Backstory: Americana's back alleys

Candlepin rolls on in New England.

Not that it comes up in conversation much, but when I tell friends that when I was a senior in high school my bowling average was a shade over 100, they look at me with shock, disbelief, or - mostly - total disinterest. Those that do feign interest wonder if I'm attempting deadpan humor or just ignorant of what a good bowling score is. Certainly, they think I'm not boasting.

But I am boasting, kind of. Back in the day, you should have seen me roll. And that's when I tell them that I'm talking about candlepin bowling, and that - unless they've grown up in New England - makes them go, "Huh?" Most of the civilized world bowls ten pin: Big balls, fat pins, two throws, high scores.

For the uninitiated (and we know you are many): Candlepin bowling uses tall, narrow pins (15-1/2 inches high) and small balls - 4-1/2 inches in diameter, 2.4 to 2.7 pounds - about the size of a shot put. The game itself was invented in Worcester, Mass. by Justin P. White back in 1880. In the early days, candles lit the lanes - hence the name.

What's unique? You get three rolls of the ball, but a strike is still one roll and a spare is two. The deadwood - that's pins knocked over - is not cleared away until your turn is over and can thus act as a boon or hindrance to the outcome of your next shot. As in ten pin, achieving a good score is a mix of luck and skill. The deadwood factors in here. There are times when what seems to be a surefire spare goes awry because the ball clunks on the deadwood, and both ball and deadwood skitter toward the gutter. Some bowlers throw fast, others curve it, but consistency and accuracy are the name of the game.

Is the game square, hip, or so square it's hip? Golfers sometimes ask this, and those who love either sport invariably answer, "Who cares?" But how best to explain the allure to the outsider?

"I tell them it's one of the fastest games that any age can play, and then, that it is more fun than any other type of bowling," says Ralph Semb, president of the New Hampshire-based International Candlepin Bowling Association, which has 85 member houses throughout New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.

Mr. Semb also holds the world record for highest score: 240, which he bowled in March 1984 at age 44. The former pro remains on a "mission to promote candlepin bowling.''

Semb came to the game as a teen in 1959. Even though five years later he would make the US Olympic ski jumping team, the sport of candlepin so gripped him, he says, that his family thought, "Why not build a bowling facility close to home?" They did and it's still going in Erving, Mass.

He recalls 24-hour stretches at the lanes. "I loved it. They were great days. It was an era when everybody was doing it and the people were fun to be with. It was like having a typical New England town meeting every night."

In the heyday of candlepin, there were 250 to 300 "'houses'' - as bowlers call them - in Massachusetts. "Most of them have gone,'' says Semb, who now counts just 64 in the state.

There are cozy spots like Jamaica Plain's Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, with seven lanes. It opened in 1914. "We have a diverse crowd," says Milky Way party and reservations manager Miranda Webster. "From neighborhood people to corporate functions."

Ten pin and candlepin crowds create different atmospheres, observes Phil Hamrick, owner of Timber Lanes in Abington, Mass. "There's a little bit more of a personal touch in candlepin, it's kind of like 'Cheers,'" he says, noting that candlepin houses tend to be individually owned and ten pin houses are often part of corporate chains.

Candlepin businesses took a turn south, Semb says, because of the high price of real estate. Also, blue-collar bowlers - a mainstay of candlepin - left when major industries left the region. Bowling leagues faded, and other entertainment options entered the picture. And it was expensive for existing lanes to modernize and introduce bells-and-whistles promotions like loud music and glow-in-the-dark "cosmic bowling," now a popular feature of nighttime bowling.

"It was easier to run down to the mall. People started to thinking: '$4 a game. Is it worth it?'," says Semb.

It's people like Ryan Pelletier, a 22-year-old bowling instructor with a 118 average, who keep the game alive. He grew up at the Webster, Mass. Mohegan Bowl-a-Drome, owned by his parents and describes the allure: "You never know how the pins are gonna fall. I love the challenge of it."

Likewise, Brian Frost - an accountant with a 128 average who started bowling at age 6 because his parents wanted him and his three brothers out of the house on Saturday mornings - got hooked on the challenge 30 years ago.

"When everything is flowing, the pins are going right, you're on target, making your shots, [you've got] that feeling you're unbeatable, untouchable,' he says. His highest one-string score: 181. His goal: 200. His strategy: accuracy not power. He aims not at the pins but at the directional arrows inlaid on the wooden lanes.

As the scores suggest, candlepin is a difficult sport. No one has ever scored a perfect 300 game.

Despite the difficulty of the game and the loss of many houses, the sport is actually enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Hoping to capitalize on New England nostalgia, the Boston WB affiliate will broadcast "Candlepins for Dollars," an hour-long weekly professional competition.

"There was definitely a demand for it," says Kristen Holgerson, spokesperson for WLVI, the local WB station. "People who grew up here have a fond recollection of watching candlepin bowling on the weekend.... We thought it'd be fun to revive it and give it an updated twist and a faster pace. And we're making it more interactive; with audience and viewer involvement."

Renewed interest registers in the upswing in business at the Bowladrome in Woburn, Mass. where manager Ed Gangi notes an increase in family participation. "When the economy slows down, our business goes up - people aren't traveling as much," he says.

The spike in interest shows, too, in the 40-lane Bowladrome's $30,000 Candlepin Challenge, a weekly event broadcast on a local cable channel.

But is candlepin the Rodney Dangerfield of sport? No respect. "We feel like we're sitting on a huge secret we want the world to know about,'' says Maria Angelotti, president of the Massachusetts Bowling Association.

Having written most of this story, I went back to the lanes, to Boston Bowl, which is open 24 hours a day, all year. It has 14 candlepin lanes and 30 ten pin lanes. Marketing and sales manager John Ellis says the young kids opt for candlepin, young adults go for ten pin, and among the 25-and-over group it's split evenly.

I bowled three strings of candlepin. Did I sweat? Yes. Did I get a finger blister? Yes. The scores? A 79, an 81, and a 91. Two spares, no strikes. Average: 83.7. I'll take it after all these years. And I'll be back.

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