Years ago my husband and I were walking down “Mane” Street in Pioneertown, Calif., a town that used to be a Western movie set, when we decided to peek inside the windows of a building whose sign read “Pioneer Bowl.”
Huge fans of mid-century design we were immediately captivated by what seemed to be a colorful jewel box of space-age design: A fully in tact pink-and-orange bowling alley that seemed to be some sort of time-capsule relic.
What in heck were we looking at?
I got home and did some research and found out it was a bowling alley built by Western movie legend Gene Autry for his movie crews up in the high desert. We soon returned during the weekend when the bowling alley was open. And boy was it cool inside. Mind blowingly cool for anyone who loves modern design, old western sets and old movies.
Nestled in the heart of Pioneertown, Pioneer Bowl stands as a testament to the rich history of this unique desert town.
Pioneertown itself is more than worth the visit. It’s described as a 32,000-acre “all inclusive filming location” that features fully-built “circa 1870s” western movie set buildings along “Mane” Street. The set town includes corrals, stables, a sound stage, storage facilities, a Chinese restaurant called the Golden Stallion, two saloons, the aforementioned six-lane bowling alley built because actor Roy Rogers loved to bowl.
According to the Friends of Pioneertown website, actor Dick Curtis started Pioneertown in 1946 as an 1880s themed Old West motion-picture set.
It was designed to provide a place for production companies to enjoy while also using their businesses and homes in movies.
Hundreds of Westerns and early television shows were filmed in Pioneertown, including The Cisco Kid and Edgar Buchanan‘s Judge Roy Bean.
Curtis, Roy Rogers and Russell Hayden were among the original developers and investors.
Built in 1946, Pioneer Bowl was originally intended to provide entertainment for the extras and movie stars filming westerns in Pioneertown.
It quickly became a favorite spot for celebrities such as Autry, Roy Rogers and their fellow actors and film crew. Gene Autry filmed every episode of his “Gene Autry Show” for television at the six-lane alley.
Rogers himself rolled out the first ball in 1949. School-age children worked as pinsetters until automatic pinsetting equipment was installed in the 1950s.
Pioneer Bowl boasts a Brunswick 6-lane bowling alley, making it a beloved destination for both locals and visitors. The alley still retains its original ABC-rated lanes, a testament to its glory days as an official Citrus Belt ABC sanctioned bowling center. Leagues and tournaments were a common occurrence, with bowlers from miles around flocking to Pioneer Bowl to showcase their skills.
Despite the decline of organized league bowling, Pioneer Bowl remains a popular spot for open bowling. Bowling is a sport that transcends gender, race, and economic barriers, and Pioneer Bowl welcomes bowlers of all ages and backgrounds. The sound of pins dropping on the old wood lanes is still music to the ears of those who visit.
One of the unique features of Pioneer Bowl is its original wall murals, painted in 1946 by Wallace Roland Stark. These murals reflect the culture of Hollywood in the 1950s when western movies were filmed in Pioneertown. They serve as a reminder of the town’s rich entertainment history and add to the charm of the bowling alley.
Pioneertown itself has a fascinating backstory. Established in 1946, it was the brainchild of Dick Curtis and a group of investors, including Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and The Sons of the Pioneers. The town was envisioned as a “Living Breathing Movie Set,” a place where people in the entertainment industry, ranchers, and desert lovers could live, work, and play. It quickly became a popular filming location and a vacation destination for those in the entertainment industry.
While Pioneertown’s grand plans for expansion didn’t come to fruition due to a lack of safe water, the town still thrives as a fully functioning production set. Movies, independent films, music videos, and commercials are filmed in Pioneertown every month, keeping the town’s legacy alive. Paul McCartney himself played a surprise show at Pioneertown’s legendary watering hole, Pappy & Harriets back in 2016.
Pioneer Bowl and Pioneertown are cherished pieces of Southern California’s history.
If you are looking for a great road trip consider this reminder of a bygone era when western movies dominated the silver screen and Pioneertown was a thriving hub of entertainment.
Today, visitors can step back in time at Pioneer Bowl, enjoy a game of bowling, and soak in the unique charm of Pioneertown and then head over to Pappy & Harriets for a night of food, drink and great live music.
Whether you’re a bowling enthusiast or a history buff, a visit to Pioneertown and Pioneer Bowl is sure to be a memorable experience.