I remember the sounds — the collision of bowling balls with pins, the pins slamming against each other and the whoops of a bowler who managed a strike or a difficult split. It was the 1960s, and my friends and I, grade-schoolers at the time, spent summer days at the Oak Lanes Bowling Alley whenever we could scrape together enough money. Those were the days when you could get a refund for a coke bottle, a source of income for most kids, and we’d tote the bottles in paper sacks to the stores which would pay us a nickel for each bottle. It funded our bowling games and other activities important to a kid growing up in Dumas. It was common in those days to see us riding our bikes down the street, one arm around a sack full of bottles, headed to the store. It was payday, and the bowling alley or the Evelyn Theater awaited us.
Jukebox music wove through the bowling alley sounds. I can still hear Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs singing about a lecherous wolf lusting after Little Red Riding Hood. Scandalous lyrics that made 10- and 11-year-old boys giggle and pretend we knew more about life than we did. Hours after our money played out, we’d still be at the bowling alley, watching people play and listening to the jukebox, wishing we had a dime for another coke.
At that time, I didn’t know the building on the corner of Porter Avenue and 7th Street was hosting its second business. Years before it was a bowling alley, it was the Star Theater, and research revealed that when the Star opened about 80 years ago, it was state-of-the art. The Art Deco façade, still there, is evidence of the Star’s original glamour — perhaps not by Dallas’ standards, but it was good enough for a dusty Panhandle town.
But that’s all that remains of the building. Decades of neglect have reduced the building to a rotting hulk. There is nothing inside that hints of the building’s theater or bowling alley days. The roof is open to the sky, and rain and snow have flooded the inside, accelerating the decay. In a city where there are few buildings of architectural significance, the demise of the Star Theater/Oak Lanes Bowling Alley is a tragedy.
I recently spoke with City Manager Arbie Taylor about the building’s future. On Sept. 10, the city will hold a public forum at Amarillo College to discuss plans for Dumas Avenue. It’s possible TxDOT will cover the busy street with concrete, and the city wants to speak with the business owners who would be affected by the work. Should that plan be activated, the city is considering tearing down the Star Theater and turning that area into a parking lot.
I suggested to Arbie that the theater’s façade be saved. Tear down everything behind it, but save that wonderful Art Deco exterior. Restore it, set it ablaze with neon lights, and let it be a reminder of the jewel it once was. Let’s look at that façade in the light of its potential, and imagine what it could be. Imagine a parking lot without it. Now imagine one with it. Picture it at night glowing with neon. Saving the façade is doable, Taylor said, but we need people who care about the city’s architectural history and are willing to work to save it.
I didn’t know the building when it was the Star Theater, but I can’t drive by it without thinking of the great times I had bowling there. There were few places kids could go in a small town, and the bowling alley gave us a place to escape the hot streets during the summer, and, later, it was one of the places we took our dates. One of my friends met her future husband there.
Leslie Hall moved to Dumas from Floydada in 1974 when her dad took the manager’s job at the Piggly Wiggly, another business long gone, and fate put her in the lane next to David Noyes, Robert Singleton and Sid Melban. I had known all three of them since grade school.
“My two younger brothers and I didn’t know anyone in town, so we spent a lot of afternoons and evenings at the bowling alley,” Leslie said. “One night we bowled in the lane next to three teenage boys. I impressed them with my bowling prowess — I picked up two incredible splits thanks to a freakish streak of luck.”
Leslie said the boys tried to impress her by showing off. David must have done a good job of it because Leslie married him.
“When David and I had children of our own, we were too broke to do much of anything on the weekends, but bowling was a fun, affordable activity, and our kids were always welcome there.”
So how many more memories does that building protect? I would imagine thousands, and we can keep the Star Theater and the Oak Lanes Bowling Alley alive to be woven into more memories for generations to come. Instead of looking at the building as it is, let’s consider what its façade could look like restored. That façade is an important part of the city’s architectural history; its style, while simpler, is an example of the Art Deco we see in the courthouse and the junior high. It would be tragic to lose any of that history.
Before we tear all of the old Star Theater down, let’s look at the possibility of saving its façade. If its fate is the wrecking ball, it will live only in pictures and memories. The generations before us sought solace inside the theater from the grind of getting through each day of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. They escaped to the movies. The Star Theater was the well that nourished their psyches and gave them relief when life was harsh.
Today, it’s a tired, old building, but it deserves our attention and attempts to bring it back to life. Just the façade. It’s doable, and cities that honor their history are better suited to face their future. We need reminders of where we came from and what we pulled through. I see more than a decaying building. I see a warehouse of memories. I see a façade that can spotlight once again the best of Dumas’ fortitude.
The Star was a state-of-the-art theater when it was built 80 years ago. The Powell family decided Dumas was worth the investment when they spent the money to build it. I say Dumas is still worth the investment, and the theater’s façade should be saved and restored.