The Glorious Past and Bright Future of Candlepin Bowling

Going candlepin bowling was once as popular a treat as a Moxie with a Sky Bar, but this nostalgic pleasure has never really vanished and now seems to be staging a comeback.

The game is the same at Portsmouth’s Bowl-O-Rama, but the owners are adding some modern-day amenities to attract new bowlers. Read all about it here. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

When bowling was church

If it was noon on Saturday and you lived in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, you were slurping tomato soup and crunching on a grilled cheese sandwich. Your TV’s rabbit ears pointed to Needham, Massachusetts, to pick up Channel 5. Even if you missed church occasionally on Sunday, you never missed WCVB’s “Candlepin Bowling” broadcast on Saturday. It was the last television show that families, from grandparents to toddlers, actually watched together. “I watched bowling with my dad every Saturday” has been expressed to me too many times to count.

“Hold on to your tray tables, boys and girls. We’ve got a good one today,” came the familiar pronouncement from velvet-voiced TV host Don Gillis. And so it went for nearly 38 years worth of Saturdays, from 1958 to 1996. New Hampshire had our version, “Candlepin Stars and Strikes,” on the former WNDS, Channel 50 from 1984 to 2005. It was the golden age of candlepin bowling, and New Hampshire contributed some of the biggest stars in a half century of televised candlepin mania.

Dottie Lawruk, retired professional candlepin bowler from Nashua, watched her father write down the results of the Channel 5 show every week from the very first episode in October 1958.

That’s writer Mike Morin on the right with “Candlepin Stars and Strikes” co-host Dick Lutsk

“I used to watch him [record the weekly scores], and then I probably started doing it right after I got married in 1969 and was out of the house. I had to watch it myself if I wanted to see the scores because I wasn’t with my dad anymore,” she says. It was that kind of fan loyalty that gave WCVB and WNDS eye-popping Nielsen ratings for their candlepin shows. Some 200,000 people tuned in every week, often blowing by Red Sox, Bruins, Celts and Patriots TV broadcasts. Out of roughly 20 weekend television sports shows, “Candlepin Bowling” was often No. 1, or at least in the top five. At Derry’s WNDS, “Candlepin Stars and Strikes,” a show I co-hosted, was the top-rated show on the entire station nearly every week.

When Lawruk joined the World Candlepin Bowlers Congress as a touring professional, her father said, “I’m glad one of my kids liked bowling.” As a young child, Lawruk often accompanied her father to the smoke-filled alleys for his weekly league play. Candlepins was a very family-centric activity, both on the couch and on the lanes.

What made the game so intriguing to watch was seeing average Joes and Janes doing extraordinary things with a bowling ball that most people could not do. Just as compelling were the personalities of the mailmen, factory workers and accountants who, because of massive local TV audiences, became unlikely celebrities — all to win maybe $3,000 a year. Some hit five figures from TV and tournaments, but not many. You could never make a living at bowling candlepins like the 10-pin big ballers could.

Aside from the small community of pro bowlers, very few people had access to the off-the-lanes hijinx that made the stars more endearing than today’s multigazillionaire sports figures. They played the game because they loved the challenge and being with each other.

Got a first class ticket, buddy?

Now 70, Candlepin Bowling Hall of Fame member Dan Murphy of Concord should also be inducted into the candlepin yarn spinning hall of fame if they ever build one. Not only is he a top bowling instructor, but Dan owned a bowling center and was a big tournament and TV winner as well as commentator. His stories flow effortlessly, one after another.

He recalls the infamous small plane flight to Bangor to bowl in a tournament. Nashua’s Leda Lanes owner Ray Simoneau offered to pilot his small aircraft to Maine with Granite Staters Gary Duffett, Murphy and Leon Valcourt on board. One small problem — there were only seats for two passengers plus Simoneau, the pilot. For the flight from Boire airfield in Nashua to Bangor, Valcourt, Murphy and Duffett flipped a coin to see who got to sit. The ultimate loser had to lie on the floor with the bowling bags for the flight’s duration. For the ride back, the bowler with the lowest tournament total was relegated to ride with the baggage. Murphy was the double loser, but not by much.

“I lost a coin flip for the ride up and then lost to Gary by one pin for the 10-game tournament and had to ride that way on the trip back,” says Murphy. “It was freakin’ cold in that luggage compartment. I got my pilot’s license years after that and I realize now that the plane probably was too heavy to legally fly. I was not that smart back in those days,” he admits. “We all thought it was pretty cool to be able to fly to a candlepin bowling tournament,” he says, which tells you something about the modest seminomadic lifestyle of a candlepin competitor.

Brotherhood of the exploding pants

Now 70, Candlepin Bowling Hall of Fame member Dan Murphy of Concord should also be inducted into the candlepin yarn-spinning hall of fame if they ever build one. Not only is he a top bowling instructor, but he owned a bowling center, was a big tournament and TV winner as well as commentator. His stories flow effortlessly, one after another.

As a TV color analyst, Murphy was second to none. He served on-camera in that capacity for many shows, including on “Big Shot Bowling,” where he sat alongside the game’s most outrageous play-by-play announcer Bob Fouracre on an episode where candlepin bowling for one poor contestant nearly became a pants-optional match.

“I forget the fellow’s name,” Murphy says. “But he warms up, we start the show, and the first ball he throws his pants explode. Ripped open in the center. It was like popcorn popping. BOOM! Well, they ran that [replay] back and forth, back and forth and when they split, his hand went down to cover his groin area and his other hand went down the back, like, ‘Did it go all the way around?’ Of course, Fouracre is laughing and when they come back from the break, they show it again. The poor guy. It was his birthday. His parents were in the audience and guess what they had for a birthday present? A pair of pants. For the next several weeks, they opened the show with that embarrassing sequence.”

You don’t know it but drinks are on you

Not only did Lawruk record the TV scores every week for decades, but as a professional bowler, she became involved with running the monthly pro tournaments. For these events, there was a dress code for competitors, which included a mandatory club patch on their bowling shirts. If bowlers failed to comply, they would be assessed a fine.

At one particular tournament, Gary Carrington of Plaistow was warned by Lawruk that since he did not have his W.C.B.C. patch, he’d be fined five bucks. After repeated reminders that his scores would not count, Lawruk recalls that Carrington pulled out his wallet and defiantly fired it at her. She fished out a $5 bill then proceeded to head to the bowling alley bar, which was filled with tournament bowlers, and pulled out more of Carrington’s money, unbeknownst to him.

“So I go in the bar and told the bartender, ‘All these guys at the bar, I want to buy them each a beer,’” she says.

“Really?” asked a surprised bartender

“Oh, yeah,” she replied.

“He gets them all a beer and I paid about 15, 18 bucks, whatever it was. I went back and gave Gary his wallet.” Upon my intent to share the story for my book, she sheepishly apologizes with, “Oh, sorry, Gary. He’s going to read this for the first time. He never knew. He never said anything to me. He had about 80 bucks in his wallet.”

When I conveyed her story to Carrington decades later, he was surprised and took it well.

“No, I didn’t know about that,” he says, laughing heartily. “I remember the patches. I don’t remember throwing my wallet at Dottie. I always thought the patch would ruin my shirt, so I didn’t wear one. I paid the five bucks every time.” Just to close the loop on the past, Carrington remarks, “You got me, Dottie. I didn’t know I was missing money. It’s a funny story.”

Charlie Jutras

Is Best Buy having a TV sale?

Even though Charlie Jutras was from Massachusetts, he bowled frequently in the Granite State, including on the Channel 50 show “Candlepin Stars and Strikes” at Leda Lanes.

Now, our show offered cash prizes, but there were some smaller shows years ago that gave away everything from watches to TVs, which brings us to Jutras and his van full of television sets.

As he tells it: “I was driving down the highway with Muskie [Dominic Muscolo], smoking a cigar. I was going a little too fast and the cop pulls me over, has his club out, banging on the window, has a flashlight and says, ‘What do you have back there?’”

‘I got televisions, seven of them.’

‘Where’d you get those from?’

‘Muskie pipes up, ‘Well, he robbed them.’ [laughter]

The cop made me get out of the truck, opened up the side door in the van. I told the cop, you can call up Channel 27 and Bob Fouracre. You can ask Bob Fouracre that I actually won ’em.’ So, he goes back to his cruiser. And he came back over to me.

‘You’re OK,’ cop says.

‘Thank you.’ And he says, ‘You gotta get better friends.’ Cop let me go, I’m driving down the highway so Muskie says, ‘What did the cop say to you?’

‘He said, ‘I need better friends.’

‘Muskie says, ‘What was your ticket?’

‘He didn’t give me one.’

‘Well, who’s your best friend, now?’”

Climbing Heartbreak Lanes

As you see, bowlers are a loony bunch. Take this story as further proof. For the past 30 years, Leda Lanes has hosted its Easter Classic 20-string tournament. With a $5,000 top prize, big by candlepin standards, dozens of the world’s best bowlers start their day with Easter Sunday services, hide Easter eggs, grab a ham sammy, and then it’s out the door for 11 grueling hours of candlepin bowling in Nashua starting at noon.

After the first 10 strings, bowlers adjourn to Kegler’s Den for some dinner and carb-loading via bottles of Budweiser. Back onto the lanes for the final 10 games, which usually goes to about 11 p.m. The winner walks away with a big trophy and a not-too-shabby paycheck.

There’s even a guy from Chicago, Steve Miller (not the “Abracadabra” Steve Miller) who, because he doesn’t drive, has taken a bus for the 1,000-mile trek to Nashua. He’s also not the “Take the Money and Run” Steve Miller because, with his low average, he usually finishes in last place. For his $150 entry fee, he just loves to hang out with top candlepin bowlers. Miller earns his living writing about horseracing and is philosophical about tossing away $150 every spring.

“For me, when I had money, I lost plenty of bets that were more than $150. Losing $150 doesn’t scare me. It should. I’d be a much wealthier person if I was much more risk-averse,” says Miller. “$150. Twenty games. That’s $7.50 a game plus you get fed on Easter. I get to bowl against and next to all these great bowlers. For me, it’s like the biggest bargain in the world.” He says the bowlers treat him well and he looks forward to renewing New Hampshire friendships every Easter.

Since the Easter Sunday (April 21 this year) bowling marathon lands very close to the Boston Marathon (April 15 in 2019), I wondered how many people have participated in both grueling events. After weeks of searching, I could only find one guy who has done both, Kyle Shaw, 25, from Connecticut, who points to similarities and differences in competitive strategies for both marathons.

“Bowling is not like running in the way that in bowling, you can always make up ground — there is no excuse to mentally take a break,” says Shaw. “In bowling, you never know when a triple (three consecutive strikes) could drop, and you throw a 150-plus game anywhere, and make up 40 pins in game 16, 18 or 20. In running, you will not all of a sudden be a bit extra lucky and put in a 4:30 mile and make up two minutes. In both sports, you need to have a strong mentality from the beginning. Both sports have their own strategies, of course, but getting frustrated or lazy is never good,” he says.

When I put out the word on Facebook looking for people who’ve done both, I was met with the expected snarky responses from bowlers, such as: “I once watched all five ‘Rocky’ movies in a day. That’s kind of like a marathon.” New Hampshire pro bowler Duffett said, “I bowled the Easter Classic and my daughter ran the Boston Marathon. Close enough?” It appears bowling and running don’t mix but candlepins and classical music do, apparently, as bowling pro John Kafalas admitted he bowled in the Easter marathon tournament as well as attended the three-day Bruckner Society’s Brucknerathon, where fans of composer Anton Bruckner listen to his symphonies. Meal breaks are also provided.

Ironically, the Boston Marathon course winds its way through candlepin country, where, anecdotally, only one person has ever competed in both long-haul events. Or as New Hampshire bowler Mike Poulin jested, “Run the Marathon? I’m not sure I could drive it.”

Keeping score was never this fun. The Bowl-O-Rama overhead scoring monitors use both names and photos of the players. By the way, that’s Mike Morin taking his turn. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Rebooting Bowling

Can leather furniture and homemade nachos reboot the candlepin bowling industry? Such creature comforts might appeal to millennials, but surely it will take more than a shopping spree at Bernie and Phyl’s to turn things around. Right?

Both candlepin and 10 pin bowling have suffered declines in recent decades for many reasons, and some owners  are floundering to recapture lost business, but one New Hampshire candlepin center has taken the evolving market changes seriously, creating what many feel is the new face of candlepin bowling. The plan does, by the way, include plush leather furniture and tasty treats.

Bowl-O-Rama Lanes on Lafayette Road in Portsmouth is not your grandfather’s bowling alley. For starters, they’re not called bowling alleys any longer, a term that conjures up the smoke-filled, musty-smelling place where your grandpa bowled in his weekly beer league.

Food is no longer barred from the lanes at Bowl-O-Rama. Owner Andrew Maderios installed new seating and tables at each lane to allow players to eat and hang out in comfort. Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Bowling was on the rise in 1956 when the Genimatas family opened Bowl-O-Rama. They ran the business until just last year, finally selling it to Bart, Mary-Lynne and Andrew Maderios. At 32, manager Andrew has a vision for what a candlepin center should offer if it wants to be around for a while. And these changes don’t come cheap.

“Our goal,” says Maderios, “Is to see how many different things we can offer a guest when they come in.” Traditional choices are bowling, previously frozen food, maybe beer and wine and coin-operated video games. That business model works for some owners. Not for Maderios.

Bowl-O-Rama has installed couch seating for every pair of lanes, of which there are 22. There is a coffee table in the middle and it all can be reconfigured for corporate and birthday parties. Gone are the uncomfortable plastic injection molded seats.

When asked on a recent night at Bowl-O-Rama, Matthew, 37, who bowls during the Monday night My Social Sports league, said he’s a fan of the new functional décor.

“The new setup lends itself to more interaction. Everybody here [in this league] has pretty much met through Bowl-O-Rama and are now friends.” The 16-lane, 64-person mixed league is more about friendship than bowling for blood. “It’s definitely competitive, but it’s a friendly kind of competition,” Matthew says. “You’re competing against your friends so you cheer for them when they do well, even when they’re playing against you. You want to beat them but it’s not the primary focus.”

This pleases Maderios, who recalls the first weekend with the new furniture, “I remember looking up and down the lanes, seeing food and beer and sodas everywhere all over those low-top tables,” he says. “I think the furniture is helping to drive our sales.” The old style of candlepin, he adds, where a fear of spills on the lanes meant no food or drink in the bowling area, is gone.

Photo by Kendal J. Bush

“People want to eat and drink, and that’s part of the social experience,” he says. “If you’re telling them no, you’re missing an opportunity.”  That works for 29-year-old Marissa of Stratham, who plays in the My Social Sports league.

“It’s a social league. You drink beer and make friends,” she says. “It’s what younger league players are looking for.”

The book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” by New Hampshire author and National Humanities Medal recipient Robert Putnam cites bowling’s declining league participation as a symptom of America’s overall loss of social interaction. What if, instead of acting as a symbol of loss, centers like Bowl-O-Rama could start changing that trend, one league bowler at a time?

While leagues, once the bread and butter of the bowling business, may never return to their heyday status, millennials are enjoying the less-formal version offered by groups like the My Socials. Plus, says Maderios, “Our league bowling participation is up 16 percent just this year over last.”

Bowl-O-Rama took the bold step of adding a chef-run restaurant, which offers “elevated shareable pub fare,” Maderios adds. No steaks, but think high-end pizza, craft burgers, sliders, loaded nachos and other food that can be delivered to the lanes, shared and eaten just feet from the bowling approaches, which is encouraged. The owners are hoping the draw of the food alone will lead to some new bowling patrons. Marissa is a fan of the upgraded food already.

“I like the loaded nachos. Homemade chili. They make their pickles in-house. They even make their own hummus.”

Photo by Kendal J. Bush

The new scoring terminals are colorful and fully automatic. Players can upload a photo in place of their name if they choose. Sort of Instagram-meets-candlepins.

Some 10-pin bowling centers also offer paintball and movie theaters. Those are not on the drawing board here, but Maderios, a former music teacher, wants to host live local bands to jam on a stage set up on two or three lanes while customers bowl. And they hope to show movies on the masking units that are just above the pin decks, serving as massive viewing screens.

Will the new ways lose the old guard?

Fifty-year-old league player Mark from Alton thinks the Maderios family is on the right track with the changes.“We’re going to need bigger places like this with their style and way of doing it,” he says.

Creating relevant family-oriented entertainment options translates to multiple revenue streams awash with bright colors, high-end food and service staff with can-do attitudes. Now, at the end of a long day, bowlers can bowl a few strings and relax on comfy sofas instead of cold, plastic seats. And if spectators get a bit too excited about a converted spread eagle in the last frame of a tournament, they can even spill their drinks and not get yelled at.

Tips for Beginners and Experienced Candlepin Bowlers From Dan Murphy

Dan Murphy has run a bowling instructor’s school for three decades, generating over 800 certified instructors who are available at local bowling centers to help your game. In addition to teaching the teachers, Murphy owned Boutwell’s Bowling Center in Concord, and was once even a candlepin TV commentator. As a professional competitor, he won seven Pro Tour titles. Only five male bowlers in history have won more World Candlepin Bowlers Congress singles events. He is also a member of the International Candlepin Bowling Association’s Hall of Fame.

What’s the first thing I need to know when I step up onto the lane?
The biggest thing is the grip of the ball. People often pick the ball up off the rack, then they readjust it in their hand and they set it in the palm of their hand. You can’t get a consistent release if it’s [resting] in the palm of your hand. The way you pick it up is the way you should hold it.

Should I try to throw the ball hard?
Sometimes, the harder you throw, the less accuracy you have. When you start overthrowing, you pull up at the foul line, instead of staying down with your shot for a good follow-through.

What should I be looking at? The lane arrows or pins?  
Focus down the lane where the pins are. A common fault is that people drop the ball, driving the ball into the floor just over the foul line where their eyes drop down to the floor. That’s why I want them focusing down the lane.

What’s a good age to start kids candlepin bowling?
If we can get them throwing one-handed by 5 or 6 years old, they can move their hands quickly enough so the ball doesn’t fall out. We always use the channel bumpers [for a while], and gradually wean them off because it’s like a bicycle’s training wheels. The bumpers give them confidence and they actually knock pins down.

Do I need to buy my own shoes and balls?
Shoes, definitely. Balls are not as necessary [bowling centers provide them]. The most important thing is to get that approach and arm swing down to get a little confidence. Consistency is what you need to get that good release every single time.

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