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Bowling family back at Palace alleys

Jordan Magaziner Steinfeld
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Larry Finger, Arlene Nathan, Nicole Gibson, Natalie Reichman, Evan Gibson (in back), Sydney Reichman, Eliya Gibson, and Sadie Reichman

UP THEIR ALLEY Top left: Family members, including (from left) Larry Finger, Arlene Nathan, Nicole Gibson, Natalie Reichman, Evan Gibson (in back), Sydney Reichman, Eliya Gibson, and Sadie Reichman (in front), went to the new Palace Social and revisited bowling memories. (Photo: Jenna Mazzoccoli)

It was May 1998 around 2 a.m. when Suzie (Finger) Daum realized she was experiencing contractions. Later that morning, she went to her doctor, who said her baby would arrive sometime that weekend but not quite yet. Oldest son Josh was 3 at the time, eagerly awaiting a baby sister.

They had to pass the time somehow – so Suzie, husband Steve, and Josh went bowling. 

Steve Daum, Josh Daum

Steve Daum teaches son Josh, a toddler at the time, how to bowl at Palace Bowling Lanes. This photo was taken by mom Suzie the day Suzie went into labor with daughter Jenni.

Suzie timed her contractions to the sounds of bowling pins colliding in the background, and Jenni was born that night. 

It seems fitting that the Daum family spent that day at Palace Bowling Lanes. It was a place where Suzie had spent much of her childhood.

“Bowling was just a part of our family life,” she says.

Her mom, Nancy Finger, went bowling every Monday night. Her dad, Lawrence “Larry” Finger, bowled every Tuesday night. Suzie, along with cousin Teri (Silverman) Gerber, bowled Saturday mornings. Suzie remembers when she and Teri were young, they were in a league called the Bantam Earlybirds since they met around 9 in the morning, and then they moved up to the Junior Strikes and Spares. 

Nancy Finger, Gloria Katz, Fran Ray

Bowling has long been part of the Pepper/Finger family. Esther Pepper was ranked in the top 10 women bowlers in Houston and was in competitive leagues with daughter Gloria (Pepper) Katz and relative and friend Nancy Finger. Nancy (far left) and Esther (middle) represented Palace Bowling Lanes in a 1971 state competition. 

“My family was serious in the bowling scene,” she says. Her parents owned their own bowling balls, and when she received a ball of her own as a birthday gift, it was a big deal, she says. Growing up, friends’ birthday parties and team sports parties were often held at Palace Bowling.  

“And you didn’t even say ‘Palace.’ You just said you were going to ‘the bowling alley,’” Suzie says. “We just said ‘the bowling alley’ because everyone knew that was the plan. That was our neighborhood bowling alley.” 

 

When Palace Bowling Lanes closed in 2016, it felt to many like the end of an era. For multiple generations, it had been the setting for countless memories. The bowling alley was the backdrop to family outings, birthday parties, youth-group programs, teen hangouts, first dates.

The disappointment of a gutter ball. The triumph of a strike. Those soft, salty French fries.  

Palace Social

Palace Social, which opened this month, has eight bowling lanes (instead of the previous 44), plus a restaurant, virtual-reality center, arcade, and other games. (Photo: Barry Fantich)

So the recent debut of Palace Social – a nostalgic reimagining of the former beloved bowling alley at the same location (on Bellaire Boulevard inside Loop 610, between the City of Bellaire and West University) – has brought back happy memories. The property, which had been operated by the Lillard family for about 45 years prior to being sold in 2015, has been transformed into a mixed-use development called Southside Commons.

The building now has a restaurant, Dish Society, on the left side and medical/retail offices on the second floor. Palace Social sits in the center. Large glass windows scale the exterior with thick stripes in a retro color scheme. Walking through the doors evokes a sense of nostalgia for many, although just about everything inside is new. 

Emma Crabbe

Bartender Emma Crabbe is the only current staff member who also worked at the old Palace Bowling Lanes. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz)

“It’s so bright and airy,” says bartender Emma Crabbe, who worked at Palace Bowling Lanes from 2000 until it closed in 2016. Emma is the only current staff member who used to work at the old Palace Bowling Lanes, but other employees have vivid memories set at the iconic bowling alley over the years. Palace Social CEO Billy Forney recalls bowling there, too.

In this “fancy” reincarnation, Emma says, there are more things to do. It’s not the same vibe, though she’s glad the camaraderie among employees today is friendly, as it was back then. Emma doesn’t miss the smell of cigarette smoke permeating the multi-colored carpeted floors. But she does miss the league bowlers.

“They were so competitive. You could always tell who was throwing a perfect or near-perfect game. People would crowd around them. That was fun to see,” she says. In particular, she recalls a Sunday league from the Montrose area whose members were always entertaining. 

Larry Finger

Larry Finger, almost 85, bowled for decades and is still a talented bowler today. (Photo: Jenna Mazzoccoli)

Emma knew the new version would be a different experience than what she was used to, but it was “too tempting” not to return, she says. “It’s fun to work at places like this.” 

The original Palace Lanes had 44 bowling lanes, whereas now there are eight. The bones of the building remain the same, including the steel pillars and beams, but everything else was gutted.

The revamped concept has a modern rustic feel with retro-chic components, such as the color scheme – blues, yellows, oranges, and pinks. On the wall next to the shoe-rental counter are bowling balls that rolled down the alleys of the original Palace. Vintage shoes (they aren’t from the original Palace but look like they could’ve been) line a wall in the lobby. 

Burger

Palace Social’s menu offers upscale comfort-food dishes, such as a gourmet burger, a nod to the past. (Photo: Barry Fantich)

Those looking for the French fries or tater tots of yesterday won’t find those exact dishes today, but there's upscale comfort food, including burgers, flatbread pizzas, and Frito pie, plus craft cocktails and beer and wine on tap in the 159-seat restaurant and lounge. Initially open for dinner, the restaurant will eventually offer lunch and brunch. In addition to the eight bowling lanes, there’s an arcade, esports lounge, virtual-reality center, ride experience, and multi-sport simulator bays (including a golf course), plus three event rooms (think karaoke parties). 

There likely won’t be bowling leagues, and the lanes might not attract cutthroat bowlers. But the new Palace is a place to make new memories across the generations. 

 

Thinking back on the original Palace Lanes that once stood here, Suzie describes a scene out of a classic ’50s or ’60s film: women in bouffant hairdos, wearing matching bowling team shirts; men dressed in long pants and their matching bowling shirts; kids clamoring for a greasy burger – “the best burgers in town,” Suzie says. 

Rusty Silverman

Rusty Silverman was a fierce competitor in leagues at Palace Bowling Lanes. He still has one of his patches, bowling ball, and bowling shirt. 

Suzie’s cousin, Rusty Silverman, also has fond memories of growing up at the bowling alley along with his sister, Teri. As a kid, around 7 or 8 years old, Rusty would often go with his grandmother, Esther Pepper. He was a gifted bowler right from the start, and Esther loved to show him off to her friends in her bowling league. 

Rusty remembers the anticipatory thrill of improving his score, of winning patches and trophies. And besides the competitive game, it was a place to hang out with friends. Parents would drop off their kids, who would bowl, play on the pinball machines, eat lunch, chat. And later in the teenage years, it was a “good excuse,” says Rusty – parents thought their kids were at the bowling alley.  

Nancy Finger, Gloria Katz, Fran Ray

Nancy (far left), Gloria (second from right) and Fran (far right) after a 1970s tournament.

Esther competitively bowled up until her mid-60s when her knee started to bother her. It was years later that husband Harry – known to his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren as Papa – became a bowler too. 

A natural athlete, Harry was honored for cycling in the Ronnie Arrow Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. He was one of the most decorated Senior Olympians in the country, winning numerous gold medals in decathlon while in his 70s and cycling in his 80s and 90s. But it was only when Larry Finger, his nephew and godson, and Barbara Dokell invited him to join their senior bowling league that Harry became serious about the game. He was 98 at the time. 

Larry, who will soon celebrate 85, recalls visiting his aunt Esther in the hospital when Harry informed her that he’d joined the bowling league. Her response? “You old b------ . . . that’s my game!” 

Esther Pepper

Esther (second from right) after a 1953 tournament. Lifelong friend Gertie Black (second from left) bowled for years with Esther. 

For many years, Esther had been an avid bowler. Daughter Arlene Nathan says her mom frequently won state tournaments; at one time, Esther was among the top 10 women bowlers in Houston. It was her game. And it wasn’t an easy one. Back then, there were heftier, wooden bowling pins and heavy 16-pound balls – they didn’t have lighter-weight bowling balls, recalls Arlene. 

Growing up, Arlene spent a lot of time in the bowling alley but, although she was athletic and played multiple sports, bowling wasn’t her thing. “I got schlepped to the bowling alley my whole life, it seemed like,” she says, remembering doing her homework while her mom bowled. And then there’s the matter of manicures. “Bowling and nails don’t mix,” she says, grinning.

Gloria Katz, Nancy Finger,

Gloria (second from left) and Nancy (far right) at a '68 tournament in San Antonio. 

Larry’s wife, Nancy, grew up in Denver and, when she moved to Houston, she didn’t know anyone. So, Esther decided to take her under her wing. Larry remembers, “Esther asked Nancy, ‘What do you like to do?’ and the first thing she said was bowling. (In fact, Larry and Nancy first met at a college bowling-league event.) And the rest was history.”

Evan Gibson, Eliya Gibson, Sydney Reichman, Sadie Reichman,

Evan and Eliya Gibson and Sydney and Sadie Reichman (pictured, from left) are among the newest generation in the extended Pepper family to embrace bowling. Not pictured: Alec Gibson. (Photo: Jenna Mazzoccoli) 

Soon after, Esther and Nancy were bowling partners along with Esther’s daughter, Gloria (Pepper) Katz. The trio played in scratch leagues, a competitive bowling format in which a team is scored based on their pin count, disregarding handicap. The atmosphere was “blood and guts...,” Larry says. “[League members] would look at you with hatred if you miss[ed] a spare.” 

Bowling truly was Esther’s thing for many years, as it was with both Nancy, who passed away in 1992, and Gloria, who passed away last year. “I think [dad Harry] stayed away from it [purposely] and took it up again later in life when she [Esther] was gone,” Arlene says.

Esther passed away in 2006. And, perhaps partially to stay connected to his late wife, Harry kept on bowling – and rolling strikes – until he was about 103. 

Harry Pepper (known as “Papa” to his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and many nieces, nephews, and pseudo-grandchildren) was an impressive bowler, hitting strikes up to age 103. Nephew Steve Palmer (narrating) went to Palace Bowling Lanes about twice a week to watch his uncle Harry bowl. (Video courtesy of Steve Palmer)

At Palace Lanes and in the wider community, Harry was something of a legend. “Papa was shooting 200-plus games at over 100 years old,” Rusty recalls. “It’s remarkable. There’s no doubt about it.”

The charming Harry passed away in 2015 at the age of 104. He was a Life Member and volunteer with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for 66 years, serving as an original member of the Calf Scramble Committee. At age 100, he rode in the show’s downtown Rodeo Parade. Harry had an extraordinary zest for life. 

“When Papa passed away, we wanted to celebrate his life. We didn’t want to remember his death,” says granddaughter Nicole Gibson. “We celebrate with the kids on his birthday by going bowling.” 

Natalie Reichman, Sydney Reichman, Sadie Reichman,

Natalie Reichman, Eliya Gibson, and Sydney Reichman are all smiles, wearing brand-new bowling shoes in a place that brings back lots of memories. (Photo: Jenna Mazzoccoli) 

Nicole, along with husband George and kids Alec, Evan, and Eliya Gibson, look forward to celebrating Harry’s birthday at Palace once again this year. 

“We’ve always loved to bowl. The whole family – every generation – has loved it. Yeah, it’s a part of who we are at this point,” Nicole says, as she watches her family bowl on the new lanes. Her sister, Natalie, gets a strike, and everyone cheers. Just like old times.

  • Wall of bowling balls

    Palace Social has a modern rustic feel with retro-chic components. This "Instagram-worthy" wall greets guests as they walk in past the lobby. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz) 

  • Palace sign

    Palace Social is a nostalgic reimagining of the former beloved bowling alley at the same location (on Bellaire Boulevard inside Loop 610, between the City of Bellaire and West University). The property has been transformed into a mixed-use development called Southside Commons. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz)

  • Ball

    On the wall next to the shoe-rental counter at Palace Social are bowling balls that rolled down the alleys of Palace Bowling Lanes. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz)

  • Vintage shoes

    Vintage shoes (they aren’t from Palace Bowling but look like they could’ve been) line a wall in the Palace Social lobby. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz)

  • Wall of bowling balls
  • Palace sign
  • Ball
  • Vintage shoes

Wall of bowling balls

Palace Social has a modern rustic feel with retro-chic components. This "Instagram-worthy" wall greets guests as they walk in past the lobby. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz) 

Palace sign

Palace Social is a nostalgic reimagining of the former beloved bowling alley at the same location (on Bellaire Boulevard inside Loop 610, between the City of Bellaire and West University). The property has been transformed into a mixed-use development called Southside Commons. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz)

Ball

On the wall next to the shoe-rental counter at Palace Social are bowling balls that rolled down the alleys of Palace Bowling Lanes. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz)

Vintage shoes

Vintage shoes (they aren’t from Palace Bowling but look like they could’ve been) line a wall in the Palace Social lobby. (Photo: Daniel Ortiz)

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