy to fall into the gutter. Still others lacking a sense of refined timing sent the ball straight into the automatic pinguard that descended to sweep the pins from the lane.

    There was near the counter some sort of automated machine which for a coin would clean or somehow polish your ball, if you were so inclined.

  • Ramona

    Ah, yes. Many an evening spent there watching my friends bowl in their league. I’ve never bowled but the kids and I went along as a fun night out. One never knew what to expect once inside.

    One summer the kids bowled there as well. They were offered lessons and the lanes had bumpers along the sides to keep the balls out of the gutter.

    Most of the time we were all ready to leave just in time to avoid a headache from the noise.

    Good memories.

  • Lisa

    This was a great family-fun place. I remember during the 70′s going to “bowling birthday parties” with friends from school, and walking from Garey High to have lunch there. When my family moved to Pomona in the late ’60′s, the THUNDERBIRD was quite a sight.

    In the late 70′s, early 80′s, I happened to be in Noel, MO and stopped by an antique shop. Since Noel was a very small town, we were not recognized as “locals” and when we told the shop owner we were from Pomona, he laughed. He asked if we were familiar with Thunderbird Lanes, (of course we were!) and said he had sold it & moved to Missouri to somewhat escape the “big city” lifestyle. I don’t remember his name, but, wow. If he could see the place now…

    [You walked from Pomona to Ontario for lunch? Or did you mean Chaffey High? -- DA]

  • Debra Porada

    I remember when the building was being demolished and it was “iffy” if the bird was going to be save by the city. I spoke to my dad and he was willing to come and get it because “thunderbird” was said to be one of my first words. The city did decide to save the bird. I was beyond thrilled when the bird was restored and placed in the museum. Every time I go to the museum I go to it he back room and take a peak to make sure it’s still there!

  • Evelyn

    I’m confused. Lisa mentions walking from Garey High School in Pomona for lunch at the Thunderbird at 6th and Mountain in Ontario. Pretty long walk for a lunch hour. Wasn’t there a bowling alley on North Garey Avenue in Pomona?

    [Yeah, near Foothill. Garey Bowl. You're right, she may have confused them. -- DA]

  • jimm

    Yep!! That was the Landmark Bowling Alley…

  • barbara f

    That’s right! I’d forgotten til now that your phone would be charged long distance rates if you happened to call outside the telecommunications monopoly grid or service district … even to a neighboring town a mile away. That’s why Thunderbird Lanes also provided a National phone number.

  • barbara f

    Tears roll afresh for another bowling alley extinguished far, far away. Yet, this article, coincidentally published today as well, really gives an idea of how such an establishment born about the same time as Thunderbird Lanes becomes a landmark in the community ,,, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/04/16/BA0D1O3NJ8.DTL

  • JMac

    In response to Lisa and her long walk from Garey High. Right below Garey High School was Pom Lanes. At one time there were three bowling alleys that I recall in Pomona. Pom, Garey Center, and Town and Country on Holt Ave. I spent several days and nights bowling at the Thunderbird Lanes. Mostly because my grandparents lived on I St just down the road. That bird was a beacon for this area.

    [JMac, thanks for solving that puzzle. Where was Town and Country? Haven't heard of that one. -- DA]

  • Ray B

    Hi David,

    The Town and Country Bowl was located at 1750 West Holt Avenue in Pomona. It and the Garey Center Bowl were both owned by a proper southern gentleman named John Atiyah (sp?). He also owned a third bowling alley. I believe it was located in Baldwin Park.

    [Thanks for the info, Ray. -- DA]

  • Bob Terry

    OK Lisa, I had the fastest and most beautiful ’65 Chevy Malibu (pearl yellow) at Garey High School in 1972 and would never even think of driving to or eating lunch in Ontario. We had Pom Lanes on So. Garey below Philadelphia street next to Alpha Beta and Tastee Freeze. You might have been a classmate of mine…or maybe a little older. Either way, JMac had it right.

  • Charles Bentley

    GREETINGS:

    I spent many hours of my youth at Thunderbird Lanes. I and my friends would go in and bowl at all hours, especially during the summer months. It was a constant in our lives, knowing the Thunderbird was always there, the sign watching over the entire city day and night. Even on starless nights it supplied a glow you could spot from just about anywhere in town.

    Even before I was able to bowl I would go watch my dad compete in league play. Sometimes he’d be in a late league. On such occasions there had been hours of league play underway before we got to the Thunderbird. Those were the days when tobacco use was an accepted habit rather than a health hazard. I can remember looking from one end of the building to the other and seeing a haze of smoke hanging in the air. It appeared to me to be like the kind of fog you’d expect to find floating above the moors near Baskerville Hall (the result of another part of my youth spent reading the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and August Derleth).

    One other thing I recall was the individuals (almost exclusively men) who picked up some extra cash by serving as scorekeepers. There was no automated scoring system back then, just clear score sheets manually marked with grease pencils and shown on the tiered ceiling using an overhead projector.

    These days when I visit the modern bowling centers with their flashy lighting and computerized scoring, I wonder about those guys who spent all countless hours in the hubbub and haze making a few dollars and picking up a free drink here and there while staying close to a game they obviously knew so well.

    [Charles, thanks for the lovely tribute to the Thunderbird. I had never heard of the scorekeeper phenomenon and yet it makes perfect sense. Some people either can't keep score or can't be bothered (it did take away from the conversation). And it's easy to forget the days when people routinely lit up indoors. -- DA]

  • T. Harris

    My husband Larry was the manager from 1967 until he retired in 1985.

    We came from Chicago where he had managed lanes. In Chicago there were 3 sessions a night at 5, 7 & 9. When he came to the TB they had 32 lanes and only 2 sessions. A few yrs. after that they added 8 lanes and a 3rd session. At first this was not very popular.

    There were some great employees, quite a few that had stayed there 15-25 yrs. Fred the day desk person, Polly the office Secretary, Betty the day bartender, Marlin the head Mechanic and a few others. I held many rules meetings for the leagues.

    We went to watch the demolition and it was a sad thing as there were so many memories. The owners, the Speigel family, were great to work for and really all around good people.

    [Thanks for the info, such as that the alley expanded to 40 lanes, and the personal perspective. -- DA]

  • Dot Phillips

    I also grew up with the Thunderbird Lanes as part of my life. Back in 1966 or so my Dad took my sisters and I bowling there. I loved it and joined a kids league. My girlfriends and I would walk there on Saturdays in hopes that certain boys would be there bowling as well!

    When we drove anywhere on the freeway we always knew we were close to home when we saw the Thunderbird sign. I’m so glad it was saved from the demolition! Great memories!

  • http://www.cypresscollege.edu/ad/faculty.aspx?ID=mflores Mike Flores

    Memories, sweetened through ages like…high-fructose corn syrup…

    I remember T-Bird Lanes, but not because I bowled there. My step-grandfather, Melton Smith, bowled there with his friends, including some from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ontario, up until he retired in 1980. He lived in the Lamplighter Trailer Park on 13th in Upland, so some of his neighbors might have also bowled there.

    I remember him having numerous trophies from bowling competitions. He might have even smoked his Marlboro 100s there. I may have gone, but I don’t remember; my mother was sketchy about those things. Bowling was for ‘those’ kind of people…oh, well. (Mother also was particular about other things, like when my older sister asked, in 6th grade, if she could wear bluejeans to school, Mother, who sewed all my sister’s dresses, said no, because she didn’t want her daughter seen as ‘one of those kind of girls’. Of course, my sister did go to school in the 60s…)

    Now that I am older, I don’t bowl (nor know how to, nor have a desire to), and I have a child still at home who asks to go. I still remember the bowling alley being across the street from the county courthouse, and I have numerous memories from there, but that is for another post…

  • Michael Lovelace

    Hello David,

    I met you 2-3 months ago at the Bowlium on a Wednesday afternoon while I was bowling in the Chino Senior League. I bowled at Thunderbird Lanes in approx. 1965 and I remember it was only 10 cents a game back then for summer bowling. I think we bowled 5-7 games one day when my Uncle’s family was visiting from Michigan.

    Did you know there used to be a 10 lane bowling alley in Chino located in the building where the red Chino sign is located at the southeast corner of Riverside Drive and Central Avenue? It was a theatre before that and I worked there from the late 1960′s to mid 1970′s. That was the best job in the world!! I got paid to start a game of pool and bowl for free..ahh what memories. I used to bowl at all of the former alleys in the area.

    [Michael, nice hearing from an avid bowler. I did know about the Chino lanes, but only because readers have told me about them before. You guys provide my best information. Thanks for the comments. -- DA]

  • Barb

    I have a completely different memory of this place. Perhaps I can shed some light on the “Truckers Spot” name. Back in the early 80′s the bowling alley became an un-offical terminal for our trucking company. Many of us would go to “Annies” (as we knew it then) to meet up and to wait for our next load after we emptied out in the LA area. Most of us were husband/wife teams.

    It was common for anywhere from 2 to 10 trucks to be there for a couple of days. This was way before cell phones and we would have to call our company every couple of hours to check on our next loads so we would sit in the cafe and chat between calls. They had really good food and were very friendly towards us and were open 24 hours a day. There was also a Motel 6 across the parking lot and someone would usually get a room and let all of us take turns using the shower. The motel did not have phones in the rooms so they would also have to go to “Annies” to use their pay phones.

    We all drove cab-over style trucks back then with aluminum fuel tanks and wheels. A local guy in a red pickup would come by offer to shine everything up for us. He did not charge much and did a great job. We later found out that he had lost his job and was supporting his family this way. We all tried to help him out and called him to unload our trucks for us when we could.

    I have great memories of this place. It was a safe, friendly place for us to gather and wait for our loads.

    Back then, the truckstops were pretty rough places. I didn’t feel comfortable there with all the hookers and other “questionable” things going on.

    [Barb, thanks for shedding some light on another reason people liked and congregated at the Thunderbird. -- DA]

  • Debbie

    Went there to bowl on a league and worked at Annie’s in 1980. Loved working there as a waitress customers were awesome.

  • Krissie T. Turner

    Can you help me in maybe finding out how to locate one of the bowling papers that were distributed at Tbird? My boyfriend was on a league there in the 80′s and unfortunately his keepsake scrapbook has been lost in the shuffle of moving and I would give ANYTHING to get my hands on a copy with his mention of name or picture in it. His name is Chuck Tucker, Jr. With great appreciation, thank you.