by Fred Eisenhammer
WINNETKA – In 1989, the Ladies Pro Bowlers Tour made a stop at Canoga Park Bowl for one of its national tournaments. “I remember waking up that morning and looking out in the yard and it was all white,” says Mike Willis, who was running the tournament. It was snow. Snow in California!
“I’ve been here [California] all my life,” says
Willis, the general manager at Winnetka Bowl, formerly called Canoga Park Bowl. “I hadn’t seen that before and I haven’t seen that since.”
The February snow was so severe that some bowlers who were staying in the Santa Clarita Valley weren’t able to make it down for the $30,000 Canoga Park Classic semifinals.
“It was really ironic,” says Willis, born in North Hollywood. “They had come here for a pro tournament – and it snows!”
Santa Clarita Valley was hit so hard that one spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that the area was “basically sealed off” from the three to five inches of snow. Other Los Angeles-area communities, such as Westlake Village, Porter Ranch, Calabasas, Simi Valley and Tarzana, also were pelted with up to five inches of snow before it started to melt.
As for the tournament, it lived up to its billing as a classic. Six women made the stepladder finals and all the matches were down-to-the-wire affairs. Hometown favorite Robin Romeo, then of Van Nuys, turned in a virtuoso performance to win the championship, winning all three of her stepladder matches. Romeo finished in a tie with top-seeded Rene Fleming in the title match at 229 and prevailed in a two-frame roll-off to claim the top prize of $5,000.
Willis, in his 39th year at Winnetka Bowl, has seen a lot during his Winnetka Bowl tenure. He’s dealt with recreational and party bowlers, tournaments, leagues and special events and he remains as even-keel as ever. He’s been the steadying, behind-the-scenes force at Winnetka Bowl – someone bowlers and management can count on. The 32-lane center opened in 1957 and is one of the very oldest in the Los Angeles area. Until a few years ago, it was one of the few centers to be open 24 hours a day.
When the bowling house was open in the wee hours, celebrities such as Eddie Murphy, Bret Saberhagen, Gladys Knight and Will Smith were able to slip into the center and enjoy a modicum of privacy. All the time, Willis and his assistants were making things as pleasant as possible for those VIPs. “Eddie Murphy would call,” Willis recalls, “and he would say, ‘We’re going to have a group come.’ We had him park his limo in the back and he would bowl with his group down in the corner. He was a regular for a while.”
Generally, Willis dedicates himself to making the everyday bowler enjoy a positive experience – whether it’s league bowlers or birthday-party bowlers or special-events/ tournament bowlers. It’s not an easy undertaking and it requires a smart, savvy and stabilizing presence. “I wouldn’t want his job for all the money in the world.” laughs Johnnie Englehart, a bowling icon at Winnetka Bowl. “It’s never their [bowlers’] fault.” Willis, for his part, takes a more generous view of bowlers’ complaints and foibles. “Most people are pretty cool,” he says.
Willis has organized plenty of memorable events at the bowling center and he ranks the 2015 “Win a Honda” tournament as among the top ones. The event ended with a thrilling stepladder final in which Mark Alvarino overcame top-seeded Kelly Manuel to claim a new 2015 Honda Civic. The tournament spanned about 14 months and attracted bowlers from all across the Los Angeles area. “That definitely was one of the most memorable events we’ve had here,” Willis says. “We never gave [away] anything close to that. It was definitely big – and a great finals match. There was a lot of buzz when we went down to the final stages. “Even though the tournament was long, it was still fun with no controversy. And everyone had a good time.”
Winnetka Bowl remains a bowling magnet. Willis says the center has enjoyed a “resurgence” in league bowlers. The closing of Mission Hills Bowl in 2015 and AMF Woodlake Lanes’ focus on party bowlers have played a part in that increase, Willis says. There are about 1,100 league bowlers at Winnetka Bowl, up from a recent low of 750. At its peak, Winnetka Bowl had “1,600 to 1,700” league participants back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “Business is pretty good right now,” he says.
Asked his opinion about the state of bowling, Willis says, “I think it’s still healthy. We know leagues are diminishing, but there’s a market there.” He adds that with the party and family bowlers, good times continue to roll at the center. As for his future as the bowling center’s general manager, the 61-year-old Willis says: “As long as I’m still breathing and they keep me, I’ll stick around.”