When Bowling Alleys were Community Gathering Places

I am quite sure I’ve addressed this subject before, and I just can’t help bringing it up again.  Bowling alleys…and the thrill of old school bowling establishments with telescores, cigarette smoke, and the bittersweet aroma of beer and lane conditioner.  There are fewer of them around these days and what few there are left aren’t what bowling alleys used to be.  You’d walk through the door and pick up that aroma I just spoke of.  If that smell didn’t draw you to the control counter—the sweet essence of burgers on the grille would lead you right to the snack bar for a pump primer. 

Bowling Alley snack bars did the best burgers. 

The time proven practice of bowling was something of a weekly pastime for a lot of people prior to the advent of the automatic pinsetter in the early 1950s.  There just wasn’t much else to do, especially on a rainy day. Pin boys were a necessary evil.  Someone had to recover pins and return the balls.  Someone also had to risk life and limb—getting beaned by a stray ball, beat up by an angry disgruntled bowler, heat stroke, and hordes of other hazards facing human pinsetters. 

The automatic pinsetter put a lot of pin boys out of work at the cusp of the 1950s.  However, it helped the bowling industry grow to unimaginable proportions in the years to follow.  Many of those pin boys learned how to service and repair the machines that replaced them, which was when foe became friend. 

Post-War America was an incredible time to be alive.  Modern bowling centers—thousands of them—popped up from coast to coast and around the world.  Seems my dad, who was an avid league bowler, was there for every grand opening.  Bowling was so popular in Japan that Brunswick contracted with local industry to build its A-2 pinsetters for the Asian market.  And, when Asia’s passion for bowling began to dry up, bowling centers went under and many of those Japanese pinsetters wound up shipped around the world to countries where interest in bowling was rising. 

What I love most in my bowling memories was the cozy nature of the dusty, smoky old centers I frequented in my youth.  I grew up in suburban Washington-Baltimore where bowling could be found everywhere.  Not only were there bowling centers, seems every suburban community had several bowling centers—one near you.  You couldn’t find an available lane anywhere on a Friday or Saturday night because every house was full and there was a waiting list.  If you could get a lane all the rental shoes and house balls were already spoken for. 

God help you if you landed at a house full of leagues, which consumed most of the lanes for hours on end.  What’s more, you couldn’t get an open lane next to a league.  League bowlers were on the order of golfers.  Their concentration could not be disturbed or there would be hell to pay.

So – what happened to America’s bowling mania?  A changing culture perhaps. Social Media, a collective sociological short attention span, the ever-increasing passion for electronic video games, work-a-holism, and a huge array of alternative entertainment venues.  What made bowling so appealing in its day was less distraction and people actually sat down and chatted with one another between frames and games.  Bowling centers were such a terrific form of entertainment that people would come to the house without bowling in mind—but instead to visit.  Face time, without a personal computer or cell phone.

My 13-year-old son spends most of his time on his laptop or cell phone visiting with his buddies.  When I suggest he go visit with them in person, he looks at me like I have three eyes.  However, it’s more about how I keep two eyes on what he’s doing.  He’d rather chat with them via electronic medium instead of eyeball time in person.

It’s the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen.  For such a connected society, we’re decidedly disconnected.  When I am texting someone and they ask me to call them, I am thinking, “What?!”  That’s how far reaching it is.  I am a baby boomer who would rather text than chat on the phone when I always enjoyed talking on the phone.

I also have a significant hearing loss. 

I have sweet memories of a Saturday morning youth bowling league in Odenton, Maryland when Bowl America up on the hill above Route 175 was buzzing with activity.  There were leagues around the clock seven days a week.  Leagues were what kept bowling centers profitable and open.  Over the past three decades, interest in bowling has faded into oblivion.  People aren’t committed to something as regimented as a bowling league.  They’d rather sit at home and watch HBO or mindlessly play a video game.  Our world has surely changed.          

4 thoughts on “When Bowling Alleys were Community Gathering Places”

  1. The bowling alley was where my friends went when they cut school in Oklahoma City. Pinball machines, pool tables, snack bar, bowling. It really rocked on Friday nights. I never got very good at any of that because I cut school and hung out with girls. Mostly from the Catholic high school because they had looooong lunch hours and I don;t think anybody from that school ever went.


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