Bowling through a pandemic
HUMBOLDT — When Shawn Sturtz returned to school after Christmas break in 1983, he was thrilled to tell his friends what Santa brought him.
It wasn’t the latest gadget or gizmo, though. In fact, it wasn’t really a toy at all.
Rather, it was a place.
His parents, Roger and Jackie Sturtz, had purchased Sundance Lanes. The sale became final in January of that year.
“It was pretty cool,” said Shawn Sturtz, who was 12 at the time. “It was a pretty neat thing to say, ‘My parents have the bowling alley now.'”
He added, “My friends would say, ‘What’d you get for Christmas?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, my parents got the bowling alley.'”
Sundance Lanes, 1204 Sixth Ave. N., is situated off U.S. Highway 169 through Humboldt.
And while it wasn’t a toy per se, there was plenty of entertainment to be shared with friends at the bowling alley.
“That was at the height of coin-operated video games,” Sturtz said. “It was pretty cool. I think liked the arcade part of it better than bowling as I was still a little small for bowling.”
According to Sturtz, a new arcade game would be introduced every two weeks. They would be cycled out after six weeks. Super Pac-Man was an all-time favorite.
“I always liked pinball, too,” he said. “Any pinball machine.”
In the 1980s, Sturtz’s parents would often travel around the area to bowl.
“My mom and dad were both pretty big into bowling,” Surtz said. “My dad would bowl tournaments on the weekend and would drag us kids along. There was no bumper bowling back then, so it was considerably harder for kids. He liked bowling and like any kid you like what your parents do. This one came up for sale and we jumped on it.”
And ever since, the business has enjoyed a loyal customer base that oftentimes spanned generations.
Shawn Sturtz and brother Cary Sturtz have helped operate the bowling alley since their teenage years.
In 2016, the family lost its patriarch when Roger Sturtz passed away in December of that year.
“He absolutely loved bowling,” Shawn Sturtz said. “He never met anyone where he thought they shouldn’t sign up for bowling league. It was something he thought everyone would enjoy. He loved the game and why wouldn’t you love it.”
Shawn Sturtz recalls that his father rarely missed a day of work.
“He’d come here every day and see what was going on until he got sick,” he said. “Especially on all the machines. He knew those like the back of his hand. Even toward the end, I’d call him and ask what was causing a certain problem and he could tell me. He definitely knew the business very well.”
One of Cary Sturtz’s favorite memories was bowling a perfect game on the same night as his father.
“We both had 300 games bowling each other on the same night,” Cary Sturtz said. “It was Halloween 1997.”
The Sturtz brothers and their mother continue to maintain ownership of Sundance Lanes.
Between the three of them, they have witnessed a number of changes.
Shawn Sturtz said one of the more positive changes was the ban on indoor smoking.
“In the early 80s, there was a lot more public smoking everywhere and gradually it went down,” Sturtz said.
In 2008, lawmakers passed the Iowa Smokefree Air Act, which prohibited smoking in most public places.
“That was a nice change I think,” Sturtz said.
Automatic scoring was a big addition to the bowling alley in the 1993.
“When we first started, you kept score, you handwrote it and it projected it onto the screen,” Shawn Sturtz said. “It really made it a lot easier when we got automatic scorning.”
The game of bowling has become more family-friendly.
“Bumper bowling didn’t exist in the beginning,” Shawn Sturtz said. “Bowling balls, the lightest you could get was 8 (pounds). Now you can get 6. You need the ball to be heavier than the pins.”
Each pin weighs 3.5 pounds, he said. The maximum weight for a ball is 16 pounds.
“You are knocking down 35 pounds worth of pins,” Shawn Sturtz said.
Shawn Sturtz remembers a time when there was just one TV in the bar area.
“It was like a 13-inch TV,” he said. “Now, there’s multiple TVs. We have the free WiFi. We try to keep up with all the trends.”
Despite changes in technology and a growing number of other entertainment options, Sturtz said the bowling alley business in Humboldt has remained fairly steady.
“Last March we were having our best bowling season that we had had for probably 15 years,” Sturtz said. “The 80s still were bigger. League-wise was bigger in 80s and 90s, but since then open bowling is much bigger than what it was.”
Then on March 17, Sturtz was surprised to learn he had to close the bowling alley due to growing concern surrounding COVID-19.
“I had no idea we could be shut down for not doing anything wrong on our part,” Sturtz said. “We had done nothing wrong and overnight you’re closed. That was really scary.”
That morning, Sturtz was at the business to receive a beer delivery.
“The guy drops off the beer and leaves,” Sturtz said. “One of my buddies calls and says you got to close at noon. Restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters had to be closed immediately.”
The bowling alley would be closed for 11 weeks. During that time, Sturtz was on unemployment.
“If you would have told me a year ago you’ll be unemployed in six months, I would have said, ‘What? Is my mom going to fire me?,” Sturtz said. “There’s a chance I guess.”
Sturtz said the business has been able to weather the storm. But he doesn’t think they would have been so lucky in the 1980s.
“If that had happened in the 80s — we were all in so there was no spare money in the beginning,” Shawn Sturtz said. “Had we had a pandemic in ’85 we probably would have been bankrupt.”
In the current conditions, the bowling alley is not allowed to have leagues, which is a large source of revenue.
“The governor said no league bowling,” Shawn Sturtz said. “We have to abide by anything they say on that, which opens up the open bowling time. It’s actually a good time to come bowling because its considerably less busy. At least half of our games played is league games, so that opens up lane availability considerably.”
Curtains have been added to separate lanes.
“They are kind of loosely based on the cabanas you see at the pool,” Shawn Sturtz said. “Every two lanes can be divided up and you are separate from other groups.”
He said even after the pandemic, the curtains may remain.
“If you aren’t as good of a bowler, it’s a little more private setting,” he said. “Even after corona we might keep those just to separate groups up.”
The Sturtz family has also increased its sanitization efforts.
“We have sanitizer bottles out,” Shawn Sturtz said. “The extra sanitization doesn’t add too much work for us. We want it to be clean anyways. This is like our house. We are here all the time. A lot of the customers are almost like family.”
And it’s those close connections that Sturtz has made through the years that has made coming to the bowling alley special.
“There’s a 20 something year-old girl that was in here,” Sturtz said. “Her parents had her one-year-old birthday party here and 20 years later she’s coming in with her kid. There’s a lot of history that people don’t even realize. It’s kind of living history.”
The bowling alley has been a place for friends to gather for a variety of occasions.
“Birthday parties are popular,” Shawn Sturtz said. “Fridays and Saturdays, it’s a good place to have a family get-together. We have even had wedding receptions. We recently had a celebration of life here. Over the years, we have had a little bit of everything.”
Jackie Sturtz said being around people has been a joy.
“It’s fun to be around the people,” she said. “They are all so nice. Just starting out — you think you’re not going to know everybody, but after a while you meet them. I don’t bowl anymore now, but it was fun to bowl too.”
“Mom was always the people person,” Shawn Sturtz added. “She would take your picture and a few weeks later she would have a print-out of your picture and you could take it home.”
Shawn Sturtz continues to enjoy the business even in a more difficult year than usual.
“I’ve always liked the game and the people aspect of the game,” he said. “A lot of our customers are almost like family even. I didn’t really want to go to college and this was a job, and the years have just flown by. But it’s been fun. There’s very few activities where you can bring your grandma here and your kid here and they would both have fun doing it.”
42 games on Lane 3
In the early 2000s, Shawn and Cary once witnessed a young couple play 42 games of bowling in one day.
“I was working on a Saturday around noon,” Shawn Sturtz said. “A couple in their 20s came in. I usually worked an afternoon and Cary would be the night person.”
Well, Shawn Sturtz left at 6 p.m. And when he came back around midnight to help with cleanup, the couple was still there.
“They weren’t drinking or anything, so we let them bowl until after 2 a.m.,” Sturtz said. “At one point I was worried, wondering if they were going to pay. Because this was not going to be a cheap bill.”
But the couple did pay and all ended well.
“They ended up bowling 42 games each, which is by far the record here, anyways,” Shawn Sturtz said. “They were not a league player or anything, they were just off the street using house balls house shoes. It was memorable. I remember it was on Lane 3.”
He said most people bowl two games in a day. League players will bowl three games.
“The most I’ve played in a single day was 12,” Shawn Sturtz said. “I’ve done that multiple times.”
Shawn Sturtz said he and his brother willing to let them keep playing.
“I think we would have let them go as long as they wanted,” Shawn Sturtz said. “They weren’t drinking. It was just kind of crazy. Cary and I were like I don’t know, let’s just see how long they can go.”
Sundance Lanes offers bowling, arcade games and pool. Leagues typically run on weekdays. Youth league is on Saturday afternoons.
A full-service bar with pizza, nachos and snacks is available.
Bowling balls and shoes are sold at the bowling alley. Custom fitting is available.