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  1. Hillsborough

Tampa's Pin Chasers celebrates its 60th anniversary

Racial tensions in Tampa were high in 1968 when a group of bowlers approached Bill Morris about hosting an all-black bowling league at his Regal Lanes, now called Pin Chasers, at 4847 N. Armenia Ave.

Too many people to count suggested he say no, said Morris, who managed the alley at the time and later became owner.

After all, it was only one year removed from a race riot in Tampa that started when a white cop shot and killed a fleeing African American teenager suspected of robbing a photo store and ended with buildings burned and looted.

Morris agreed to let them bowl.

"My peers predicted the decision would put me out of business," Morris, 75, said. "Obviously they were wrong."

Pin Chasers is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, which Morris believes also makes them the oldest in the Tampa Bay area.

The business has changed and adapted to not only survive but also to maintain two other locations.

The Armenia alley's lanes have increased from 22 to 50, for instance. In all three locations, the customer base shifted from leagues to families, the facilities went from smoking to non-smoking, and food advanced from concession stand-style to freshly prepared.

A surprising element of Pin Chasers' history, current owner and Morris' stepson Anthony Perrone said, was on-site daycare so stay-at-home mothers could bowl in leagues. It was a feature many alleys had throughout the nation well into the 1980s.

"It was a real nursery," Perrone said. "It was well-staffed and focused on having a healthy and safe environment."

That nursery is also largely why it outlasted local competition.

As a little kid, Perrone was in the Armenia nursery while his mother bowled. She then met, fell in love with and married Morris. When he retired, Perrone took over.

"Bowling is still popular," Perrone said. Bowling alleys "don't close because business is down. It's usually because they don't have a succession plan — their kids don't want to run it, so they close."

While Morris wasn't related to the bowling alley's founders, they treated him like family.

It was October 1958 when Michael Palazzolo opened Regal Lanes on Armenia Ave.

A few days later, Morris was hired. "I was 15," he said. "I started cleaning ashtrays, sweeping floors, stuff like that for 50 cents an hour. And I never left."

The alley wasn't a publicly traded company, but Palazzolo split ownership through stock. Morris was the only person from outside of the Palazzolo family to receive any. Whenever offered a raise, he would take a lesser dollar amount in exchange for more stock.

By the mid-1980s he accumulated enough to become part-owner. Then, in 1994, the Palazzolo family sold their remaining stock to Morris.

Still, by then, Morris had already played a large role in shaping the business and establishing a culture of acceptance.

"We created an environment where everyone is welcome," he said.

That was put to the test in 1967 when a union foreman called Morris to inform him that an African American had signed up to play in their league.

"He nervously told me, 'We have a major problem. I have to let him bowl,'" Morris said. "My answer was, 'Ok, but what is your problem? It is not an issue at any level.'"

A year later, when a group of bowlers sought a new home to host their all-black bowling league named the Hitters Missers, they turned to Morris.

The league, the city's first of its kind, was formed at Tampa Lanes in 1967. But the building was lost to a fire in early 1968 and it was difficult to find a new one, Hitters and Missers founder Lonnie Williams, 82, said.

"We were not welcome in a lot of places," he said. "Regal Lanes was kind to welcome us."

Decades later, there would again be push back against that policy of inclusion.

In the early 1990s when it was wrongly believed by many that HIV could be contracted through casual contact and that most gay men had the virus, Morris had some regulars threatening to leave if he didn't get rid of the alley's all-gay league.

He refused.

"From day one my attitude was never to do things like everyone else did and always do what I feel is right," Morris said. "It worked out."

At his peak, Morris owned another five bowling alleys. He would later sell two and keep three. Besides the Armenia locale, there is a Pin Chasers at 5555 W. Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa and another at 6816 Gall Boulevard in Pasco County.

The name change came in 2006.

Year-round league play once made up 90 percent of the business, Morris estimated, as compared to 50 percent today.

"With today's lifestyle, people don't want to make a 50-week commitment to do anything, really," he said.

Yet, total business is steady, he said, because they have attracted families by adding amenities like better food and more video games.

To let families know that Regal Lanes' days as a smoke-filled league-based alley were over, it was rebranded Pin Chasers.

One thing remains the same, though.

The Hitters and the Missers still bowl there, as does the league's founder.

"They have always treated us fairly," Williams said. "I see no reason to ever leave."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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