When Cliff Hutts looks at the “For Sale” signs out in front of Starlite Lanes, the emotional pain is etched on his face.
Hutts has spent the last 36 years associated with Starlite, for 6 years as the manager and the last 30 as the owner.
Barring an individual or a group of investors coming forward to purchase the business in the next 5 or 6 months, McPherson will be without a bowling alley for the first time in more than 50 years.
Starlite Lanes opened at 900 W. Kansas in 1961 under the original ownership of Vance Carlson, Chet Anderson and Ed Pyle. Hutts assumed ownership in 1987 from Carlson and after 30 years and at the age of 67, he says it’s time to retire.
He thought he had a deal in place at one point, but it wound up falling through. There was some question whether the business would be open for the 2016-17 season, but at the last minute Hutts and his wife, Sherry, decided to open for one more year with the hopes of attracting a buyer. Sherry retired in 2016 after 32 years with Pfizer and the couple wants to enjoy retirement and follow the lives of their children and grandchildren. Their grandson, Austin Eldredge, recently won the Class 4A state wrestling title in Salina.
Hutts has been a bowling lifer. He has spent 52 years in the business, 44 years in management and ownership. He worked for The Brunswick Corporation for 10 years, the last 4 as a district manager overseeing a dozen centers.
That job, though, came with a lot of traveling. He wanted to settle down with his own bowling house and Carlson gave him that opportunity. When it came time for Carlson to retire, he worked out a deal with Hutts and it was a seamless transition.
Hutts has heavily invested in renovations to Starlite over the years. He estimates that he’s put nearly $500,000 into the building in improvements, moving it away from its “60s look” to a modern, changing-with-the-times bowling center. Starlite was one of the first houses in Kansas that went to automatic scoring in 1991 and he’s tried to keep the wooden lanes glistening and fair for bowlers to put up big numbers.
“When I got here, the quality of equipment wasn’t as good,” Hutts said. “Some of these guys come in here with six or seven bowling balls. So I think the equipment and the transition of the lanes has made a big difference in the scoring. But we have great bowlers. Starlite has turned out some top-notch bowlers.”
There was a time, at least on the men’s side, when there were maybe a half-dozen or less bowlers who averaged 200 for a season, but in recent years there have been at least 15 bowlers hit that mark in a year. Starlite bustles with various tournaments that bring together the best of the best in McPherson and bowlers from around the area.
However, it’s been more than a business for Hutts. It’s his heart and soul and he’s made countless friendships that will be everlasting.
“McPherson has been great for us,” he said. “We’ve raised our two kids here, have four grandkids, three granddogs, so I don’t have anything but praise for McPherson and what it has meant to us.”
In addition to the bowling center, there’s an adjoining restaurant that goes with the property. Over the years there have been some quality eating establishments that have been in business, which were frequented by the bowlers. Often bowlers would have a pre-match meal or go next door for a postmatch nightcap. There have been no less than five establishments, many of them sports-bar types, though there’s also been Mexican and Italian eateries.
Hutts says it will be painful if nobody steps up and purchases the business for what he calls "a good selling price." He’d devoted half his life to McPherson and one of his proudest moments was when USD 418 approved of bowling as a school sport. Because of Nettie Wann’s nearly 50 outstanding years of running the youth program, the MHS bowling team was an instant success, with the boys winning a state championship in their very first year of interscholastic competition and Quinten Sloup was the state medalist. The girls also have won a state title. Hutts has graciously donated his time and resources to make the program successful. This was the 10th year of the program and never has the school not had a team or individual in the state meet. Should Starlite close, the Bullpup team would probably have to go to Hutchinson to practice, provided the program continues.
Hutts said the next few months are crucial.
“The 'For Sale' signs will be up there for about 5 or 6 months,” he said. “If there is nobody interested in taking it over, our next option would be to go in auction, which I’m sorry to say a lot of the small centers are doing that. It’s a sad thing to see, small-town places like the skating rinks and bowling centers and movie centers. The entertainment factor for kids is dropping real bad.”
Hutts said he won’t miss those times when he used to have midnight leagues as industries with shiftworkers could only bowl after they got off late at night. Hutts would run the league, then have to get the lanes ready for the next day. He could almost see the sun come up in the morning as back then some of his lane maintenance was done by hand, not like now where there’s machines to do the work. Running the equipment for so many years also has taken a toll on him physically, as he has to deal with back problems from all the wear and tear on his body.
Hutts has had anywhere from 16 to 21 leagues going on during a week.
“League bowling is dropping considerably. You don’t have the younger people who want to commit to bowling so many weeks in a row,” he said.
There’s still a lot of interest at Starlite, though, and that’s what bothers him most. He just can’t comprehend what local bowlers will do and admits he's been agonizing over this situation for a long time.
“I really hate to see this thing go down, I really do,” he said. “But I just can’t do it anymore, 36 years here... I’ve been around a lot of years and seen a lot of the mom-and-pop businesses run until they can’t do it any longer.”