The cause of the fire at Sugar Bowl Lanes in Belen has not yet been determined. Local, state and federal fire investigators have been on scene since Sunday trying to figure out the cause of the blaze.
Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photos

BELEN — As millions of gallons of water smothered the flames that engulfed the old Sugar Bowl Lanes Sunday morning, many memories flooded back into the minds of those who cherished the Belen landmark.

Watching the flames devour the historic building, Frances Romero — the daughter of the late Marvin “Sugar” and Eva Glidewell, the longtime owners of the Belen bowling alley on Becker Avenue — stood silently in shock and devastation.

Frances Romero, left, holding her late brother’s dog, Chiquita, with her best friend, Debi Wright, and her husband, Steve, watch as fire crews fight the fire at the bowling alley.

She couldn’t believe what she was witnessing. A large part of her family’s legacy was tied to the building, where thousands of people once spent their nights bowling, eating, laughing and having fun.

“My husband woke me up saying the bowling alley was on fire,” said Romero, who lives in a house directly behind the bowling alley. “A police officer asked me if we lived here, and he told me he knocked on the door. You can’t hear (anything) in that house.”

Romero’s husband, Steve, said he woke up just after 5 a.m. to use the bathroom when something wasn’t quite right.

“I woke up, I smelled the smoke,” Steve said. “I looked out and I could see fire all across — everywhere.”

“All I could say was, ‘Oh my God.’ I just talked to God,” Frances said Sunday as she watched the firefighters fight the blaze. “Lord, help us. I cannot believe this.”

Sugar Bowl Lanes history

In 1952, after returning from serving two years in Korea with the military, Marvin “Sugar” Glidewell, then 26 years old, returned to his job with the railroad in Belen. The bowling alley had closed in his absence, and, in 1954, a friend suggested to Glidewell that they pool their money and buy it, which they did.

A few years after the purchase, Glidewell and his partner decided to end the partnership, and it was decided that Sugar would continue as sole proprietor.

Sitting on the ball return at Sugar Bowl Lanes, owner Marvin “Sugar” Gildewell gives his granddaughter, Joelle, a lesson.
Photo courtesy of Frances Romero

“We flipped a coin for it, and I won,” Glidewell told the News-Bulletin in 2004.

Since those early days, Romero said, along with the many bowlers who found time to have fun at the local establishment, railroaders would stay in the apartments above the bowling alley.

Glidewell’s bowling alley workplace was his community’s playground, a place where folks could gather, see their triumphs posted on the scoreboard that showed team standings, escape from their problems to a sound track of the triumphal crash of striking pins offset by the groans that accompanied gutter balls.

Despite their hard work, the Glidewells had fun. Sometimes it was Hollywood that came calling — Ernest Borgnine and Bette Davis made “Bunny O’Hare” on the street in front of the bowling alley in the 1960s, and then Kevin Costner came calling to film “Swing Vote.” Arnold Schwarzenegger also filmed part of “The Last Stand” at the bowling alley.

Sugar Bowl Lanes closed its doors for good on May 8, 2008, about 17 months before Marvin “Sugar” Glidewell died in October 2009. His beloved wife, Eva, passed away in January 2013.

After their deaths, the couple’s son, Marvin Glidewell Jr. inherited the building, never reopening the bowling alley again. He died in April 2020.

Thousands of local bowlers were members of the bowling leagues at Sugar Bowl Lanes in Belen
Photo courtesy of Frances Romero

Some of Romero’s fondest childhood memories took place at the bowling alley along side her brother, Marvin — or “Little Sugar” as people called him.

“My dad taught me how to punch on a speed bag in the back of the bowling alley,” Romero remembers. “He would tell me, ‘I never want to hear that you started a fight, but if they threaten you, you have the right to punch them.’”

Romero said she has a vast amount of memories of the bowling alley … “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

She worked at Sugar Bowl Lanes throughout her life, saying, “It was unbelievable. It was fun; it was work; it was late hours. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Romero’s best friend, Debi Wright, rushed to her side as soon as she heard about the fire Sunday morning. She, along with many others who grew up in the Hub City, could hardly believe the building is now gone.

“We bowled since we were young,” Wright said. “We would come for PE here in junior high. There was teams; it was just a wonderful place to be.”

Romero said a movie production company had recently expressed interest in using and possibly purchasing the old bowling alley, but the offer was taken back when part of the roof collapsed after a snow storm in January. The building was for sale, but wasn’t insured, Romero said.

The fire fight

Belen Fire Chief Bret Ruff said firefighters received a 911 call just before 5 a.m., Sunday, July 12. When they arrived, the building was fully involved.

“Our first initial crew started into a defensive operation due to the nature of the fire,” Ruff said. “It wasn’t safe for anyone to go inside.”

Crews utilized the aerial ladder truck to help combat the blaze, and other county fire departments, including Valencia County, Rio Communities, Jarales/Pueblitos, Los Chavez and Tomé/Adelino, also arrived to fight the fire. About 20 firefighters were on hand to douse the flames.

Rio Grande Estates volunteer Fire Chief Andrew Tabet helps to douse the flames at Sugar Bowl Lanes early Sunday morning.

An enormous amount of water was used in the fire fight — the ladder truck pushed out about 1,100 gallons per minute, and some of the other operations were about 500 gallons per minute, Ruff said.

It took about four hours to extinguish the blaze, and fire crews continued to monitor the scene throughout Sunday and into Monday.

“With this structure, it was kind of unique,” the fire chief said. “Being that it’s a bowling alley, you have treated woods, a lot of polymers inside, a lot of machinery.

“We did have a storage facility on the back side that had a lot of chemicals, such as waxes. We were trying to keep that from catching on fire, but due to the radiant heat, it still caught fire.

“The whole roof has caved in, including all four walls,” Ruff said Sunday. “We still have fire and heat trapped underneath that roof.”

Romero’s home and several other adjacent properties did receive some minor melting, and because of the amount of water used, there was some flooding. Several pumping trucks were in the neighborhood Sunday taking the water away.

“The firefighters are hot, we’re tired and hungry,” Ruff said Sunday. “We did have one who had a bit of heat exhaustion, but he’s good. He was one of the first on scene. We just do what we do until we can’t do it anymore.”

Romero and her whole family kept watch throughout the day Sunday, watching the firefighters do what they had to do. When she woke up Monday morning, she thought the whole thing was a bad dream.

As she looks back on the past few days, Romero is grateful for the memories she had at the bowling alley as well as the firefighters who worked so hard that morning.

“They saved our house and my mom’s trailer,” Romero said. “If the wind blew like it did later on in the afternoon, the whole block would have burned.”

The investigation

Fire investigators from local, state and federal agencies are still trying to determine the cause of the fire at Sugar Bowl Lanes.

“Everyone wants to figure out what happened and why it happened,” Ruff said.

It will probably take some time for investigators to determine a cause of the fire, Ruff said, adding they had to pull the building apart without compromising any evidence. Bulldozers demolished the remaining walls Sunday afternoon.

The fire chief said Tuesday the team of investigators will probably be on scene until Wednesday.

“We don’t know if it was accidental or intentional,” Ruff said. “We don’t know what the cause is yet. We’ll slowly start dissecting it as soon as we can.”

The property had been red tagged since the roof had partially collapsed, and there was no power, gas or water at the building, the fire chief said.

Belen firefighter Michael Wessels was on top of the department’s ladder truck spraying water on the fire at Sugar Bowl Lanes on Sunday.
Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photo

Mark Torres, an agent with the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Insurance, said while he is not exactly sure the cause of the fire, they are investigating the possibility that fireworks might be involved.

“Our criminal agents came across a video that showed three male individuals around 4:55 a.m. on South Third Street and you see a barrage of about seven or eight Roman candles,” Torres said. “A few moments later, we see the bowling alley light up.”

“We ruled out natural causes because there was not lightening, which leads us to believe it’s human caused,” he said. “We don’t know if it was a negligent act or something that happened unintentionally.”

Torres said the video was from a home survellence system about three blocks from the bowling alley, and was motion activated, so investigators are not sure if this was the first or last time these individuals set off the fireworks.

“These were the only living beings we could put in the vicinity of the fire, and we’d like to talk to them,” Torres said.

He said multiple agencies are assisting with the investigation, including from Los Alamos and Albuquerque.

“We are anticipating presence of an accelerant, just because of the materials in the bowling alley,” he said. “We’re also trying to find out if there is accelerant in a concentrated area.”

Investigators have collected samples from the building and will send them to a lab for testing, which Torres says will take a few weeks to return with results.

Investigators are asking anyone with tips visit, or call toll free at 877-804-4110.

Community reaction

Along with the appreciation Romero has for the firefighters, she’s also grateful for the community’s support.

“I’ve had the greatest support from the community,” she said. “I can’t say thank you enough.”

When news broke of the fire at Sugar Bowl Lanes Sunday morning, members of the community posted their condolences and sentiments on the News-Bulletin’s Facebook page.

“Oh no!! How terribly sad … so many childhood memories! This is just awful,” wrote Shantell Anderson

“Very sad to see this,” wrote Genevieve Benes. “The bowling alley was such a big part of Belen history!

Marvin “Sugar” Glidewell added four more lanes to the alley after he bought it in 1954.
Photo courtesy of Frances Romero

“Oh no … so many memories from bowling … was the best place to hang out … we had our PE class from middle school … I still remember when I thought I broke the glass … it was just the frame and Mr. Sugar laughed and said it can be fixed.”

“This makes me so sad!” wrote Jan Williams. “We had so much fun there and I remember Sugar and his sweet wife. I had been driving by it wishing it were still open. How sad it’s now gone.”

“Sad ending to a great era in the history of Belen. Sugar, Eva and their kids made a significant contribution to the community and provided a venue for clean, wholesome family entertainment for many years that was — and is — appreciated,” Jo Ann Orr wrote.

Marvin Glidewell told the News-Bulletin in 2004 how grateful he was for the four-plus generations of customers who bowled, ate, and even had their children babysat in his establishment.

“I’ve met more people in here than a lot of people have in their whole life,” Glidewell told the newspaper. “I never figured I’d be here 50 years, that’s for sure. We’ve been pretty fortunate. They’ve been good to us.”

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.