After making some rounds yesterday I stopped in at one of my favorites lunch stops The Majestic Cafe for a quick (and affordable) lunch and got to talking with Joe Zainea about the rich history of the venue his family owns and operates on Detroit's Main Street.
It turns out that the Garden Bowl has turned 100 years young and I convinced Joe to send us a writeup about his recollection of the Garden Bowl's history for your reading pleasure.
Enjoy and thank you Joe!
‘Knocking them down for 100 years on Detroit’s Main Street’
Happy Centennial Garden Bowl
History of the Garden Bowl
The Garden Bowl, (Garden Bowling Alley c: 1913), opened its doors on August 1, 1913.
The owners were John Bauer and Irv Giese. It opened with ten lanes on the first floor and billiards on the second floor. The building extended thirty-five feet into Woodward Avenue from where it now rests. Detroit widened Woodward Avenue in 1934. There were storefronts on Woodward and a hallway that led to the bowling lanes behind these stores. The pin boys set the pins by hand with pegs coming out the center of the pin spots. There was a foot pedal that the pin boy pressed with his foot to make the pegs rise. In those days, pin setting was referred to as “goofing wood”. The pin boys lived in flophouses on skid row on Michigan Avenue run by various religious groups. Mr. Bauer was one of the organizers of the BPAA and was its first executive director.
Some of the first meeting of the BPAA took place right here in the Garden Bowl.
The building was renovated in 1926 by adding space on the second floor to accommodate twelve more lanes. The grand stands that surrounded the billiard area were removed. The billiard aspect was lost to the new Detroit Recreation on Lafayette Street in downtown Detroit. It had four floors of twenty-two lanes each and four floors of billiards. It too, was quite a place, a working mans country club. The Garden Recreation, as it was then known, was the hot spot of the twenties and part of the thirties. Major jackpot bowling took place. Groups of bowlers would come to Detroit and line up jackpots to challenge our Detroit bowlers. The largest meeting place for these groups was the Casino Bowling Alley on Woodward and Temple. Many times the out-of-towners would require a neutral bowling center for the match, and most likely it would the Garden. Joe Norris once told me that lanes 13 & 14 on the second floor were his biggest winnings alleys.
I remember that this area of Woodward Avenue was packed with people.
They used public transportation like streetcars to get here. We didn’t even have a parking lot. The neighborhood had plenty of SRO’s (single resident occupant hotels), like the one across the street from here, known then as the Strathmore Hotel. They were just a simple room with beds and a dresser. Many people from as far a Flint would take the train to Detroit, and get off at the E. Grand Boulevard station and take a cab to work on Monday mornings. They would team up with others to share the one room and the common facilities were down the hall. A quarter would give you use of a shower and a towel and soap. These men would leave for their homes after work on Fridays via the train. While they were in town, they would use the Garden as their place to eat three meals a day, socialize at the bar and bowl several nights of the week. Even more people had their homes and apartments in this neighborhood. We were filled with leagues like office groups, unions, fraternal groups and house leagues. We were very busy then.
Leagues like the Detroit Free Press All Stars bowled on Thursdays and the Detroit Women’s All Star Classic bowled on the 2nd floor on Tuesday nights. I remember my dad leaving the Garden Recreation on Friday nights and the same bowlers would be bowling on Saturday morning when he brought my brothers and me to bowl in the youth league. Yes, we were open all night. My dad bought the Garden Recreation in 1946. He owned a slaughterhouse on the Eastern Market and the workers in that industry would gather after work, about 2 p.m., at the Avalon Recreation. It was located above the Gratiot Central Market. They would play poker and kibbutz. The owner of the Avalon told my dad that the Garden was for sale. The owner, Bill Nagy passed away and his wife did not want to run the place. He took it over in the fall of 1945 under contract and concluded the sale in August 1946.
Perhaps I can name thirty-five bowling alleys that were within two miles of here, back in the early sixties; today there is only one, the Garden. It was quite a place. It was truly a workingman’s clubhouse. I remember that there were many pay phones in the hall leading to the lanes. You would pick the phone up and it would be answered in the basement by your bookie. Henry, an African American, was our counterman. He was a concessionaire, and the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. He wore a smock and a small leather bow tie. He reserved your bowling ball behind the counter for you for when you arrived to bowl, he checked your coat and had ready your special cigar rolling on a machine that dampen it. He cut the tip off with a small cutter similar to a paper cutter. There was a pipe that came up from the floor with a gas jet to light your cigar. He brushed your coat and hung it up. He rented you his bowling shoes and took yours to polish them while you bowled. He would sometimes clean and block your hat while you bowled. And then, of course he would book your numbers and horses. At the end of the day, he would probably make one dollar off you. He sent all his children through college.
In 1966, we bought the building to the south of us, torn down the big walls between the two buildings and added new rest rooms and six more lanes. This brought us to twenty-eight lanes. We did this to hang onto the customers that were leaving for the suburbs. We renovated the place with underlane returns, something new at the time, new masking units and put automatics on the second floor, the automatics were installed on lanes on the first floor in 1958. Well, the old customers left anyway. So we did a marketing plan to replace these departing bowlers with new ones. First the genre was Asian Americans and Appalachians, then they too left for the suburbs and then we directed our efforts to teach “Learn to Bowl+” to the African American genre. It took off very well until the point that we had over 100 bowlers per lane per week bowling. That’s 2800 bowlers by 1972.
But lo and behold, in the late eighties they too began to leave for the suburbs.
As my brother’s and my families grew, we needed more income. We started Detroit Bowling & Trophy. We made the trophies in the basement of the Garden Bowl and sold them in a small store in the front of the Garden Bowl. This business grew so well that we had to find more space, so we bought the corner building, to the north, and made the trophies on the 2nd and 3rd floor and made a very nice store on the main floor. Still this was not enough space for making our goods, so we rented and eventually bought the Majestic Theatre building and made our trophies and plaques there and then opened another business called Sportsprint to silk screen shirts and other promotional items. We also were in the business of resurfacing and constructing bowling lanes. This business took us all over the State of Michigan and of course we would sell our products at the same time. In 1992, we split the businesses up into two companies with my brother taking the trophy and silk screen businesses and I and my sons took the bowling center and Café and the properties. Eventually the trophy company moved to the suburbs. As synthetic lanes came into being, we dropped the resurfacing and construction business.
In 1992, we removed the suspended ceiling on the 2nd floor and eight lanes. We set up a dance area in the space of four lanes and ten pool tables in space of four lanes. We left four lanes. We called it the Magic Stick. It was like some rich man recreation room in his basement. It took off well. A year later we removed the remaining four lanes to expand the dance area. In 1984 we acquired the Majestic Theatre next door and built the Gnome Restaurant now named the Majestic Café, and Majestic Club.
That is where we are now.
The genre of the place now is urban, well-educated, young people who live in the many lofts in the area and attend one of the colleges here in Midtown Detroit. And they have discovered a new fun thing to do with their spare time. They Bowl, not quite like it was in the old days, but with the lights off, spinning mirror balls, smoke machines, lanes glowing in the dark and a live DJ spinning their favorite music.
In 2012, we replaced the sixteen wood lanes with new AMF Phonemic Lanes. Soon we will renovate the concourse with new seating, done in a retro way, and carpeting and tile and the bar. Both the Garden Bowl building and the Majestic Theatre building are on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The Garden Bowl is now a division of our overall company, Majestic Theatre Center, Inc., which includes the Majestic Café, The Majestic Theatre, The Magic Stick, Sgt Pepperoni’s Pizza, The Alley Deck, and of course the Garden Bowl, aka the “ROCKn’BOWL”.
We call it a “City Block of Fun and Dining on Detroit’s Main Street”.