With a sit-down restaurant, childcare and an in-house television studio, Imperial Bowling Lanes resembled a glittery casino more than a Summer Avenue local business.
Since 1958, the Imperial Bowling Lanes facility has been a fixture in the varied landscape of Summer Avenue. When it closed to the public in 2009, it was the oldest bowling alley still in operation in Memphis.
Last month, it was announced that the building would be demolished in order to build a Planet Fitness.
When the bowling center first opened, it was the height of sophistication. Its 48 lanes were open 24 hours a day.
The “ultra-modern center cost $1,350,000” reported The Commercial Appeal in 1959, adding that “It’s billed as the only bowling center in the world with its own fully equipped television studio”.
The Commercial Appeal article also noted that, “Mothers who bowl will be able to spend more time at the sport because of a specially equipped nursery and playground where children may be left with trained attendants.”
It seems like the bowling center, which also boasted an in-house restaurant, was a sort of prototype for the casinos of Tunica that popped up decades later.
The bowling center reflected an era when Summer Avenue was populated by Coletta’s Italian Restaurant, Fred P. Gattas Co., the Alamo Hotel and the Peanut Shoppe.
Bobby Muns was the head mechanic at the bowling center. He also helped run the Summer Avenue Imperial Market, a flea market which operated in the bowling center’s parking lot.
“Back in that time,” said Muns, “bowling was the thing to do. We didn’t have the Internet.”
Muns’ brother-in-law, Bobby McKenney, was the bowling center’s final manager. The place only had three managers during its longevity: Don Tebbe, Dean Folden and McKenney.
Imperial Lanes was the brainchild of George Long, a bowling enthusiast. Long also owned the Cherokee Lanes on Lamar Ave., which had 50 lanes. In 1936 Long founded J. Strickland and Co., which is still in business today. The company offers hair products for African-Americans such as Royal Crown Hair Dressing and Blue Magic hair products.
George Long passed away three years after the lanes opened. Mildred Long, George’s widow, ran the bowling center and kept the lanes to her husband’s wishes, which included not serving alcohol and maintaining a low-tech approach. Automatic scoring never made its way to the mid-century bowling facility.
In 1960, Imperial Lanes hosted the first Professional Bowling Association national championship. St. Louis-based bowler Don Carter won the championship and went on to sign the first million-dollar single endorsement in sports.
Mildred Long died in 2009, and the property was eventually sold to Michael Turley, who also bought the Admiral Benbow Inn next door.
After Imperial Lanes closed in 2009, the owner of Java Cabana, Mary Burns, used the bowling alley’s floors in her business. She went to a Memphis Flyer Best of Memphis party at the Imperial Bowling Lanes, fell in love with the hardwood floors and set about securing the purchase and transferring them to her Midtown coffee shop.
“This floor has so much love in it. People fell in love, and got in fights, and were competitive,” she said. “Some people who used to bowl there have come to the coffee shop to see the floors. I think it would make them happy to know that a little piece of the bowling lane is still here.”
After the Imperial Lanes closed, the Summer Avenue Imperial Market operated in the parking lot. In March of this year, news came out that the market was going to be temporarily closed. However, fans of the market need not worry.
Muns said, “We hope to open the market somewhere again soon. Hopefully somewhere on Summer.”