Leland Lanes holds more than 50 years of history, memories
Lon McMahan watched and waited for as long as he could, staring in awe out the glass door at what was heading toward him before taking cover around the corner where his three co-workers already stood.
When he returned to that same spot, staring out the same glass door moments later, what he had previously had seen was no longer there, but what it left behind was clear in more ways than one.
“Thirty seconds maybe? 45 seconds?” McMahan said. “It was deadly quiet. It was all over with. When we walked and looked around the corner and it looked like somebody dropped a bomb out there. It was a mess.”
The date was April 27, 2011. An EF4 tornado had just passed overhead McMahan, Trish Hannah and two teenage female employees at Leland Lanes, a bowling alley in the Alberta City neighborhood of Tuscaloosa on the east end of town.
Much of Tuscaloosa, particularly Alberta, was devastated almost instantaneously.
Leland Lanes, built and in operation since 1960, was one of the lucky businesses, remaining virtually unscathed.
In it, the two longest-serving employees, McMahan, the then 30-year maintenance supervisor, and Hannah, the assistant general manager for 26 years and the general manager since 2003, along with two teenage female employees, were spared.
With them, and the building itself, survived memories that date back to more than half a century ago.
Alvin Ratliff has known Leland Lanes inside and out since 1966, his senior year of high school when his father, Leon, an avid bowler, bought the center after he was laid off from his job as a chemist at a research laboratory in town.
Named after Leland Shopping Center already in existence on the other side of the train tracks, Leland Lanes had been bankrupt three times under the ownership of three different corporations in its six previous years of existence. Leon wasn’t about to become the fourth victim.
“It was a hard road to hold there for a while, he almost went bust himself,” said Alvin Ratliff, who took over as owner in 2003 when Leon passed away.
In 1968, when bowling business was slow, they removed and replaced the first eight lanes with a roller rink.
“That saved the business,” Ratliff said.
It did not matter when a new roller rink came to town years later, taking almost all the skate business away. By that time, bowling had picked back up and a full-time transition back to the sport, with lanes one through eight reinstalled, was seamless.
But when a brand new bowling center opened not long after by the same man who owned the roller rink, Leland Lanes, in need of an upgrade, was in trouble.
“It was a dump,” Ratliff said. “This place was pretty nasty. Dad wouldn’t spend a dime.”
When it became increasingly obvious that business was leaving in droves, Ratliff, then the general manager at Leland Lanes since he began working full time in 1973, finally broke through to his father.
“He cut me loose and asked me how much would it cost to be competitive. I said, ‘half a million.’ He just said, ‘Go ahead,’” Ratliff said.
Leon had strategically placed enough money in reserve over the years dating back to the skate business days to afford remodeling the facility in 1982-83, with many of the upgrades still in place and functioning today.
Plenty of other bowling alleys in and around Tuscaloosa came and went over the years, including Bama Lanes (where Jupiter Bar now exists), a four-lane house at Stillman College and two lanes at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center.
Yet Leland Lanes persevered.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Ratliff said.
With as long as Leland Lanes has now existed, its resume understandably extends further back than most bowling alleys.
Ratliff still remembers that night in 1977 when a regular named Doug Howell bowled the first perfect game in the building’s history.
“It was pretty crazy,” Ratliff said. “The place had been open for 17 years and we hadn’t had one.”
Now they happen often with the most recent one taking place in a Tuesday night league at the start of the month.
For a time, another common occurrence was Joe Namath, the legendary Alabama and New York Jets quarterback, who, in the 1970s, would close up his restaurant, Bachelors III, and bring some friends over to bowl on either “lanes 19 or 20.”
At least on one particular night, Ratliff remembers holding the crowds back to give Namath and his entourage their privacy.
“I guess he should have brought his own bodyguard, but I didn’t want him being annoyed in my business,” Ratliff recalls with a smile.
But what Ratliff calls the “craziest” thing in Leland’s history happened in only the second year that his father took over as owner.
For reasons he can no longer remember, the 1967 Miss Alabama USA pageant was held at Leland Lanes. Sylvia Hitchcock, a student at The University of Alabama, won the competition with Ratliff there to witness it all. Later that same year, Hitchcock was crowned Miss USA and Miss Universe.
“And it all started right here,” Ratliff said, letting out a hearty laugh. “That was a hoot.”
After the storm
For three straight nights after April 27, 2011, McMahan and Hannah stayed at Leland Lanes, able to leave and walk home if need be but unable to for the business’ safety. (Ratliff was not at Leland Lanes on the day of the storm. He was out of the tornado’s direct path at his home on Lake Tuscaloosa.)
Within “15 minutes” after the tornado passed by, looting was already rampant all around them. At the decimated Leland Shopping Center, people carried out big screen TVs and computers. At Regions Bank, others walked straight through the blown out glass doors, taking any money in reach.
“They didn’t have a home, but they’re stealing all this stuff,” Hannah said. “We knew very soon what we were going to have to do.”
Fearful that the looters would eventually target Leland Lanes, they prepared themselves for a worst-case scenario almost immediately after returning to the bowling alley with their spouses. On the side doors on each end of the building, logging chains were put on to keep the doors locked. Inside, McMahan and his wife and Hannah and her husband all had a weapon on them.
“I had a .44 magnum and Lon had a .38 revolver,” Hannah said.
Only until the military police and National Guard helped restore order to the area did they feel Leland Lanes was safe enough to return home.
Almost unbelievably, it was only closed for during the week after the storm before it re-opened again to the public.
Still, like many other homes and businesses, its recovery wasn’t completely free of adversity.
There were some damages that required payment to repair. “It was less than $100,000 in total damage,” Ratliff said. And even with business returning back to full operation faster than most, there were two problems: 1) bowling was the last thing on people’s minds, especially during the initial recovery process, and 2) it was thought by many that Leland Lanes was completely gone.
“Even three years later, people think we’re not here anymore,” Ratliff said.
But it still stands strong, figuratively and literally.
Nearly every day of the week, some sort of league play, party or function is going on, bringing together men and women of all ages, and, despite its age, the structure remains solid.
For McMahan, as astonishing as the tornado was for him to witness in that moment, it only matches at best what he experiences on a daily basis when working at Leland Lanes.
“I met all my friends here – my lifelong friends,” McMahan said. “I enjoy working here because it’s not the same every day. There’s always something a little different. It’s not boring. I guess that’s the main thing: it’s always something new.”