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Happy 100th to Gordon Powers, king of the Atomic Age bowling palaces

by Robert Garrova | Off-Ramp

97-year-old Gordon Powers at his home in Garden Grove. Robert Garrova/KPCC

UPDATE: Gordon Powers turned 100 Monday. Since Robert's piece aired in 2013, as Chris Nichols reports in LA Magazine, Powers won the Los Angeles Conservancy modern master award and the Long Beach Heritage preservation award. Go bowl a few frames at Covina Bowl this weekend, and raise a cold beer to Gordon Powers, who made life more fun for millions of Americans.

Back when bowling was an institution, not just for birthday parties, Gordon Powers' architectural firm crisscrossed the nation building Atomic Age shrines to bowling. And don't call them bowling alleys, Powers says these are bowling centers, often with 40 or more lanes. Now 97 and retired, Powers lives in Garden Grove.

Powers says said bowling really took off with the invention of one machine: the automatic pinspotter. "It changed bowling because, up to that time, the pin boys either were high school kids sometimes, but mostly they were alcoholics." Not so family oriented, he says. "But as soon as they got the automatic pinspotter, all of that changed because you could bowl at any time of day or night and you didn't need any of these other people. So, bowling took off from there."

Powers, an Oregon Native, didn't get work as an architect until he was 32. Before that he was flying planes for the military. The firm he co-founded had a special connection to American Machine and Foundry -- better known as AMF -- one of the biggest names in bowling. Soon, Powers and his firm designed structures in Pennsylvania, Arizona and here in Southern California. And these aren't drab buildings in shopping parks: A-frames tower overhead, sparkling atom road signs light up the way, and Jetsons-esque marquees beckon families to spend their Friday nights inside.

At the Covina Bowl, you can see why some preservationists call it Powers' masterwork. There's the ancient ruin geometric cement work at the entrance, the sharp pointed roofline, the colorful glasswork in the Pyramid Room restaurant. The place has kept the diehard, early afternoon bowlers coming back for decades.

In the Fifties, Powers and his firm even worked with a group of investors lead by Walt Disney to build a huge bowling complex in Denver. The investors held all of their planning meetings at Chasen's in Beverly Hills and Powers was delighted that he was invited. 

"All the great people were in this: Jack Benny and Bing Crosby and John Payne, a bunch of them. We built an 80-lane (center) and a full-sized Olympic swimming pool, under glass, in Denver. Walt wanted to put a wave machine in, but we couldn't figure out how to do it without it slopping over," Powers says.  

Although Powers says he has never considered himself an avid bowler, he did pick up the pastime when he was younger. He figured it was required if he was going to be building so many bowling centers. In fact, Powers and his firm -- Powers, Daly and DeRosa -- built so many bowling centers that today it's difficult for Powers to keep tabs on them all. 

These days Powers spends a lot of his time training Labradors. But at his home, there are still some reminders of his earlier life, when he was king of the bowling center. Like a 1958 issue of Life magazine with a full spread featuring Powers' Futurama and Willow Grove bowling centers. 

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