By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The wind kicks up suddenly and swiftly out of the south, sending dirt into the eyes and mouths of the dozen or so construction workers outside a Bronco Bowl that still looks abandoned.
It's late November, more than a year after Danny and Tony Gibbs bought the venerable old Oak Cliff bowling alley-cum-concert hall, and workers are rushing to meet an opening-date deadline of December 31. Workers swarm throughout the place--hammering and sawing, drilling and lifting, building everything from loading docks to bar counters--putting the beginning and finishing touches on a long-awaited facelift that will cost more than $5 million.
The Gibbs brothers, who own the Garland-based Gibbs Construction and bought the Bronco Bowl in the summer of 1994 for $1.2 million from Dallas' Hunt brothers, swear it will be finished by New Year's Eve, though it looks months from completion. But already, beneath the sawdust and grime, it's beginning to take shape: A huge information desk now anchors the front lobby, flanked on each side by 19 bowling lanes that are decorated with the bright neon patterns that will become the trademark design of the new Bronco Bowl.
When it's completed, the Bronco Bowl will be divided into seven different sections--including everything from a swanky high-tech sports bar and grill (complete with a 100-inch television screen) to a glitzy nightclub (called the Canyon Club) to a 10,000-square-foot video arcade to a renovated concert hall.
There will also be banquet facilities large enough to accommodate 600 people, a room designed for 18 regulation-sized pool tables, a combination pro and gift shop, and a playroom for children. Though it's hardly the "Las Vegas-styled" venue of which its owners spoke a year ago--concepts have come and gone, changed a dozen times over 12 months--it would be an understatement to say the new Bronco Bowl is a vast improvement over its decrepit predecessor, which opened in 1960.
"When we reopen it," says Danny Gibbs, "we're going to have to recreate its image in a 24-hour period."
When Danny and Tony bought the Bronco Bowl, the place was a shell of a shell of its former self: Though the arena had been used as recently as December 1992--when Metallica performed, nearly wrecking the decaying structure--the bowling alleys and arcades and batting cages hadn't been touched since the alley closed down more than a year before. The place was a ghost town, abandoned to the elements after Nelson Bunker and William Herbert Hunt--once among the wealthiest people in the country--went bankrupt in 1990 and were forced to close the place. When the Danny and Tony Gibbs bought the Bronco Bowl, they purchased it from the third Hunt brother, Lamar.
As such, the Gibbs brothers had to toss out everything in the place and start over completely, right down to the bowling pins, which are piled in dozens and dozens of boxes scattered throughout the complex. (Danny says he'll likely repaint the old pins, decorate them with Bronco Bowl emblems, and sell them or give them away as a promotion.)
When Danny Gibbs first spoke to the Observer in July 1994 about the Bronco Bowl renovations, he estimated it would take six months to reopen the venue. But he did not figure on the resistance he and his brother would encounter when they went to secure financing for the deal; a year later, they have ended up footing the entire bill themselves, and though they've publicly said the renovations will cost $4.5 million, that's most likely a conservative estimate.
"It's been very painful" getting financing, Danny says, citing as two stumbling blocks the Oak Cliff location and the fact that an entertainment facility is a shaky investment to begin with. "No bank would touch us with a 10-foot pole...But I wouldn't trade this neighborhood for anything in Starplex's backyard. Oak Cliff has gotten a bad rap, and hopefully, the Bronco Bowl will give this area a kick in the pants."
Georgia Clarke, formerly a promotions agent at the Caravan of Dreams, has been brought in to handle shows in the Bronco Bowl Auditorium--the reopening of which could mean a dramatic shift of control in local concert bookings.
Though it's going to be difficult to book shows into the 3,000-seat arena until it's completed, her job will be made somewhat easier thanks to a deal with Pace Concerts, the Houston-based promoters who handle some of the largest touring acts. Clarke says the deal with Pace should bring in at least 35 shows in 1996, none of which has yet been confirmed.
It remains to be seen, however, if such local concert promoters as 462 Productions, owned by Mark Lee and Danny Eaton, will book their shows into the Bronco Bowl. Right now, Lee and Eaton primarily utilize the warehouse-cum-concert-hall Bomb Factory for their mid-sized roadshows, as well as such venues as McFarlin Auditorium on the SMU campus and the Will Rogers Auditorium in Fort Worth.
"But we don't have any preference," Lee says regarding his company's use of venues. "We booked shows for years at the Bronco Bowl--ever since 1982, when we did The Clash there--and we hope to continue doing that. We've just been waiting for it to open like everyone, and we hope it'll be available to us."
Before it shut down in 1992, the Bronco Bowl Auditorium was the premier mid-sized concert venue in town, having hosted the likes of U2, Peter Tosh, R.E.M., the Black Crowes, Public Enemy, and hundreds of other acts over more than two decades. The New Bohemians played their farewell show at the place in 1991, and Garrison Keillor broadcast his nationally syndicated radio show from the arena several years ago, informing his audience at the time that the Bronco Bowl was "the tackiest place that we've ever done a show from."
Once completed, the arena will boast significant changes from its original structure: The stage, which once jutted out into the legendary "Golden Horseshoe" seats, has been trimmed back; the old seats have been gutted; sight lines, already the best in any concert venue in town, have been improved; several concession stands have been added; and the wretched old bathrooms have been enlarged and upscaled considerably.
As it stands now, Clarke doesn't expect to book any bands into the arena until at least the middle of January, though there will likely be a couple of "dress rehearsals" featuring local bands before then.
It has been 35 years since the 180,000-square foot Bronco Bowl opened. Jayne Mansfield walked through the front door and ushered in an era of extravagance that made the then-73-lane bowling alley the toast of a nation. But the place--which once offered everything from a barber shop to an archery range--began a slow decline in 1984, when Lamar Hunt told The New York Times that the place "wasn't all that well thought out," and that he and his brothers made a mistake by opening it in the first place.
Danny Gibbs, though, is more confident. As he walks through the Bronco Bowl, stepping closer to an opening date that still seems a bit optimistic, he shows off the place as though everything is in order, up and running. After all, when you call the Bronco Bowl's main number, there's already a hold message in place advertising "entertainment as big as Texas," "fabulous food" in the sports bar and grill, "liquid refreshments to soothe the senses" in the Canyon Club, and the 38 bowling lanes--all as though the place were already open.
"We don't want people to have an excuse to go somewhere else to have a good time," he says, selling a blur that's yet to take shape. "We want them to come here--and stay here.