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On a roll

I’m not a very good bowler. I roll  way more gutter balls than strikes.

Bowling sign in Malden, Mass.

A giant candlepin adorns Ryan Family Amusements in Malden, Massachusetts

But, luckily, you don’t have to be a talented bowler to appreciate bowling alley signs.

California seems to have the best ones — the just-closed Covina Bowl is a Googie classic — but the Northeast has some contenders.  

First, a quick aside.  Growing up in New York, I thought there was only one kind of bowling.  Ten curvy pins and a big heavy ball with three holes for your fingers. Two tries per frame.  

Then I moved to New England and discovered  variations on the theme.  Here, bowling usually meant candlepins or occasionally duckpins.   I learned that the bowling of my youth was properly called tenpins.

So what’s the difference?

  • Candlepins are taller and more cylindrical than tenpins and are tapered at both ends; the ball is much smaller and has no finger holes.  Downed pins, called deadwood, are not cleared between rolls in candlepins, and players are allowed three tries per frame.
  • Duckpins look like squat tenpins and the ball is about the size of a grapefruit. Duckpins are harder to knock over than tenpins, and players are allowed three rolls per frame.
Neon Bowl

Neon tenpins in Times Square in New York City


Diamond Junction Bowling in Palmer, Massachusetts

And because this is New England, bowling here has both a scandal and a curse.  

First the curse.   Duckpin bowling is a lost art;  The New York Times reported about 40 duckpin alleys in 2016, down from nearly 450 in 1963. Some attribute the decline to the Curse of Ken Sherman. (We New Englanders love our curses — Until 2004, Boston Red Sox fans operated under the Curse of the Bambino.)

In 1953, Sherman invented an automatic pinsetting machine for duckpin bowling.  But when his company shut down, he refused to sell the patent for the Sherman Pinsetter to Brunswick Equipment — the big name in bowling.  Without a company to manufacture the pinsetting equipment, the game could not expand and duckpin alleys were forced to rely on antiquated equipment and salvaged parts. 

And the scandal?  Many Bostonians of a certain age remember Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl.  Its owner and namesake was a Red Sox catcher, and the alley featured both tenpin and candlepin bowling.  But in 1980 four employees were killed during a robbery — a bowling pin was one of the murder weapons — and the place never recovered.  Sammy White’s closed a few years later, and a car dealership now occupies the site.

So which is your sport — Duckpins, candlepins, or tenpins?  

Check out my Pinterest board on retro bowling signs.

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