A voice squealed from the telephone.
“Hi, this is Cupcake, I’m with the show Five Hot Blondes on Oxygen. Can we tape this conversation?”
Cable television’s Oxygen Media may aim to “bring women (and the men who love them) the edgiest, most innovative entertainment on television,” but if it decides to purchase the newest concept from Magical Elves, Inc., the makers of hit reality shows Top Chef, Project Runway and Last Comic Standing, among others, it might measure innovation by the spectacle Cupcake and her team of peroxide-doused companions made of the Ventura Bowling Center last week.
Spectacle, perhaps, except the team worked for three straight days to revamp the Ventura Bowling Center. Charged by the show’s premise with putting their fair heads together to reverse the fortunes of struggling businesses, they ended up casting a new sheen on the bulky, somewhat tarnished structure on a decaying stretch of East Thompson Blvd.
Cupcake served a short and sweet stint as the spokeswoman for the bowling alley, one of Midtown Ventura’s more prominent institutions. Aided by similarly towheaded Quinn, Danushka, Bart and Perk, Cupcake faced the challenge of sprucing up the Ventura Bowling Center in time for its close up on the reality TV pilot. Cupcake pleaded for coverage of a party celebrating the renovation that she, her fellow cast members and John and Kathy Higgins — the bowling alley’s owners — hoped would spur Midtown residents into action to save the Ventura Bowling Center from imminent destruction.
Ostensibly, the Five Hot Blondes would recruit volunteers from off the street to help them paint, redecorate and remodel outside and in. While a catchy new sign beckons high above Thompson Boulevard, and new decorations and paint jobs line the building’s façade, it’s unclear how much sweat the blondes or any volunteers contributed to the project. On any given time during the show’s filming — which lasted from Aug. 20-23 — crews of Magical Elves’ magical elves scurried about scraping walls, nailing metal sheeting and hoisting signage.
When the Reporter visited a few hours after Cupcake’s Aug. 21 phone call, two of the blondes — Quinn and Bart — were desperately trying to recruit the sparse passersby to help paint a sign on the side of the building. In a strange fusion of the carefully orchestrated “unscripted” theatrics of reality television and the colorful personalities who inhabit the neighborhood, Quinn, dressed in a green tank top with sweat shorts and high heels flirtatiously bickered with the bare-chested, shorts-clad, long-haired Bart about the best way to utilize a volunteer who drifted into the parking lot to help them.
Pineapple Express Chief, as the volunteer identified herself, appeared to recognize the surreality of the moment — and the blatant sleaziness of the show’s concept — when she refused to hug Bart after her assignment.
It cannot be said, however, that Magical Elves isn’t conscious of the inherent unreality in unscripted television, and the crew didn’t try to mask the show’s production elements from getting on camera.
“How often do you have a TV show come set up in Ventura?” said Kathy Higgins of the Ventura Bowling Center. “These guys have been pretty open about everything, whereas they’re not trying to close anything off. If people want to stop by and look, hey, that’s awesome.”
Not long after Pineapple Express Chief’s departure, Cupcake arrived to welcome the Reporter to the bowling alley on camera. She wore denim shorts, transparent stripper shoes, a pink cut-off shirt and pigtails decorated with a pink rose. Where the other four blondes (two male and two female) were more or less all-Hollywood, Cupcake seemed all-Chatsworth, an image emphasized by the next day’s silicone and bikini top combo worn before introducing Higgins for an interview.
But Higgins, who was asked to dye her hair dark chestnut brown for the show, welcomed the attention from the Five Hot Blondes.
“We’re excited about this opportunity,” she said. “You know what? The blondes are great, but they’ve come through with some good ideas, some stuff that, you know what, is really going to help us as a team and as a business.”
Higgins said her employees are just as excited as her about the renovations and the experience of working with the Blondes. She was particularly enthusiastic about a motivational speech given by Perk, who urged the staff to consider his concept of FEVER, which stands for focus, energize, visualize, engage and rejoice.
“It helps you work together as a team for a common goal,” Higgins said. “John and I trust our employees. I know when I’m gone [they] will do a great job and look out for my best interests and vice-versa.”
Bowling while Ventura burns
No matter how much exposure Ventura Bowling Center gets from the television show, however, the excitement might be short-lived.
A block or two away from the flickering neon of the Crystal Lodge Motel, the Ventura Bowling Center looms over a landscape of used car lots and “For Lease” signs. Once known as Poinsettia Bowl, the lanes sit on land owned by John and Sharon Gaiser, who bought the property in 2006 and manage it through Oxnard-based Gaiser Enterprises, Inc. (John is the founder and chief executive officer of Quality Home Loans, an Agoura Hills-based lending firm).
Now, the bowling alley could be in jeopardy. Gaiser Enterprises reportedly wants to build five office buildings and 20 condos on the site (a large empty lot behind the bowling alley would be part of the project). According to the June 2007 newsletter from the Midtown Ventura Community Council (MVCC), the developer is considering three different plans before submitting the project to city officials for approval.
Gaiser Enterprises representative Angela Carroll did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story. Brian Randall, the city planner in charge of the project could not be reached before publication.
However, the architect retained by Gaiser Enterprises to help develop plans, Nick Deitch of Ventura’s Main Street Architects, said a meeting is scheduled Sept. 18 with city officials on Gaiser’s plans. He said when he and Carroll presented the project that would raze the bowling alley to the MVCC in May, it was generally well-received. No one expressed opposition to the proposals, he said, although the MVCC newsletter said some concern was expressed that the project would block some of Thompson Boulevard’s light and that the site should be part of a historic preservation survey before a project is approved.
Deitch doubted the bowling alley would be preserved under Gaiser’s current plans.
“It’s neat, it’s nostalgic, we love the idea of it, but we’re not doing it,” he said. “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it has to be preserved in formaldehyde. The question is who is going to subsidize that bowling alley if it is supposed to stay there for the next 30 years.”
Higgins said she went to a number of MVCC meetings where the plans for her bowling alley’s land were discussed, but they were sparsely attended.
“They were all in their 60s and none of them really bowled,” she said. “So it didn’t matter either way. And I think, even if you don’t bowl, why would you want to see this become houses? Why wouldn’t you want to offer some kind of opportunity to the kids and the families of Ventura?”
Bernard Ayling, the chair of the MVCC’s board, said he disagreed with Higgins’ characterization of the age of the group’s members. He said Midtown is undergoing dramatic changes, but he would not comment on whether or not he thought the bowling alley should be preserved.
“I think that Midtown, along with the whole city, is undergoing some deal of modernization,” Ayling said. “You’re talking about an area of Ventura that has experienced a renaissance in more ways than one. The businesses that reflect this new demographic or change are going to get patronized by the people that are living there.”
Higgins, however, insists that there is a continued importance for the Ventura Bowling Center, and that, with so many vacant buildings and so much empty land that could be redeveloped in the neighborhood, it doesn’t seem wise to destroy a place where families and children and regular customers gather.
“These people have become my friends,” Higgins said of her regulars. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the community from the VBC. It’s an option where you can’t always go to the beach, and you can’t always go shopping. You need entertainment. You need stuff where a family can get out for the night.”
For now, though, Higgins thinks her regulars will love the changes the Five Hot Blondes brought, and that the Ventura Bowling Center’s new retro look will attract new customers, bowlers and non-bowlers alike.
“It’s just a fun business,” said Higgins, who rarely breaks 100 when she bowls. “I want to continue what they’ve started for us. I think we can for a lot of it. Now we have a theme and a new marketing plan where we can say, ‘This is what we’ve done, this is how it looks now,’ and I think it’s going to work.”