Strikes, splits and lots of memories

ELKHART — To Randy Grose, the bright pink bowling alley on Middlebury Street is The House That Grose Built.

Posted on Oct. 2, 2011 at 1:00 a.m.

ELKHART — To Randy Grose, the bright pink bowling alley on Middlebury Street is The House That Grose Built.

Randy was in elementary school when his father, the late Ronald Grose, and his business partners built and opened Rainbo Lanes Bowling Alley. He, his twin brother Rick, his older brothers Tom and Roger, and his sisters, Cynthia, Rachel and Melissa, all bowled and did chores at the business while they were growing up.

The inspiration for the slogan came after his father took him to watch a spring training camp in Daytona during one of the family’s many trips to Florida. Randy has loved baseball ever since, and just as Yankee Stadium was dubbed The House That Ruth Built, he similarly dubbed Rainbo.

The bowling alley was mostly in the middle of farm fields when it was built, but people made the drive and Rainbo quickly became a popular spot to bowl, shoot pool and have a beer. Eventually it was open around the clock every day of the week, with bowling leagues starting as late as 9 p.m. and midnight, and the pool room alive through the early morning hours.

“Back in the ’70s, that’s when Rainbo was a happening place,” Rick said. “It was great when you had all the lanes going. It was loud.”

Time moved on, the hours of operation were reduced from 24 and the Grose children followed different opportunities away from the bowling alley. With no family member interested in the business, their father signed a land contract with Rainbo’s long-time manager Tom Feldman and his relatives.

A series financial setbacks brought the operation back to the Groses and they have decided to auction it. Everything — the building, the land and all the equipment inside — is scheduled to go to the highest bidder Oct. 18.

“I’d like to see somebody come in and keep it open and make a go of it,” Tom said. “I think none of the family members want to see it torn down. All want to see it remain open because it is our father’s legacy.”

That legacy took root as the bowling alley was being built. The rocks in sections of the façade and rimming the parking lot were direct from their father’s other business, R. Grose Excavating of Elkhart. Different sizes and colors of stones were hauled from the gravel pit just across Middlebury Street and dropped at the construction site.

Originally, Rainbo was 12 wooden lanes and a snack bar. Friday and Saturday nights, when the business was still in its infancy, the Groses’ mom and dad worked the counter and ran the place. Tom remembers their mother taking a basket of clean laundry and setting an ironing board in the office so she could press the family’s clothes while helping customers.

The children were also enlisted to help. Randy and his brothers have memories of having to wash the bowling pins and patch their cracks and gouges. On school nights, they sat behind the lanes and dislodged any ball that became stuck. Even when the equipment was running smoothly, they could not use the time to do homework.

“It was so incredibly loud behind the machines, you couldn’t think,” Randy explained.

The business grew, physically, with their father adding eight synthetic lanes and a pool room. He also got the three-way liquor license (that allows for beer, wine, liquor and carry-out) from the former Coney Island restaurant in downtown Elkhart and turned the snack bar into a full restaurant and bar.

That’s when business really began to hop. Fridays brought a crush of workers from the neighboring trailer factories, coming to cash their paychecks, eat lunch and grab a few cold ones. Papa Grose would prepare for the onslaught by going to the bank and getting thousands of dollars so he would have enough money to cash all the checks, Tom said.

The beer was an attraction but so was the food, especially the beef sandwiches, Randy said. Their father would season and cook three or four roasts at a time, and through the week meat would be brought out, bathed in simmering broth and, when an order came, sliced, laid on a bun and dressed with condiments.

Some people came to Rainbo just to eat, he said. Others would pop in at lunch and get five or six sandwiches to go.

Their father arrived at the bowling alley about 6 a.m., or a little before, six days a week. He would pay the bills and handle the paperwork in the morning hours and then in the afternoon, go into the bar to chat with whoever was there. Tom remembers their dad as always engaging people in conversation, always listening and always garnering ideas for things to try at Rainbo.

One thing all the Grose children remember is their father’s refusal to block the lanes, no matter how many pleas and complaints he received.

“He refused to cater to the ‘hotshots’ who tried to tell him how to block the lanes so they would score better,” Melissa said in an email. “That’s probably part of the reason why we didn’t have a perfect game for so many years. All people had an equal chance of doing well if they had the skills.”

Blocking is the term used to describe how the oil can be spread onto the lanes to create pathways that, once a bowler figures out, can use to his advantage.

Their family patriarch also did not pay much attention to what Randy called, the “eye pollution letters.”

The Rainbo Lanes exterior has been painted many colors, from the original gray to a forest green to a vanilla with burgundy accents. Then, several family members believe, their father chose a color that mimicked the festive hues he saw on buildings in Florida.

He hired a single painter who spent a summer using a single roller brush to slather on the striking pink the bowling alley remains today, Randy recalled. Soon the letters started coming with writers dismayed by the color and characterizing it as pollution.

Their father may have made people mad with some of the things he did, but Cynthia has many stories of him being generous. He offered to let his employees stay at his condo in Florida, cooked big breakfasts in the mornings for his employees, found ways to help handicapped children bowl and often gave people a reason to smile.

“I have a lot of good memories that I’m just going to hold on to,” she said.

Roger, who now lives in California, has memories too and considers himself lucky to have grown up in a family that owned a bowling alley. He worked overnight and still vividly remembers the dimly lit pool room filled with low murmuring interrupted occasionally by applause for a skillful shot.

“The people who worked at Rainbo and the people, or characters, that came in, some of whom became regulars, were the life of the lanes,” Roger wrote in an email.

People who played pool at the bowling alley during the a.m. hours were a rougher crowd, Rick said, recalling the nights he worked the counter. To keep order, their father hired bouncers and off-duty police officers.

Sometimes the bowlers caused trouble. One day, Rick saw a very large man hoist a ball over his head and throw it down the lane. That was the way he bowled, the man bellowed when Rick confronted him. So Rick asked him to leave, a little more bellowing insued but then the man left peacefully.

A smile crosses Rick’s face at the memory.

Rainbo Lanes has a million stories, formed from the bowlers, the pool players, the employees, the friends and all the games.

“It’ll always be The House That Grose Built,” Randy said, thinking about the upcoming auction, “but it’ll never be the same.”

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