ARLINGTON — On a recent Wednesday night, the crowd at Rocket Alley is cozy, relaxed and loud. The clack and clatter of a bowling ball hitting the pins for a strike brings cheers, moans and laughter.
Kids and old-timers seated in the retro-style red, gray and black diner munch on Alley BLT sandwiches, Nitro pizzas and Gutterball hamburgers. Their entertainment is the league bowling on the lanes below.
Open since June, Rocket Alley has revived the spirit of the community bowling alley in downtown Arlington. The former Melady Lanes, which was shuttered for more than a year, was hurt by waning interest and low attendance.
Steve Saunders saw the “For Lease” sign last January and decided he wanted to pursue his dream of owning a little restaurant. The bowling alley was the plus.
“People asked why I would start a business in the middle of a recession. If we all took that attitude, nobody would go anywhere,” Saunders said. “Bowling doesn’t pay the bills, but it does make the place special.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, the pastime of bowling in Snohomish County was as popular as any place in the country.
Nearly every town had at least one alley, and people in Everett supported four or five, depending on which old bowler you ask.
The bowling craze began its decline in the 1970s and, by 1990, the industry was suffering. Alleys in Monroe and Snohomish closed. Those who owned the remaining bowling establishments hung on.
In Arlington, Melady Lanes opened in 1954 after Mel and Dotty Sass bought six lanes used in the 1953 national bowling tournament in Seattle.
They trucked the beautiful wood lanes to Arlington, and built a bowling alley on Olympic Avenue, riding the game’s popularity for many years.
Florence Pryor, 93, of Arlington, was among the first waitresses at Melady Lanes.
Pryor enjoyed the Arlington High School kids who stopped by after school for soda pop and hamburgers. She worked at the alley until 1970 and bowled there nearly every day.
“I loved the bowling alley,” Pryor said. “I’ve seen what Steve has done to it, and it’s beautiful.”
Saunders, 50, remembers well his visits to Melady Lanes when he was a kid.
Though he graduated from Granite Falls High School, Saunders lived just as close to Arlington. His mother lives up the street from Rocket Alley and still volunteers at Arlington Library. His father was in administration at the former Bayliner boat manufacturing plant in Arlington.
Saunders learned to cook at an Arlington restaurant, he owned a paint-ball business and did some fishing in Alaska. His last job was as a heavy equipment salesman, a venture that was tanking because of the decline in housing starts.
“I had always loved cooking,” he said. “My friends encouraged me to get the bowling alley. They shared the vision, so I jumped at the chance.”
After drafting a lease agreement with the owner and signing the permits with the city, Saunders started the renovation project.
Saunder’s children Colt, 21, and Brielle, 19, and his girlfriend Ronda Graesser, were enlisted to help along with his friends.
They pulled two tons of garbage from Melady Lanes, but kept the bowling shoes, balls and pins left behind.
Saunders built a new kitchen and bar, brought in refurbished tables and booths, added an outdoor courtyard and installed a double glass door for better access, fresh air and natural light.
Jim Davie of Everett, a former owner of the bowling alley, offered his expertise to get the lanes in shape.
Five months later, on the night before the annual summer car show in downtown Arlington, Saunders printed his first menu off his computer.
“It hasn’t stopped since then. I work 110 hours a week,” Saunders said. “Rocket Alley is all about eating and socializing. It’s a joy. I live on adrenaline.”
The name Rocket Alley is based on Saunders’ nickname when he was a young man spending a lot of time on the ski slopes.
“They called me Rocket,” he said with a laugh. “My boosters are always going.”
On this particular Wednesday night, Anita Aderholt, 45, of Arlington, along with her son Clayton, 14 and his friend Taylor Youngquist, 13, ate burgers before heading off to the boys’ basketball practice.
It’s the best bowling alley they have ever seen, the boys agree. If there’s not much action on the lanes, there’s always ESPN on the flat-screen TVs.
“We come here because it’s intimate, friendly and fun,” Aderholt said. “It’s a great community place, and I feel safe letting the kids walk here after school. They know our names.”
Bowler Jean Coleman, 49, of Stanwood, laughed with her friends as they sipped beers and took turns at the lanes. Bowlers from teens to retirees compete in league play at Rocket Alley.
“I love this place. It’s step back in time,” Coleman said. “We started our bowling league this fall and now we’re all close friends.”
The original wood lanes are separated by the ball-return rails. Players sit in plastic chairs from the 1960s. And they have to use their math skills to keep scores, which are displayed by overhead projectors.
Shawn Richardson, 37, of Silvana, asked Saunders for a little help with his team’s scorecard.
“I’m gonna make you guys donate a buck to charity every time you ask me to score your game,” Saunders threatened the crowd.
The league bowlers all laughed.
“Until Rocket Alley opened I never came to town,” Richardson said. “Now I have a reason to visit Arlington.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; email@example.com.
Rocket Alley Bar and Grill: 360-435-8600; 420 N. Olympic Ave; www.rocketalley.blogspot.com. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Shoe rental is $2. Bowling is $6 an hour on weekdays and $12 an hour for up to five people on evenings and weekends.