Bowling alleys are closing. They are leaving holes in cities and along highways across America, to be filled in by auto dealerships and doctors’ offices and vape shops that hope to become pot shops. Some get turned into storage facilities, others into nothing at all, left to sit and rot in the dark, the pins still set up inside them.
Whether or not you’ve noticed that bowling alleys are closing might depend on where you live and what bowling means to you. In New York City, you might see young people dressed up to bowl while sipping 17-dollar craft cocktails. In most of the rest of the country, that doesn’t happen. Throughout much of the 20th century, in smaller towns and cities, the bowling alley was a community center — a place for people to retreat after work, a little beat down. Every so often someone would land in a league and turn out to be a pretty good bowler, maybe good enough to win a little money on TV. But now those places are shuttering and going away.
The game known as candlepin bowling was invented in 1880 by a man named Justin “Pop” White in Worcester, Massachusetts. Believing that the tenpin game that had taken hold around the rest of the country — a variant of the British game of ninepins, altered by the addition of a tenth pin to subvert overly specific laws against gambling — was too easy, White fashioned a variant for his establishment using a handheld ball and pins resembling the ends of broomsticks. White’s associate, Jack Monsey, later standardized the rules. The new game flourished throughout Worcester’s basement alleys and athletic clubs. It spread to Boston, to Springfield, to New Hampshire and Maine, and up into Canada’s Maritime provinces. But it didn’t spread beyond that, outside of a couple places in Ohio.
In the same way that religions develop offshoots, other bowling variations set down roots in other parts of the continent as proprietors experimented, looking for a niche. Duckpins, featuring squat pins resembling miniature tenpins and a handheld ball about a pound heavier than the one used in candlepins, is concentrated primarily in southern New England, and an even more fringe version of that game, rubberband duckpins, featuring pins with bellies widened by rubber rings, was invented in Baltimore but is now mostly limited to Québec (where it is called petites quilles). Five pins, played using a midsize ball and medium-sized pins and scored by assigning the pins point values, originated in Toronto and now is played predominantly in Central and Western Canada.
This happens in candlepins all the time: the ball punches out the number two pin and the number eight pin behind it, or the number three pin and the number nine pin behind it, and nothing else. You throw a pretty good ball slightly off the head pin and take out two lousy pins, the rest of the rack smiling gap-toothed back at you. In candlepins, as in tenpins, the common pin leaves have names. This one is called a Half-Worcester.
You are left with eight pins standing and the substantial risk of your second ball slipping right through the hole you’ve created. The hole appears as big as a sewer drain.
It doesn’t happen in tenpins, rarely happens in duckpins. A small ball and skinny pins mean lower scores in candlepin bowling. A half-inch can be the difference between a pocket hit and a split. Felled pins remain on the deck, either helping you convert a spare or deflecting the ball away from the pins entirely. The game is made for Yankee suffering simply by defying the safe predictions of physics. If you roll a string over 100, you’ve achieved something.
On Saturday mornings in the ’70s and ’80s, if you lived near Boston, you could watch candlepin bowling on television.
Candlepin Bowling, as the show was called, was hosted by Don Gillis and was taped, for a while, at Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. Sammy White, the proprietor, had been a Red Sox catcher, an All-Star in 1953.
The bowlers on Candlepin Bowling were local men and women who had qualified by winning roll-off tournaments at local bowling alleys. The top bowlers kept coming back, so frequently that you got to know their names: Tom Olszta, Paul Berger, Toni-Marie Baldinelli, Peter Flynn, Stasia Czernicki, Charlie Jutras. Some of them lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, where I lived: Joe Tavernese, Jim Barber, brothers Tom and Mike Morgan. They were machinists, truck drivers, postal workers, and bowling alley managers. They worked and bowled at the houses where we bowled. They shoveled the same snow, ate at the same roast beef restaurants.
The prizes were spending money and a trophy, sometimes an astronaut pen. A bowler who hit three strikes in a row — a rarity in candlepins — won 1000 dollars. A local hardware chain sponsored the championship show every August. For a few years, Candlepin Bowling used Van McCoy’s classic disco instrumental “The Hustle” as its theme song.
The show drew incredible ratings, and the bowlers became local legends. Stasia Czernicki was so famous that when she died, she was profiled on NPR’s Weekend Edition and compared to Babe Ruth.
I was ten when I joined my first candlepin bowling league, held on Wednesdays after school at the Lucky Strike Lanes in downtown Lynn, Massachusetts. The house had turquoise and white art-deco seating, Brunswick ball returns with chrome trim, overhead-projector scoring, and one of those machines, straight out of an Automat, that poured the hot coffee right into the paper cup with poker cards on the side.
Most of the bowlers were my age or slightly older, and though the league was open to any kid, all were boys. The moms would stick around and help move things along while they ashed their cigarettes into the metal trays, complained about their husbands, and kept score.
With time I improved as a bowler. I won awards for high average, high triple series, team championships. The trophies got bigger every year. More importantly, I found kids who had at least heard of the same Saturday morning heroes I worshipped. They knew who Tom Olszta and Joe Tavernese and Tom and Mike Morgan were. Lucky Strike was owned by Jim Barber, who had competed on Candlepin Bowling and was one of only two bowlers in the history of the show to have rolled four consecutive strikes.
Eventually I switched to a Saturday morning league at another alley, but by the time I was 17 I was back at Lucky Strike, bowling in a Friday night adult league with my uncle and his co-workers. I had become a pretty good bowler, the lone teenager in the league, good enough to help the team win once in a while, enough so that I was allowed to be their designated driver when we went out for drinks afterward.
According to lore, the term Half-Worcester originates from an incident in a qualifying tournament between teams from Boston and Worcester. Going into the final box — it is not called a frame in candlepins — the Worcester team needed at least a spare to have a chance to win. The anchor bowler’s first ball punched out just two pins, prompting a member of the Boston team to taunt from the back of the house, “You’re halfway back to Worcester!”
Almost anybody in New England who knows what a Half-Worcester is knows it from Candlepin Bowling and Don Gillis.
When you tell people you are a bowler, they invariably start quoting lines from The Big Lebowski at you. When you tell people you bowl candlepins, they ask how it differs from “regular bowling” or, more dismissively, “real bowling.”
Due to geography, it’s only sporadically that candlepin bowling emerges in popular culture. It gets a mention in John Updike’s 1968 novel Couples, set in the fictional community of Tarbox, Massachusetts. (“Sunday afternoon was his time with the children; at Foxy’s suggestion the four of them went bowling at the candlepin alleys in North Mather.”) There’s a candlepin scene in the 2009 Donnie Wahlberg film Southie.
Or you might have caught a glimpse in 2016, when the Simpsons hate-visit Boston for an episode and Homer goes candlepin bowling. “They even found a way to mess up bowling!” he complains to Bart, before being delighted that, unlike in tenpins, he’s allowed a third ball in each box.
But since many depictions of New England life in film and TV originate from people who do not live there, the neighborhood proximity of the sport gets overlooked. When they go bowling on Cheers, a show that strove to remind us of its Boston credentials, it’s tenpin bowling. At the time of the show, the closest tenpin house to Boston was in the northerly suburb of Malden; the characters may as well be living in Denver or Spokane.
Tenpins continues to encroach onto candlepins’s turf. While most candlepin houses are independently owned, when a tenpin house is built it’s usually part of a chain, such as Kings (ten locations in the eastern United States, including four in Massachusetts), or it’s leased by or licensed to a national brand like AMF (formerly American Machine and Foundry, now best known as a manufacturer of pinspotters and other equipment). Tenpin houses can position themselves to appeal to people who don’t really care about bowling and look more for the escape to a glittery, clublike location where they can drink and horse around with their friends. These houses are shiny, loud, electric. The equipment is new. The lanes are oiled smooth to look like skating rinks.
But for every new chain house that opens, one or more independent houses close, and almost all of the houses that host candlepins, duckpins, and five pins are independent houses. As icons of Americana (and Canadiana), bowling alleys, with their earnest appeal and honest hardware, are being homogenized, refaced with a retro-kitsch aesthetic.
The Big Lebowski finds in the bowling alley a comfortable home base for its heroes. The Dude and Walter and Donny are not serious athletes, but they are serious about their bowling league. That’s the irony. The notion of bowling as a sport of discipline and regimen — something to get better and win at, with parameters testing the limits of the self — is meant to be ridiculous.
But they also know that the bowling alley, amid its routine and structure, provides a finite number of outcomes, and that they won’t be confronted with the unfamiliar. (“Smokey,” explains Walter, “this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”) Here are these men operating with military-level attention in an accommodating milieu of neon and chrome that doesn’t force them to change who they are, its gaudy aesthetics not so much celebrated as accepted.
The only other well-known film centered around bowling is Kingpin, which makes fun of the sport the more formulaic way: by heightening its rituals, the same way that Happy Gilmore makes fun of golf or Talladega Nights treats auto racing. Interviewed in Bowling magazine, Randy Quaid said, “If we can’t laugh at bowling, what can we laugh at?”
But what is there, inherently, to laugh at? Start with the obvious: compared to, say, football or ice hockey, bowling carries the suggestion that it’s trying hard to be anything but a sport. It is non-contact, non-confrontational, played in air-conditioned environments with refreshments and amenities and low risk of injury (apart from dropping the ball on your toes). For many years, the only way to watch tenpin bowling on television was on ABC’s Pro Bowlers Tour, which aired on Saturday afternoons as a lead-in to Wide World of Sports, a juxtaposition that only reinforced the game’s marginalization. One of the most successful bowlers in the early years of Pro Bowlers Tour was Earl Anthony, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and looked like an accountant — nothing like an athlete.
Between the oiled lanes and embroidered polyester, bowling also seems to worry a little too much about style. Proprietors know this, and they are using that self-conscious irony to sell the game to people who do not normally bowl, disrupting the market with boutique lanes unsanctioned by the sport’s governing authority, the United States Bowling Congress. Walk into any one of Kings’ locations and you will find deliberately retro decor meant to evoke bowling’s postwar heyday — kitsch blown up for kitsch’s sake (as opposed to genuine retro, which would entail exposed pipes, wooden pins, poor lighting, stifling humidity, and pin boys working for tips). Even the implements have been turned into an experience. Bowling outfitters made shoes ugly on purpose so that people wouldn’t steal them, but then hipsters started stealing them anyway. Now the shoes aren’t just ugly, their ugliness is emphasized as an asset: They’re made to glow in the dark.
Can bowling as a sport still be taken seriously when its own marketers treat it as rich in unseriousness? The industry, aware of its reputation, has crouched in a defensive position. We’re not even supposed to call them bowling alleys anymore. The industry prefers bowling centers. Alley sounds dank, leaky, infested. Center is supposed to sound clean, state-of-the-art, a locus of modern amenity. State-of-the-art in bowling means flat-screens for keeping score, blinking cursors, disco lights. The industry wants the bowling center to be a destination for families — hence the development of kid-friendly features such as bumper bowling and glow bowling. It means live music, gastropub fare, waitresses on roller skates bringing cocktails to your lane. Anything to distract you from the idea that you are playing a sport.
In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, a study of the problem of declining civic engagement in America. The book makes the claim that Americans’ dwindling interest in social organizations — labor unions, PTAs, scout troops, and bowling leagues — imperils democracy. Putnam writes:
At the peak in the mid-1960s, eight percent of all American men and nearly five percent of all American women were members of bowling teams. Yet . . . if the steady decline in league bowling were to continue at the pace of the last 15 years, league bowling would vanish entirely within the first decade of the new century.
It was common, not that long ago, for bowling teams to be named for the workplaces that sponsored them. You’d form a team with your co-workers, grab a bite after work, then go bowling. This was back when downtowns had business districts.
Now, people who want exercise can seek it out in less structured terms: running, bicycling, the health club, or the pool at the Y. You can do yoga or join a spin class and plug in your earbuds and not talk to anyone there. As long as business deals are closed on golf courses, there will be no shortage of golfers. If people don’t wish to join a country club — or can’t get admitted into one — they can go hit balls at the range.
But bowling is unique in that its participants, even those who bowl alone, need the implements and infrastructure of bowling alleys as much as bowling alleys need bowlers. It is neither easy nor inexpensive to set up a bowling lane in your backyard or cellar, particularly one that adheres to measurements and regulations. As Putnam sees it, so long as people drop out of leagues, the game will cannibalize itself:
The decline in league bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling lane proprietors, because according to the owner of one of the nation’s largest bowling lane chains, league bowlers consume three times as much beer and pizza as do solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that bowlers forgo.
Bowling is an introvert’s sport. It has no defensive element. A bowler’s back is turned to the spectators, making it difficult to close a business deal, or even to have a conversation, over the clatter of pins. Sometimes, in a league, it can be hard to find someone to keep score for you.
Having settled in western Massachusetts, I hadn’t bowled at Lucky Strike in years when I learned the news of its closure by way of a Facebook post in August 2016:
We are sad to announce that after 79 years in business, Lucky Strike will be closing its doors at the end of the month. Thank you to all the bowlers who have been a part of Lucky Strike’s history; you have been a big part of my life over the years and I am truly grateful to have met so many good people. We would like to invite everyone who has been a part of our bowling community to put on your shoes for one last time and join us in a final farewell on August 14th from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Jim Barber and Family
Candlepin Bowling was taken off the air by WCVB in 1996, despite howls of protest from the New England bowling community. With it went the game’s most effective promotional tool; from its noon time slot, the show gave bored locals an idea of something fun to do on Saturday afternoons. There are still tournaments and new shows viewable on YouTube, along with a new generation of star bowlers, but unless you’re already looking for them, you aren’t going to know they’re there.
Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl, where Candlepin Bowling was originally taped, closed in 1986, having acquired an unwanted notoriety: six years earlier, four workers were tied up, bludgeoned, and shot during a robbery. The murderer, a cab driver, had worked at Sammy White’s in the 1970s. A bloody pin found at the scene was determined to have been the bludgeoning weapon.
By then Candlepin Bowling was being taped at another house, the Fairway Sportsworld in Natick. Fairway is gone now, too. In Worcester, where candlepin bowling was born, it’s believed there once existed upwards of 20 candlepin bowling alleys, possibly as many as 40, but now only one remains. The Circle Bowl in Lynnfield, where I attended a number of birthday parties, is no more, as are the Pilgrim Lanes in Haverhill, near where I went to college. After Lucky Strike closed, there was one candlepin alley left in Lynn, and there are rumors it will be converted into a marijuana dispensary.
According to U.S. Census figures, over one quarter of the nearly 5500 bowling alleys operating in the United States in 1998 have since closed, and according to the Orlando Sentinel, one-sixth of bowling alleys nationwide have shut their doors in the last decade. There are fewer than 40 candlepin houses currently operating in Massachusetts, down from three times that number in the late 1980s.
Candlepin proprietors, as well as duckpin proprietors, simply have neither the supply chains nor the network of operations that allows them to upgrade their houses with the fluidity of a chain. So you get aspects that date themselves quickly, like video scoring units with eight-bit graphics reminiscent of the Commodore 64. Any value in a bowling alley is more likely to sit in the property, so when a business fails or a proprietor retires, the new owner will more often than not dismantle the house and convert it to some other kind of establishment.
Obviously, the disappearance of bowling alleys has not escaped the notice of those who devote their lives to bowling. On Facebook, a group page called “Where Have All the Bowling Alleys Gone?” invites users to share images of (and lament over) once-loved establishments that have been razed and ominous news of properties changing over. At the Vintage Alleys Project, Seattle-based photographer and bowler Kevin Hong shares exquisite photos of the interiors of bowling alleys across the United States and Canada, demonstrating a sensitive eye for the classic mid-century architecture: the space-age masking units, the beat-up hardwood, the stainless steel ashtrays. The bowling alley, Hong notes ruefully, “joins pay phones and drive-in theaters as 21st-century rarities.” And while his images of such effects as score tables and fiberglass seating document a distinct American era, I am personally more fascinated by some of the hole-in-the-wall destinations Hong has managed to uncover in his travels — the two-lane alleys hidden in the basements of small-town churches and rural taverns, unknown perhaps even to regular visitors who never ventured downstairs.
When a bowling alley closes, they claw out the rock maple, use the wood from the lanes to make bar tops. They don’t manufacture pinsetters that fit candlepins anymore, so owners harvest the equipment and sell the parts to other houses.
You can tell a bowling alley hasn’t been upgraded for a while if the scoring tables still have ashtrays. Some still have overhead projector scoresheets. Look closely at the glass plate. See if the business advertised on it is still around. See if it has one of those old phone numbers that starts with two letters.
I still bowl in a weekly league. I’m not as good as I used to be and I never got as good as the bowlers on Candlepin Bowling. Now that I’m on the wrong side of 40, with stiffer muscles and creaky knees, it is a challenge to repeat my approach consistently. In spite of this, I remain in love with the game and its wonky physics, its artifacts, its clatter and odors, its loneliness. I like to keep my own score, on the overhead projector, with a wax pencil on the hot glass. No computer-mandated five-letter limit on your name. Color in the strikes and spares, because you never know when you’ll get another one. •
Feature Image by Daniel Alvarez Sanchez Diaz on Unsplash. Candlepin Bowling show image courtesy of Niko Puhar on Youtube. Bowling alley scoreboard courtesy of graphicsbuzz.com. Illustrations created by Emily Anderson.