Ingrid Bergman’s Mistake, and Downtown’s First Bowling Alley

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Market Square’s recent film shoot reminded me of an even more famous movie star who was on the same square with an entourage about 46 years ago. Ingrid Bergman came to Knoxville in 1969 to make a movie with Anthony Quinn and, as their fistfight choreographer, Bruce Lee. It was called A Walk in the Spring Rain.

Bergman came back in 1970 to promote the film with a premiere at the Capri in Bearden. It was April, Dogwood Festival season, and somebody thought wouldn’t it be great to get Ingrid Bergman, star of Casablanca and Notorious and Spellbound and Joan of Arc, to plant a dogwood tree on Market Square. She smiled and obliged, as you’d expect Ingrid Bergman to do. She was just nice.

Reporting on the planting was one cynical note from a guy who wasn’t usually cynical. News-Sentinel columnist Carson Brewer said whoever planned the thing didn’t know anything about dogwoods, because the hole they dug wasn’t nearly big enough. It’s hard for dogwoods to thrive unless you give their roots plenty of room.

I never knew any more about it until the other day, thanks again to the library’s “From Paper to Pixels” project, I found a follow-up article by Brewer, three months later. That July was particularly hot and dry. The dogwood, planted by the immortal Ingrid Bergman just three months before, died. Just like Brewer figured it would.

It was good news, in a way. I didn’t want to think it was whacked down by some thoughtless crew making way for a corn-dog truck, never knowing that Ilsa Lund had planted it. Still, the dead tree might have been worth saving for a Museum of Oddities.

Of course, even if a dogwood were planted perfectly in 1970, it probably wouldn’t have lasted this long. If an iconic celebrity, Meryl Streep, say, or Adele, shows up and seems willing to plant a tree in a public place, hand her an oak.

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Speaking of trees, the big bowling alley known as Maple Hall opened this week, in the basement of the formerly problematic J.C. Penney building, and I enjoyed spending an hour down there a few evenings ago. I’m not much of a bowler, but it’s a good thing to see something downtown that’s not primarily concerned with ingestion, as proof that we do have other interests. It’s fun to be in a big room where actual bowling is in progress, even if you’re at the bar talking with M.D. Kirkpatrick and Red Hickey about the rare albatrosses of Kaua’i.

However, downtown bowling may not be as exotic as several observers have assumed.

Bowling is Knoxville’s oldest sport. The oldest one, at least, that does not involve inducing animals to do things they’re disinclined to do.

I can’t claim Peter R. Knott’s Bowling Saloon is the first bowling alley in Knoxville, but it’s the earliest one I know about. It was operating on Market Square about 160 years ago.

Maple Hall isn’t the first bowling alley downtown, or the first one in a Gay Street basement. By the 1890s, when skeptical Knoxvillians were leery of that complicated Yankee sport, football, there was a multi-lane bowling alley in the basement of the Imperial Hotel, on the corner of Gay and Clinch.

Bowling was such way of life by 1900, especially among certain German immigrants, that a Knoxville Bowling Club, having outgrown downtown, set up its own headquarters on Linden Avenue, and hosted all-day bowling tournaments.

By some accounts, bowling caught on in the whorehouses of the old South Central Bowery district in the early 1900s. They included saloons, of course, but a few big ones also had casinos, vaudeville shows, and movies. Some prosperous whorehouses were so crowded with delights you wonder if they had room for actual whores. According to some memories recorded many years later, at least one of them had a bowling alley.

The Medical Arts Building’s basement hosted two lanes by 1931, and advertised bowling for good health. It offered two lanes and a miniature golf course. I gather it may have been intended mainly to help doctors blow off some steam.

In 1932, the new Commerce Avenue Bowling Alley opened, near Gay, in a building long since torn down for Summit Hill Drive, and became an institution. Probably the only two-story bowling alley in Knoxville history, it hosted six lanes on each floor, all maple.

By then, bowling was getting popular in suburban areas, like Chilhowee Park, so to distinguish itself, Commerce appealed directly to commuters who had to come downtown, in a 1940 ad. “Business Men and Women, BOWL at our conveniently located alleys.” It closed in 1944, during the war, like a lot of things did.

Meanwhile, the Knoxville Bowling Center opened in 1939 at the northern fringe of downtown, at Broadway and Lamar, a serious-business bowling place that hosted regional tournaments.

In 1941, downtown Knoxville saw its last big bowling alley opening before this week. The legendary Bowlitorium opened at 411 1/2 Main Ave. It was a second-floor walk-up place, but it had 10 lanes, and it was very proud of itself.

A big display ad from Sept. 10, 1941, hailed it: “You’ll find a brand-new pleasure in bowling—a new exciting experience when you roll these new, modern, sparkling Brunswick bowling lanes—the modern mapleways that have streamlined the thrill of bowling.”

It included a luncheonette, with “the most delicious sandwiches and soda fountain drinks,” along with ice cream and of course cigars. During the war, Bowlitorium advertised “Bowling During Blackout.”

It lasted until 1951. By then, bowling had become suburban. Even the Knoxville Bowling Center had been cannibalized for the Magnolia Lanes.

So Maple Hall’s fascinating, especially for those interested in adaptive reuse, but it isn’t downtown’s first bowling alley. It’s just the first one most of us have seen, so maybe I’m splitting hairs.

By the way, Maple Hall has a special place in sports history. That lower level roughly approximates the third-base line of what was called, in the years just after the Civil War, “the Old Base Ball Grounds.” It was a popular field. Architecture ruined it.

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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