Castaways' demise means show's over for 'Boat' By Jeff Wolf

    02/20/06

    United States

    Republished courtesy of Las Vegas Review-Journal (February 8, 2004)

    Editor's note: The Castaways Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev., formerly known as Showboat which housed the biggest bowling alley in the United States with 106 lanes was demolished on Wednesday, January 11, 2006. Click here to read Frenchy Letourneau's report.


    CastawaysDemise02.jpg The Jan. 29 closure of the Castaways sent local bowlers scrambling to move their leagues and tournaments to other area centers. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

    An empty bowling center has a chilling effect on visitors.

    The sounds of high-speed collisions of balls into pins, rattling parts on pinsetters and the din of bowlers' chit-chat are magnified in the cavernous buildings.

    Without the cacophony, the buildings are more like warehouses.

    Or in the case of the Castaways bowling center, long known as the Showboat, today it must be like walking into a mausoleum.

    The 106-lane center on Fremont Street was closed along with the rest of the 49-year-old hotel-casino on Jan. 29 when a creditor notified owner VSS Enterprises it was collecting collateral used to back a mortgage loan.

    Ingloriously, the end had come for another Las Vegas landmark -- one with a rich sports history.

    Besides costing 800 employees their jobs and leaving hundreds of visitors without rooms, the closure sent several thousand bowlers scurrying to find homes for their leagues and tournaments.

    But many local bowlers weren't surprised about the loss of one of their sport's most treasured facilities, the longtime site of the Showboat Invitational on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour.

    "For the last year or so, a lot of us were calling it `The Casket,' " said Frenchy Letourneau, publisher of Southern Nevada's "Tenpin Alley" newspaper and longtime bowler.

    The demise of the Showboat property began in the late 1980s when bigger resorts began sprouting on Las Vegas Boulevard, owners opened a new hotel-resort in Atlantic City and the neighborhood along Fremont Street began to decline.

    Harrah's Entertainment Inc. bought the property from the original owners in 1998 and sold it two years later to VSS, which rechristened the Showboat Hotel, Casino and Bowling Center as the Castaways.

    "When they took away the Showboat name, the flavor and the feeling you got when you were there was just not the same," Letourneau said.

    "It was no longer a recognizable landmark; just another hotel-casino with a bowling center."

    Clearly the Castaways' legacy as a bowling mecca existed only because of what had been accomplished under the 20-foot letters that spelled Showboat.

    Letourneau's sentiments resonate among longtime bowlers and certainly those 50 and older across the country who relished weekly live telecasts of PBA Tour events during bowling's heyday of the 1960s and '70s.

    CastawaysDemise03.jpg

    Top PBA players such as the late Earl Anthony, shown in 1997, made annual appearances at the Showboat and Castaways bowling center for four decades. Photo by Clint Karlsen.

    Long gone are the days when the final Round of PBA events dominated their Saturday afternoon time slot on ABC, with Chris Schenkel hosting. None of those events seemed to catch the nation's interest more than the January stops at the 'Boat, as its customers often called it.

    "ABC always said the Showboat was their highest-rated telecast. It was a big thing," said Jeannette Robinson, 75, who spent 21 years as the Showboat's teaching pro before moving to the Orleans Bowling Center in a similar capacity in the late 1990s.

    "Bowling is what made the place successful," she said. "The Showboat would have gone down the tubes much sooner without the bowling center."

    Robinson, who owns three Professional Women's Bowling Association titles and maintains a 198 average, lets her love for the Showboat shine while remaining loyal to her current bowling home.

    The member of seven bowling halls of fame recalls what finally forced her to leave the Showboat.

    "The day I heard they were going to remove 70 lanes and put in an Olympic swimming pool was the day I knew it was time to leave," she said. "They had no clue how important bowling was there."

    Though the pool was never added, Harrah's management allowed the PBA to move across town to The Orleans in 2000, ending a 40-year run at the Showboat.

    In the early 1980s, the PBA's television ratings began a steady decline and bowling in general was losing participants to other recreational pursuits.

    Finally, the PBA lost its weekly spot on ABC Sports in 1997, and the Showboat's Tour event lost some of its luster when it was moved from its traditional winter date to June in 1998 and '99.

    CastawaysDemise01.jpg

    In the 1997 PBA Showboat Invitational, Walter Ray Williams Jr., left, drops to his knees after blowing a lead, while Parker Bohn III hits the floor in shock. Photo by Clint Karlsen.

    The Tour event remained at The Orleans through 2002, and returned to the Castaways last year, but was not brought back for 2004, marking the first year since 1959 the PBA's best didn't make a stop in Las Vegas. It was the longest run for a city to host a major PBA event.

    All that remains are memories of pro bowling's glory days at the Showboat, and reflections back to that era during PBA Senior Masters in April at the Suncoast.

    "The memory is the televised events ... that national television was there for more than 40 years," Letourneau said.

    "The bowlers themselves looked forward to that tournament because it had a built-in heritage, history. When you told someone you won the Showboat, it was almost like winning a major. It paid more than most tournaments."

    And for decades the winner's share was paid in silver dollars loaded into wheelbarrows rolled onto the lane approaches, with showgirls showing the way.

    That likely was the idea of the late Joe Kelley, who died Jan. 7 at 93. He opened the Showboat in 1954 and ran it for 34 years. Twenty-two days after Kelley's death, his old hotel-casino was closed.

    "It would have hurt him, just like it hurts me," Robinson said. "It hurts every time we talk about it and that's been the discussion of the week."

    The Showboat's importance in bowling history was best stated by Lonnie Walicek after he won the last PBA tournament in the same center where he won two national collegiate titles with Wichita State. He called the Showboat bowling's "cathedral."

    "When I was coming here year after year as an amateur, I never thought my first professional victory would be in this building," he told the Review-Journal on Jan. 23, 2003.

    Walicek joined the likes bowling hall-of-famers Dick Weber, Harry Smith, Mark Roth, Don Johnson and Carmen Salvino as Showboat PBA winners.

    Sadly, Walicek has the dubious honor of being the 'Boat's last champion.