Early Tuesday morning, three men in a crane were lifted above the old “Cactus Bowl” neon sign on South Alvernon. By noon, it was gone.

No one bothered to put up a “closed” sign, but all you had to do was walk through the door last Thursday night, a bit after 7. Four people were bowling; 30 lanes were dark.

At 54, Cactus Bowl was taking its last breath.

“I remember being there when 60 lanes were going, people everywhere,” says Raytheon engineer David Lundeberg, one of Tucson’s most accomplished bowlers. “I bowled 300 there. I had an 800 series there. Just an amazing place.”

For decade upon decade, Cactus Bowl was bigger than life in Tucson sports. It was the largest bowling center in Arizona. How big? It had a laundromat. It had a children’s nursery.

So much beer was sold, so much food was processed at “Mr. Burger’s” restaurant, that in 1976 an armed robber couldn’t resist the flow of good times. He walked out of Cactus Bowl with $6,421 in cash.

Can you imagine a bowling center with $6,421 in the till? That was Cactus Bowl, which was the life of the party when bowling was Americana and South Alvernon Way was part of the heartbeat of 20th century Tucson.

“It was a showplace,” says Tucson attorney Lowell Rothschild, a U.S. Bowling Congress Hall of Famer and former president of the American Bowling Congress. “We would have 36 teams out there on our league night, Wednesday night. It was often like that Monday through Friday.”

The Cactus Bowl developed such a reputation that in 1979 the Women’s International Bowling Congress moved its annual championship to Tucson. More than 35,000 WIBC bowlers arrived here, over two months, most at Cactus Bowl, some at Golden Pin Lanes. They came again, in 1995, although by then bowling’s status as a mainstream Tucson recreation favorite had considerably dimmed.

“Ultimately, they shut down 28 lanes and leased the space to a career college,” says Lundeberg. “But I’ll never forget being in there, especially during a big tournament, and looking out over the control desk and seeing a mirror image, back to back, bowlers everywhere.”

In 1962, Cactus Bowl became a regular on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, a romantic notion, an era when that Saturday afternoon ABC telecast was one of the five or six most highly rated sports programs on TV.

Befitting Tucson’s interest in bowling, and Cactus Bowl’s prominence, the inaugural Tucson Open was won by “Mr. Bowling,” Don Carter, who became the Bowling Writers’ Bowler of the Year for the sixth time.

In 1962, that was the equivalent of building a state-of-the-industry baseball stadium and having Mickey Mantle show up and hit a grand slam in the opening game.

Rothschild and his partners on “Shandling Lithographers” and later “Metropolitan Water” — every team was sponsored and outfitted in colorful bowling shirts — would often make league night a full outing, eating at the in-house restaurant and not leave Cactus Bowl until midnight.

The cash register got a workout.

Tucson supported not just the PBA Tour and the WIBC tournament, but thriving bowling centers such as Golden Pin Lanes and Lucky Strike Bowl, among others, which became more convenient to Tucson’s sprawling population.

“That location of Cactus Bowl was probably its demise in the end,” says Lundeberg.

Says Rothschild: “My sense is that Cactus Bowl was operated well; Wes Becker Jr. and his father, Wes Sr., who created Cactus Bowl, did very well for a long time. But as much as we enjoyed Cactus Bowl, even my bowling groups moved to Fiesta Lanes on River Road because most of us lived north of River Road.”

That’s progress, for better or worse.

It doesn’t take much to stop and honor or appreciate a place like Cactus Bowl, here or anywhere, and speak of it in the past tense. If you can tear down the original Yankee Stadium, or turn Bear Down Gym into a group of carpeted classrooms, the clock was ticking on Cactus Bowl, too.

By Wednesday morning, two men working on tall ladders worked on the exterior of Santa Cruz Lanes, on South 16th Avenue, which is to be renamed Cactus Bowl. It won’t be the same, but it will keep the name alive as part of Vantage Bowling Centers’ properties.

Already, 16 ladies, men’s and mixed leagues, with 49 teams, are scheduled to inaugurate the new/old place. But it’s not like it was in 1959, when Wes Becker Sr., spent $500,000 for a little piece of bowling heaven and built 180 parking places to handle the anticipated crowds.

On Wednesday, the parking lot was empty.

Sports columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.