Best of the CRANDIC Spotlight: Colonial Lanes owner Brad Huff on keeping Iowa City’s oldest bowling alley a safe, retro escape

Colonial Lanes hosts bowlers, November 2020 — Sid Peterson/Little Village

Best of the CRANDIC 2021 winner: Best Bowling Alley

Bowling, putt-putt, arcade games, a lunch counter and sunken bar. That’s how Colonial Lanes rolls. The business opened in 1959, and current owner Brad Huff has overseen the lanes at the CRANDIC’s Best Bowling Alley since 1972.

Little Village sat down with Huff to discuss CL’s long history, including its unique bar and ubiquitous “Roger Luttski” commercials in the ’90s.

Why did you become involved with Colonial Lanes back in the ’70s?

Well, that’s kind of an interesting story. I was friends with one of the owners’ sons and we’d just come down here to play a little pool occasionally. We got to know the manager at the time. There was an opening and they asked me if I wanted to come in and help. I said sure, so I started that weekend, more or less. I was going to go to junior college the following fall and I thought, Well, golly, it’d be kind of nice to be able to just hang out and just do stuff with my friends. I decided to do that, and I just never left.

Why have you stuck with it?

You grow into every aspect of it. I mean, I’ve done literally everything here except cook (I’m not very good in the kitchen). But the thing that’s neat about it is no two days are the same. Every day has different challenges.

The fun part about League is that it’s like a party that runs for 32 weeks and you get to see the same people every week and the socialization aspect of it has made a lot of friendships over the years. It’s just been a lot of fun in that regard. They say that it’s not work if you find something that you love to do.

How much do you know about the early years of the business?

It started out with 16 lanes, a 36-hole indoor miniature golf course, pool tables in a back room and a bar that only served beer.

The ’60s was a big bowling boom. Bowling at the time was considered more of a blue collar sport, and Iowa City had a lot of factories. Thomas & Betts was across the road from us, and you had people that worked in different shifts and they would get together and form leagues. Back in those days you had typically two shifts a night, so you had a 6:30 league and a 9 o’clock league. The 9 o’clock leagues are all gone now.

What do you think it means that Colonial Lanes lasted longer than all the other Iowa City bowling alleys of the 20th century?

I don’t know — partly luck, partly good planning. More than anything, just trying to keep everybody happy and be a good partner with the community.

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The Colonial Lanes commercials of the ’90s are kind of legendary. Can you tell me what was behind those?

We started like most people do with [local commercials]: “This is when we’re open, we have open bowling, we have league bowling,” this and that. Just for informational purposes. They weren’t really that much fun. We just got together with the right editors and the right representatives from media at the time and the combination clicked and worked really well.

We wrote the basic script and then the editing people put the videos together; there is a comic genius to that, you know. Granted we pushed the envelope on a few things for the day, but for every person that said they hated them I probably had eight or 10 of them that said they loved them. You go with the flow, and Roger was quite a popular character.

Did you appear in those commercials?

Oh, yeah. I’m in most of them, kind of in the background. I’m like Alfred Hitchcock. [laughs] Alfred Hitchcock back in the day on his television show was always kind of the obscure guy back in the corner in every episode.

Have you guys considered resurrecting Roger Luttski?

Actually we have, and that’s kind of in the works. The commercial end of [the business] has kind of gone on the backburner a little bit, but there’s hope in that direction again.

Smoking was part of the culture of bowling, but the Smokefree Air Act of 2008 banned smoking inside Iowa businesses. How was Colonial Lanes able to transition?

To be honest with you, I was really surprised because I thought people would put up more of a fuss than they did. Everybody kind of dealt with it in stride. I had one gentleman that quit leagues entirely because he couldn’t smoke anymore and I thought, Well, to each his own, I guess. The place is a lot cleaner because of it.

Something I love is that you guys still have the old classic TVs and graphics that pop up when you get a spare, strike or gutter ball.

Yeah, we try to keep things classic. I had somebody one time make a comment about our lunch counter, like, “Oh, this is a cute retro soda shop thing.” And I said, well, it’s not retro because we made it retro. It’s that way because it’s the way it always has been and we’ve just kept it up. I think some of the old nostalgic stuff is kind of cool, you know?

Has the space undergone any major renovations over the years?

Oh yeah. Back in ’98 the roof blew off the place. We were closed for 120 days, and when we reopened there was quite a bit of remodeling. We put the automatic scoring in and things of that nature.

In 1965 or so they took out half the miniature golf course and they put in pool tables. In 1973, we expanded to 24 lanes, and we took the pool tables out because they weren’t as popular at that time.

The reason it works is because it’s all under one roof and one part helps support the other.

The bar is really unique and cool and cozy back there.

It is. That’s the only sunken bar still around anymore [where] the bartenders are at a lower level than the people sitting at the bar. I’ve always thought that was neat. I was always trying to make it comfortable and cozy.

Colonial Lanes, 2015 — Little Village archive

How were you guys able to survive COVID closures last year?

People have no idea what it costs to keep a place like this up and running, and you just have to decide. I realized that if we can keep it going until the sunshine comes again then it will be worth it down the road, and that’s kind of what I did. I wasn’t ready to give up.

We went to the nth degree to make sure that things were sanitized. We closed every other lane. We just didn’t miss a beat. When we opened back up, we only had 40 percent of our leagues. So it was a rough go last year.

Now that you guys are back, do you have a message to the community?

Just come out. Enjoy yourselves. You never know what’s gonna happen down the road.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 301.