66 Through St. Louis: Crestwood Bowl
This is the seventh in a series of posts highlighting Route 66 stops of interest through St. Louis. We encourage you to learn more about their history and then check them out in person. Even better, snap some photos and share them with us on Twitter and Instagram by using #ShowMe66 and tagging @mohistorymuseum.
Let’s be honest: For most people, bowling falls into the just-for-kicks category, which makes it feel right at home on Route 66. These days bowling is a hobby at best, something to break up a long family road trip, an activity to do when family visits from out of town, or a relaxing way to spend a weekend night. If you were to ask most people about bowling’s place in the professional-sports world, they might laugh or shrug before readily admitting that bowling is no baseball or football, games with widely accepted greats and unmatched naturals.
But there was a time in the not-so-distant past when bowlers were the giants of the sports world, household names who could expect their salary to double or even triple that of the most valuable player in the NFL or MLB. There was a moment in American history when a bowler became the first athlete in any sport to receive a $1 million dollar endorsement. Yes indeed, bowling was once the very serious business of icons akin to rock stars, and Crestwood Bowl on Route 66 in St. Louis County is tied directly to that history.
During the mid-20th century, bowling was racking up huge new levels of popularity. It had been heavily promoted by the U.S. Air Force as an “everyman’s game” during World War II because it was both easy to learn and took little natural talent to enjoy. By 1945 bowling was already a billion-dollar industry. In the mid-1950s, broadcast companies discovered a huge market in televised professional bowling, with viewers across the country tuning in to watch the pins fall on Saturday afternoons.
At the same time, breweries were scrambling to find new methods of advertising. Most of their clientele now owned a fridge and a TV, which meant the breweries needed avenues for reaching these armchair-bound drinkers. They saw televised bowling as a perfect way to get their product in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers. Beyond that, many of those watching probably bowled themselves, making them participants in a leisure sport where beer could be easily consumed while you played!
Breweries began sponsoring teams through the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America and the Professional Bowlers Association. They also recruited top stars to face off in televised events. These so-called beer teams were made up of the best bowlers in the world—to qualify for the PBA’s televised competitions, you had to carry an average of 200+ points for at least two consecutive years. Pabst, Hamm’s, Stroh’s, Meister Brau, and Falstaff all sponsored teams, but the most famous was Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser Bowling Team. (You can check out an early 1960s promotional video of the team here.)
The Budweiser team included Don Carter and Dick Weber, who became professional bowling’s most widely known superstars and tireless promoters of the sport. Carter was the aforementioned first athlete to receive a $1 million dollar endorsement deal, from Ebonite Bowling Balls no less, and Weber was chosen as National Bowler of the Year three times during his first decade as a professional. Along with teammates Tom Hennessey, Pat Patterson, and Ray Bluth, Carter and Weber broke the five-man league record in 1958 with 3,858 pins. Their record would stand for almost 40 years.
At the height of the sport’s fame, many professional bowlers began opening their own bowling alleys. Budweiser team members Weber and Patterson, along with fellow professional bowler Rich Volling, opened Crestwood Bowl along Route 66 in 1958. They thought about calling their new alley Weber-Patterson Lanes but decided against it, not wanting to disappoint Route 66 tourists who might expect to see them there.
Crestwood Bowl offered even the youngest locals a place to work on their game: Weber estimated that 600 children took annual bowling classes there in the mid-1960s. It also promised travelers a relaxing, fun evening, likely just down the highway from their roadside motel. Crestwood Bowl even had a nursery so mothers and fathers could practice their spins with unbroken concentration.
By the early 1970s, America’s intense fascination with bowling was beginning to simmer down, and the beer teams had all faded. Weber and Patterson built new bowling lanes around St. Louis and transferred all of their Crestwood Bowl ownership to Volling’s mother, Hattie Volling. Her nephew, Ray Bluth, also a member of the famous Budweiser team, became Crestwood Bowl’s owner in 1973; he continues to operate it today with his son, Mike Bluth.
Crestwood Bowl’s neon sign, with a ball and pin advertising the alley’s 24 lanes and cocktail lounge, is the original one put up beside Route 66 in 1958. The famous sign went dark in 2009, but with the help of a grant from the National Park Service was completely restored and relit by the Route 66 Association of Missouri’s Neon Heritage Preservation Committee in 2012. It’s one of just a few signs that have been designated as official county landmarks by the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission.
—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian