Jim Szilagyi moved to Richmond for that smell. Well, that plus duckpin bowling. Plaza Bowl is the southernmost of the roughly 50 remaining duckpin alleys in the country. (Duckpin bowling involves small balls that fit in the palm of your hand and three throws per turn.)
When he took over two and a half years ago, he ripped out four of the lanes and built a stage, making Plaza Bowl the most unlikely venue in Richmond’s music scene. BizSense caught up with Szilagyi to find out more.
Below are an edited transcript and a multimedia slideshow:
Richmond BizSense: What got you interested in Plaza Bowl?
Jim Szilagyi: I owned a duckpin bowling alley in Connecticut for about 12 years. I ended up having to sell it; the landlord wasn’t being very good, so I sold the business. So for about four years I tried a few other businesses, but I always missed the duckpin bowling. I kind of regretted getting out.
Things in Connecticut are kind of expensive; property taxes and everything were kind of going through the roof, so I decided to look at other areas. I called around down here, because I heard there were some duckpin alleys. When I called this one, they said they were getting ready to close in a few weeks. So I took a ride down here to check it out and decided to give it a try. It’s the only duckpin alley in the whole Richmond area. I thought if I could fix it up there should be some market for it.
RBS: Talk about the history of Plaza Bowl.
JS: In 1958, they built the shopping center [Southside Plaza], and it was like the mall of the future. This was the place to come.
Other people have described it at night as being like “American Graffiti,” where all the young guys with their cars would come cruising in here. There was a drive-in theatre. There were over 50 stores in the original shopping center, and the bowling alley was part of the original plan. This is the only remaining store. Everything else has closed.
RBS: What did it look like when you got here?
JS: Exactly like a time vault. If you locked a place up from 1958, that’s what it would look like, other than being a little more worn or whatever. Nothing had been changed whatsoever. But I kind of liked that because it hadn’t been ruined.
RBS: You mentioned the alley was weeks from closing when you got interested. It has been around for 50 yeas and then it’s about to close. Were you worried that you wouldn’t be able to keep it going?
JS: I had confidence in my ability. I saw things that hadn’t been addressed; I had ideas on how to change it. The other thing is I have a real faith in the game itself. I’ve seen the draw, and it has a built-in draw. For duckpin to have survived at all with no marketing or anything for 50 years says something about the game itself.
RBS: What did you see that you wanted to change?
JS: First it was cleaning it up. The number one thing was to clean it up, brighten it up. I came in and bowled before they knew I wanted to buy it. I just came in off the street and just felt really weird. The prices were kind of high, and it was just run down. I was the only one in here, and I felt silly bowling. I thought, ‘Why am I paying for this? I’m in this rundown, dirty bowling alley.’ It still has a long ways to go, but I just felt like sprucing it up and making it seem more upbeat, playing some music and marketing it to the right type of people [would help].
RBS: You have concerts on the weekends. How has that worked?
JS: We needed a bigger draw. That’s what the bands do. If you don’t get the right band, or if it’s not a popular band, then they don’t draw either. So it’s really been matching up decent bands on the right nights to get the people in here. That’s where Community Chest promotion comes in and helps. They have connections with bands, so they’ve been bringing in bands.
They’ve contributed to the success of the music nights here, because I would have just gotten junky bands and probably wouldn’t have got much of a response.
RBS: What do the bands think?
JS: At the very beginning bands were conflicted, but now they love it. It’s a unique venue. It’s also visually unique, so a lot of them have people videotaping them, and I’ll see it out online. It’s kind of like filming a video here, so that’s been a real big plus for getting better bands.
RBS: What’s your goal for Plaza Bowl?
JS: The facility itself is pretty old, so we’ll continue to upgrade fixtures. The first thing I did when I came in was improve the reliability of the machinery. I purchased used parts so I can keep the machines going. The lanes need some improvement — they’re kind of at the end of their life span. I want to give it a newer look, a cleaner look.
I like that it’s old, as long as I can keep it clean. The problem is when you get into seating that’s old, it’s going to show some wear — no matter how much you scrub it, it does look old. Most people that come in here like it, and get it, but some people, they’re used to several-million-dollar facilities. They’re going to build another big pin house a couple miles from here. I think it’s going to cost $70 million or something.
RBS: What do you think that’s going to do to you?
JS: Nothing. There are 10 other big pin alleys. This is the only duckpin alley, and no one can put one in. If you want to do duckpin bowling, you have to come here.