After operating for more than 60 years in the Smelter City, Anaconda’s Copper City Bowl and Café has closed its doors.
Manager Randy Phillips said he first learned the alley’s owner intended to close the business when a Copper City employee phoned him with the news May 6.
Phillips said he was on vacation at the time and cut his vacation short to meet with the owner, Kevin Sass. According to Phillips, Sass told him the business wasn’t supporting itself and that he wanted to shut down for good.
Phillips gave notification to employees, he said, and released an announcement about the alley’s closure May 12 on social media. The alley’s last day of operations was May 13, when the alley hosted a farewell event.
Phillips said he’s not sure what will happen with the building and the alley’s equipment, but he believes they could be sold at auction, adding that he hopes someone will buy the business and restore it.
The Montana Standard left a message for Sass at a second business he owns, located in western New York State, but was unable to reach him by press time Tuesday.
Sass lists his address as Denver, Pennsylvania, on his Facebook page. He purchased the Anaconda business about seven years ago.
During Sass’s tenure, Phillips moved from Bozeman to Anaconda to take over as the alley’s manager.
Phillips — who had lived in the Smelter City during the 1980s and ’90s and had done work for the alley’s previous owners, the Johnson family — said he took over as manager because he wanted to help bring Copper City Bowl back to life and hoped to one day purchase the business.
“It was an icon in the community,” he said.
In recent years, Phillips said, the alley employed several strategies to improve business, including setting off a party area, installing a sound system for music and karaoke, and making upgrades to ingredients in the café’s food at the 24-hour establishment.
But in the end those changes weren’t enough to stop the alley from closing at its Park Street location in East Anaconda.
Dave Martinich, who manages Star Lanes Bowling Center in Butte and has a stake in the company, said the bowling business can be tough in a day and age in which interest in the sport seems to be on the decline.
“It’s always a shame to see alleys closing,” Martinich said.
Tom Brendgord, executive director of the Montana Bowling Proprietors Association and association manager for the Montana United States Bowling Congress, said at the height of the popularity of bowling leagues, an alley owner could have a viable business with a few lanes and a bar.
But since then interest in leagues has waned.
In the past two years alone, Montana bowling leagues have lost nearly 1,000 players, according to the executive director.
To survive in the changing landscape, some alleys have opted to “diversify” their offerings, Brendgord said, sometimes becoming entertainment centers that offer amenities like miniature golf, psychedelic midnight bowling and batting cages, alongside the traditional bowling experience.
Copper City Bowl has served generations of families in Anaconda since at least the 1950s, though references in The Montana Standard mention a “Copper City Bowling Center” as far back as 1945.
Wilbur Johnson was a longtime owner of the business, said Anaconda resident Danette Johnson, who owned Copper City Bowl with her husband Ray and his family.
Taking over in the 1960s, Wilbur operated the bowling alley for numerous years with his son Cliff until Wilbur died in 1990. After Wilbur’s death, Danette and Ray joined the business as owners and stayed on for about 10 years.
“At its peak we had 34 employees, plus the four of us,” Johnson said.
The business had around 15 employees when the alley closed earlier this week, most of whom were full-time, according to Phillips.
For Johnson, the best part about owning the bowling alley was “the people” — working with employees and getting to know the community.
Phillips agreed, describing Copper City Bowl as being like a family.
“I’ve enjoyed working with the people who supported our endeavors,” Phillips said. “It’s part of the community. We hate to see it close.”