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Venerable Lansing bowling alley parts with tradition to court a new generation

Nowhere else in Lansing would Don Draper look so at home as in the mid-century splendor of the Spare Time Entertainment Center’s cocktail lounge. From the black leather booths to the pendant lighting and starburst bar top, it could easily double as a set for one of those soggy power lunches on “Mad Men.”  

But not for long.

You might still know the place as Holiday Lanes, the bowling alley that has stood near Frandor on Grand River Avenue since the 1950s. It’s gotten new owners and a changed name since January. A lot more changes are coming.

The lounge will be demolished to make way for a full-service restaurant called the Grand River Bar and Grill, said Meredith Assande, Spare Time’s event and marketing manager. The former site of eight lanes at the west end of the building will become a two-story laser-tag course and an arcade where players can win prizes ranging “from a teddy bear to an iPad,” she said.

Another eight lanes at the opposite end will become a “boutique bowling” area — basically a VIP section with its own bar.  

And, if all goes according to plan, the property’s exterior will eventually feature a ropes course for team-building events and sand volleyball courts for summer leagues (because, as Assande said with no apparent irony, “we have beautiful weather in Michigan and it’s truly a shame not to take advantage of it.”)

“As the years have gone by, bowling alleys have had to change as their audience has changed,” said Assande, the daughter of new owners Michael and Nancy MacColeman. “We want you to have fun whether you’re 3 or 93. We want to freshen things up and give people something new.”

Not everybody wants something new.  

“I don’t like it,” said Barney Eagan, association manager for the Michigan State Bowling Association, referring to the changes underway at Spare Time. “I’m kind of old-school. I like the old stuff.”  

But Eagan, a student of the game for more than a half-century, knows the status quo is no longer an option for many bowling alleys. “If they don’t do something, they’ll go out of business,” he said.

The bowling industry ain’t what it used to be. Your grandpa and his Blatz-chugging buddies from the factory were part of a surge in bowling that followed the introduction of the automatic pin-setter in the 1950s. That wave has long since crashed.

From 2007 to 2010, the number of Americans who bowled at least once in the previous year dropped by 9 percent, according to the White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group, a Missouri-based consulting firm. Perhaps more significantly, the number of certified league bowlers — long the meat and potatoes of the bowling business — dropped from 4.1 million in 1998 to 2.2 million in 2010. Between 2002 and 2010, 900 bowling centers throughout the country were shuttered, dropping from 6,300 to 5,400.

Waning participation has hit Michigan’s bowling industry hard. In 2005, Brunswick — the world’s largest maker of bowling equipment — moved its only bowling ball factory from Muskegon, where it had stood since 1906, to Reynosa, Mexico. Plainwell Lanes near Kalamazoo and Oxford Lanes in Dearborn both called it quits last December.  

You wouldn’t guess the game was falling out of favor if you were at Spare Time on a recent Tuesday night. Trend-bucking league bowlers filled about two-thirds of the lanes, with college kids and families taking up the rest.  

Longtime league member Trisha Sherman embraces Spare Time’s new direction wholeheartedly, making the koan-like case that with fewer lanes, Spare Time can recruit more bowlers.  

“I love it,” she said after a good-luck shot of Hot Damn with her teammates. The arcade and other attractions will “bring the younger generation of kids to bowling,” she said. “And hopefully my kid can get a job with the laser tag.”

At the other end of the alley — and at the opposite side of the bowling-optimism spectrum — was Bill, who declined to give his last name.

“I’ve been bowling for 40-too-damn-many years,” he said, but the only reason he still plays is to spend time with his 76-year-old dad, who has Parkinson’s disease.

“My daughter doesn’t get into it,” he said, over a post-game Corona. “It’s not like when I was a kid and we bowled every week.” 

Bill said he likes the new owners, but he isn’t wild about the shift away from traditional bowling.  

“I always thought this was the best one in Lansing,” he said, comparing the alley to Royal Scot, Pro Bowl and others in the area. “To me, the big change is the eight lanes” that were taken out for the arcade and laser tag. “There’s a lot of other bowling alleys if I want to go somewhere else.”

But it's hard to say what those other alleys will look like in a few years. Barney Eagan, Bill and other old-school bowlers might soon find themselves, to paraphrase "The Big Lebowski," out of their element.

As league bowler Joe Gregory put it:  "Nothing's old-school anymore."

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