San Diego bowlers have dropped from 66,000 to 8,000

Nobody in the local lanes has read Bowling Alone

At night, the exterior of Kearny Mesa Bowl is not inviting. Set toward the back of a big parking lot on the south side of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, about a block west of Convoy, the bowling alley occupies a white box of a building, adorned only by blocky neon letters: KM in powder blue, and BOWL in a shade of sapphire so dark it's almost menacing. The parking-lot lights do little to illuminate the façade, and the interior, visible through the small set of glass doors, looks dim.

Opened in 1976, this is one of two bowling alleys left in the city of San Diego. (The other is Mira Mesa Lanes, owned by the same partnership.) To longtime local bowlers, the statistic is heartbreaking. As recently as the early '80s, they could choose among 30 to 40 facilities countywide and find plenty of companionship at each. The San Diego Women's Bowling Association in 1986 counted 26,000 members, and about 40,000 men belonged to a separate group. Thousands of junior bowlers composed yet a third organization. But today a total of only 8500 individuals belong to the one entity — the United States Bowling Congress — into which the previous three have merged.

Kearny Mesa Bowl

7585 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa

You might expect the interior of the Kearny Mesa facility on an average Thursday night to be bleak. At the entrance the glass is tinted, cloaking the activity inside. But open one of the doors and a bright, noisy scene is revealed, clusters of players congregating at the head of every one of the 40 gleaming lanes, a couple of hundred bowlers in all. Johnny Humble, the general manager of the Kearny Mesa and Mira Mesa facilities, says that his lanes are full every Thursday night from six to nine -- as well as every other night of the workweek. "I'm sold out till May. I have no [open] lanes. People call every night, looking for lanes, and we have to tell 'em to try at nine o'clock." Even then, league players fill some of the lanes. Big chunks of the weekends are sold out, too.

I met Humble at the center in November to talk about bowling in San Diego. Humble, 41, was born in Pomona, the youngest of five. When he was 3, he told me, his mother let him watch her play with her ladies' bowling league. "The next week she got a babysitter for me. All my brothers and sisters were in school." When the sitter wasn't watching, Humble slipped out and found his way back to the bowling center, a journey of a mile or so. "I walked over a major street. When I found where she was bowling, I just sat down behind her lane. It took her about ten minutes to notice me."

Soon the tyke was heading for the bowling center even when his mother wasn't there. "The guys at the desk would call the police, who would come get me. They'd take me home." But Johnny would return, and the bowling center personnel began to let him throw a lightweight ball. "They'd give me a soda. Call my mom, and she'd come get me." When he was five, Humble's family moved to Escondido, and his mother, an accountant, began working at Palomar Lanes, cattycorner from Escondido Bowl across Centre City Parkway. Today Humble shakes his head at the thought of this abundance. The town had 36,000 people, yet supported two thriving bowling alleys, cheek by jowl. Humble was competing in leagues by the time he was five or six, and throughout grade school and high school he excelled at the sport. He still does. He reached into a drawer, pulling out a box that contained a silver ring, set with a large red stone and a solitary diamond, his latest prize for bowling a perfect 300-point game. "You can get one [ring] per calendar year." Humble's won so many he's lost count.

There was a time when he was young, Humble said, when he thought of becoming a professional bowler. But pros travel all the time, and they don't make that much money, and "it takes balls to be out there." Furthermore, Humble always found a way to make money from bowling within San Diego County. When he was 12, he began keeping score for the adults at Palomar Bowl. (This was before there were machines to automate that task.) He cleaned the bathrooms and delivered ice and filled vending machines and put balls back on racks. He emptied trash. At 13H , he got a work permit that allowed him to do this legally. "They said I could work 16 hours a week. We stretched that out as much as possible." Sometimes he ditched high school to hang out with the five full-time mechanics who serviced Palomar's pin-setting machines. He and his mother finally quit the center in a dispute with the management, and after high school, Humble worked in construction. But the jobs dried up in the early '90s, and he decided on a whim to stop in at North County Lanes, the bowling center on Nordahl Drive and Highway 78 that had opened around 1986. "I walked in, and everybody said, 'Johnny! How you been?' When you're in bowling, you know everybody." He went to work on the desk that afternoon and soon became the night manager, a post he held until North County Lanes closed in May 1996.

At that point, one of the big bowling companies wanted to send Humble to China to install centers there. He got his passport and immunizations, but before he could depart, someone at Kearny Mesa Bowl called to offer him a job as assistant manager. Humble took it, and in 1999 he became the general manager. The industry was struggling; close to 25 centers had closed over the preceding 25 years.

Humble says that lots of lanes at Kearny Mesa Bowl were empty when he first worked there, but he threw himself into cultivating business from bowling leagues. "I'm very old-fashioned with my structure," he confessed. He grew up in a universe where the majority of bowlers were playing in leagues, and he prefers running an institution where that's still the case. "It's structured. It's formulated. You know what you're getting every night." Moreover, you get to know the players. Humble can tick off a list of wildly diverse professions among his league regulars: a demolition expert, a jury commissioner, car dealers, scientists. "The networking capability is incredible."

By 2001 Humble had filled all the Kearny Mesa center's lanes with league players during the prime evening hours. Demand for the lanes from leagues intensified in the wake of the August 2005 closure of Sunset Bowl in Clairemont. Humble was able to accommodate some of the folks who had been playing there, but a lot of them had to quit for lack of a place to play. "It's a shame," Humble says. "People bowling together for 25-30 years, closer than family."

From the end of World War II through 1965, bowling leagues enjoyed a different story. Growth was explosive. "At the peak, in the mid-1960s, 8 percent of all American men and nearly 5 percent of all American women were members of bowling teams," writes Robert D. Putnam in his bestselling book Bowling Alone. But from the late 1960s through the 1970s, league membership stagnated, and between 1980 and 1993, it plunged by more than 40 percent, according to bowling industry data. Writing in 2000, Putnam noted, "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."

I couldn't find a single bowler in San Diego County who had heard of Bowling Alone. That's not surprising. Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard University, and his book really isn't about bowling. Rather it reports on the dramatic decline in participation in all manner of community groups and social activities in America since the 1960s. While we were dropping off our bowling teams, we also began to lose appetite for a host of things once woven into the fabric of American life: voting and working on political campaigns, attending PTA and Elk's Lodge gatherings, playing cards and having friends over, even going to church and dining together with our immediate family members. None of these activities is yet extinct, but the graphs in Putnam's book have an eerie and depressing similarity. Whether illustrating participation in blood drives or union membership or belonging to a bowling team, you see a rise in activity through the first half of the century. Then in the '70s and '80s, the numbers take a nosedive.

The problem with disengaging from all these social activities, according to Putnam, is that they have a value that goes beyond any specific pastime. Doing things in the company of others -- be it stuffing envelopes for a candidate or dancing tango every Tuesday -- creates connections that make both individuals and groups happier and more productive. Data "from diverse surveys" suggest that up to half of all Americans find their jobs through social networks. People also find pals to help them when they move and sympathetic ears. Social ties "foster sturdy norms of reciprocity," Putnam argues. "I'll do this for you now, in the expectation that you (or perhaps someone else) will return the favor." They also "facilitate gossip and other valuable ways of cultivating reputation -- an essential foundation for trust in a complex society."

Even health and happiness correlate strongly with social ties, Putnam asserts. More than a dozen studies in the United States, Scandinavia, and Japan have shown that socially disconnected people are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with matched individuals who have close ties with family, friends, and the community. "As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half." The findings for happiness are no less dramatic. Putnam writes, "The single most common finding from a half century's research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one's social connections."

I can't tell you if the members of the PIA League are any healthier than the folks who spend their Thursday evenings sitting home and watching Ugly Betty. But they do seem like happy people, particularly Chuck Shock, one of Kearny Mesa Bowl's regulars. "You want to know what makes bowlers tick?" he asked. "Competition! Fun! It's like any sports program. People get to enjoying what they do and love the people they're around and just have fun."

Shock wears his gray hair so short it's just shy of baldness. That and the smoothness of his skin give him a baby-faced appearance that belies his 70 years. He's been bowling for 53 of them. From his earliest experiences back in Anderson, Indiana, he felt passionate about the sport. "Because you're with people that you know, people you like. And you just keep going."

Shock kept going through 22 years in the Navy, a career that took him all over the world. "I bowled in Japan. I bowled in Korea. I bowled in Hong Kong and Singapore." When he retired, he worked as a civil servant in the Navy headquarters building at the foot of Broadway, serving as paymaster for the western United States. During those years, there were periods when he was bowling three nights a week, even though his wife hates the game. "With a passion!" he said, amused. "She thinks bowling is like watching paint dry." Shock's wife did share his affection for the people he bowled with, so she'd drop in to chitchat. "There were some ladies bowling with us, and she'd have a drink with 'em and socialize. It's very social." She also enjoys traveling with Shock to bowling tournaments. "We've gone to the nationals 23 years in a row," he boasted. "It's held in different cities every year. We're going to Reno this year. Next year we go to Las Vegas. Then after that, we go to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then to Wichita, Kansas." The state tournament, held in cities all over California, has lured them for every one of the last 15 or 20 years.

Shock gradually cut back on the number of bowling leagues he belonged to, but not because he lost his appetite for bowling. "I'm getting to the age where the knees give out. The back gives out. The arm gives out." He joined his one remaining league, the PIA, about 15 years ago. A printer by the name of Tommy Burnett started it in the early '60s as a way for local printers to have fun together (PIA stands for Printers International Association). But over the years, plenty of nonprinters have been admitted to its ranks.

Bowling leagues fall into two general categories: scratch and handicap. The best bowlers compete against each other in the former, and they must have a minimum average score to participate. The prize money doled out at the end of each season can bring each of the winning team members several thousand dollars, and hence the games are more serious. "The people are there to have fun also," one scratch-league player told me. But they do it with a bit of tension and stress in the mix.

In contrast, handicap leagues encourage a more lighthearted atmosphere. Players of widely varying abilities can compete against each other through the use of scoring systems that compensate for the differences in ability. Shock says the PIA has been a handicap league all the years he's been involved with it. "With a scratch league, they're in it for the money," he explained. "Whereas in the handicap league, most players bowl to have fun."

Shock didn't know if the PIA ever required its members to wear team shirts, once a fixture of the bowling scene. "Sponsors used to buy your shirt. You'd get fined a quarter if you didn't wear it." But that practice disappeared 20 to 25 years ago. I talked with Shock on several occasions, but the first time I met him, he was wearing a cheery Hawaiian print, brown slacks, and a snappy-looking pair of white Dexter bowling shoes.

"Oops, gotta bowl," he excused himself, hustling to pick up his ball and send it flying down the polished corridor. Colliding with the pins, the ball produced the explosion of sound you hear every few seconds in a busy bowling alley, as rhythmic as surf crashing on the shore. There's a violence in those bursts of clattering pins that gives the place an edgy energy, more hyperactive than any cocktail party. The bowlers are always in flux, moving up to take their turns, then withdrawing to watch their teammates and chat or to take a pull from their beer bottles or buy raffle tickets or snack on jalapeño-stuffed olives or whatever else someone has brought in for the evening. The bowling centers sell food, too. At Kearny Mesa, you can buy onion rings and nachos and cheese sticks, deep-fried mushrooms and curly fries, and fish and chips, and corn dogs, and half a dozen different types of sandwiches. But Shock never buys that stuff. He doesn't like to bowl on a full stomach. "Instead I eat about 3:30 in the afternoon," he said.

Bowling does provide a mild form of exercise, and bowlers are always striving to meet personal goals. Shock, for instance, has bowled a perfect game twice in practice sessions, but he's never scored a 300 during a league game, and he'd love to do that. Then his name would be inscribed on a plaque, like one of the hundreds hanging above the lanes. "I'd also like to get an 800 series. That's averaging 267 a game for three games."

But it's neither the exercise nor the competition that has kept him in the sport over the years. "It's the camaraderie," he said. "You get to know people, and you want to come back and visit." Between turns, Shock often walks down the lanes, greeting not only the fellows in his own league but also the members of the Thirsty Nites, who fill up lanes 15 to 32, and the gay Rainbow League bowlers, men and women both, who play in the 14 lanes at the far end of the building. "Or they'll come down here and talk to us," Shock said. "Bowling is very interactive. We talk about everything." One night, he was sporting a prominent white bandage on the top of his head, and people asked him about it. "They did a biopsy two weeks ago and found out that I've got a basal cell cancer." A more reliably cheerful topic of conversation was kids. "Like Steve Crawford, the dark-headed guy standing over there." Shock pointed him out. "He adopted a little girl about five years ago. Every time I come in, I ask him how she's doing." For the most part, the guys in the PIA get along like brothers. "There's one or two people that every once in a while will cuss and say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Then they'll look at me, 'cause I'm the secretary." Shock warns them in his genial fashion not to do it again. Hard feelings seldom result. In tough times, the team members provide each other with moral support. "We'll get a card and everyone will sign it for a sick person. For a death, we'll go to the funeral. It's a strong relationship."

Shock's explanation for the decline in bowling is simple: economics. He cites the closure of Sunset Bowl in Clairemont as a prime example of the kind of pressure working against the sport. "They were offered $32 million for the land." How could anyone turn that down? Furthermore, as bowling alleys closed, the cost of playing at the surviving centers climbed. "It's expensive. Like here, it's $20 a night." (Half of that goes to the bowling center, while the other half feeds the league's prize fund.) "Back 15 to 20 years ago, it was $5 or $7 a night. That makes a difference."

Shock dashed off to bowl again, and I got to talking with Jim Fox, a youthful 63-year-old with a trim white mustache and a ready smile. Bowling isn't his only sport. He also bicycles 60 to 70 miles a week, a habit he's had since he was in his 20s. His introduction to bowling came about the same time. He'd just gotten out of the Army and went with a couple of friends one night to play a few games at University Lanes (not far from San Diego State). "I enjoyed the heck out of it, and I realized I was pretty good at it," he recalled. For a while, he bowled with family members and friends on an occasional basis, but then he put his name on a waiting list to join a league. "I wanted to get better, and I knew that on a team, everybody would be pushing me, and that would make me bowl better. When you get on a team, you want to do your best."

About 15 or 20 years ago, Fox joined the PIA league, even though he isn't a printer. (He works as a purchasing agent for a machine shop.) He'd been involved with lots of leagues over the years -- as many as five at a time. "It almost got to the point where it was too much. So now, this year, I'm only bowling four, although I'm also subbing in a couple other leagues." He was a good enough bowler that most teams welcomed his presence, and that felt good too.

Fox's average falls within the 200 to 215 range -- good enough to participate in a Friday night scratch league. He enjoyed the competition there, but for him, as for Shock, the interpersonal pleasures of the sport are paramount. "The people are so cool," he says. "Everybody's here, doing the same thing, and that's what makes it so nice. Good bowler, bad bowler. It doesn't matter. You're all here for the same thing. You're having a good time. You're relaxing, just enjoying things. Having a couple of beers."

To a surprising extent, being involved with bowling made San Diego feel like a small town. "You see everybody everywhere," Fox said. "You go to the grocery store, and there's someone from the league. So you ask them how they did the other night." Sometimes he does things with teammates outside the bowling arena. "Like, we'll go out and have a nice dinner together or something."

Fox ran off to bowl. When he returned, he said, "We talk about everything. Like Gil here." He motioned to another friendly-looking fellow standing nearby. "A few years ago, he went to the Padres' Fantasy Baseball camp. Tonight, he brought the pictures he took there, and he was showing them to me. There's a lot of things that happen in between the time you're actually rolling the ball. It's not all bowling."

"That's right," Gil vonMueller concurred. By the end of a season, you're likely to know not just everyone playing in your league but the players in the other leagues as well. Most leagues play for more than 30 weeks a year. "So you say hi to someone one night, and maybe you get into a conversation. That's one thing about bowlers. They're very friendly people. You see 'em week in and week out, and you just become sociable with them. You get to know what their occupation is and what they like to do in their spare time, when they're not bowling." When you click with someone, you might do other things together, "go out to a baseball game or play cards or something. You become friends."

VonMueller speaks from the perspective of 46 years spent around bowling alleys. Like Humble, he was three the first time he got his hands on a bowling ball. "I was too small even to wear bowling shoes. I bowled in my socks. They gave me a six-pound ball, and I used two hands to throw it." His mother, father, and older brother all were bowlers.

He was crazy about the pastime and participated in junior leagues throughout his years at Marston Junior High School and Clairemont High, "Then I started bowling a lot of amateur tournaments around California and in other places around the country. I never made a full living at it. It was only part-time," something he did for the extra cash and the competitive rush. Weekdays, he worked as a sales representative for Frito-Lay. "I did that for about ten years." Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings he bowled with different San Diego leagues, then he'd take off every Friday night to travel to a tournament. Named San Diego Bowler of the Year in 1988-1989 and 1991-1992, vonMueller at his peak boasted an average of 231 points. (To achieve that number, you have to throw strikes seven out of ten times on average, over the course of around 100 games.)

He met his wife through one of the bowling leagues, but the marriage didn't last, and vonMueller says his lust for bowling also began to abate around ten years ago. Today he only plays on Thursday nights with the PIA league. "Just don't have the interest or the time like I used to." Now he golfs on Wednesday nights. During the summer, he often attends baseball games, and he serves as a Little League umpire. One of his bowling-team members has a daughter who's a cheerleader at Helix High School, so sometimes he catches those football games.

VonMueller can't imagine ever abandoning bowling altogether. "It's been with me almost all of my life." He could look to his mother's example. Now 73, she's still an active bowler. VonMueller suggested that she'd be a good person to talk to, if I wanted a better sense of what bowling had been like at its zenith in San Diego.

I found Doris vonMueller at the Kearny Mesa center on a Tuesday a little after noon. Each week, that's when her team Who Wants to Know plays in the Joe Norris Classic Trio League. As a general rule, you have to be 55 or older to join this league (they do make exceptions occasionally and admit younger family members), which was started in 1976 by Norris, a legendary local bowler. (Norris was still competing when he died in 2001 at the age of 93. Among other things, he broke the record for knocking down more pins than anyone in the history of bowling, a record that still stands today.) After two years of operating as a scratch league, the players switched to a handicapping system that Andy Gagliano, who helped Norris found the league, boasts is "the best system developed in any league. It makes everybody competitive, and that's the whole point." Every week each player competes against his or her own current average. "So say you're a 150 and I'm a 200. We go to compete. I shoot 188 -- 12 points under my average. You shoot a 160, ten pins over your average. You win! It's the most over or the least under. If you shoot 145 and you're only 5 points under (versus my 12 points under), you still win. So every week, if the bowlers bowl good and their averages go up, the next week, they gotta bowl a little harder."

I found Doris, a trim woman with deep-set brown eyes, fluffy blonde hair, and a long nose, playing on Lane 19. She introduced me to her two teammates, 83-year-old Ruby Stephens and Ruby's 60-year-old daughter, Pam Drumel. Doris traces their interconnection back more than 50 years. "On February 23, 1956, I was in Sharp Hospital, having my first son. And Ruby's sister Billy was in the same hospital. She had given birth the day before to a girl."

Despite their simultaneous entry into motherhood, the two women didn't really become acquainted until several years later, when they were both bowling at the old Clairemont Bowl. "We got to talking about family and kids one day, and come to find out, we were both in the same hospital on the same day. Her Terry was bowled on a Thursday, and I think my Jim was bowled on a Friday."

"Do you mean they were 'born'?" I asked.

"Yeah," Doris said, still not catching her slip of the tongue.

Doris and Billy became close friends. "I always call her my sin sister, because we used to go to Vegas all the time," Doris said. She got to know Ruby, because Ruby would watch her sister play when Billy was one of the city's top women bowlers in the 1970s. Ruby's daughter Pam started bowling in the early '60s, when she was 17, "and I got to know her too. She and I belonged to the Western Women Professional Bowlers back in the '70s. We used to bowl quite a bit together."

Doris's introduction to ten-pin bowling came in 1952, when she and her husband were just married. She was from North Carolina, he from San Diego. When they moved here, "I was over 2000 miles from home. Did not have any friends. Did not know anybody. Starting out in life. What are you going to do for entertainment, with limited income?" Doris had taken a crack at "duck pins" in her youth ("that's with the little ball and the real short, squatty fat pins"), and she was happy to turn to San Diego's bowling alleys for entertainment. Games were cheap -- only 15 or 25 cents apiece. "We started going to Tower Bowl and Hillcrest Bowl, and we got to meet people. We found out that other couples showed up on the same Saturdays at the same place. And by seeing them at the bowls, of course you start talking, and then if there was a waiting list and you couldn't get a lane, sometimes you would share. That would make the evening go a little bit longer." She smiled. "And your money not so fast be gone."

Within a year or two, "I was working at Sears on Cleveland Avenue, and they posted on the bulletin board that they were going to start a league. They wanted the departments to put people in." Doris was game, although her first night on a team was disastrous. "I picked up the ball, dropped it on the opposing team captain's foot, and broke her toe. Put her out." She wasn't much good at getting the ball to connect with pins, though. "I think I only averaged around 103 that year. On the bottom of the totem pole!"

But she improved, and in 1959 she went to work in the business office of Tower Bowl at 628 Broadway downtown, across from the Santa Fe Depot. In 1962, she moved to Aztec Bowl, at 30th and El Cajon Boulevard. She joined the women's bowling association and began volunteering. Money poured into the local industry back in those years. From Poway down to the border and the ocean out to the town of Boulevard, the three dozen or so locations "ranged from maybe 8 lanes to 12, 24, on up to the big 60-lane bowls. La Jolla had a little 6- or 8-lane bowl built back in the 1950s." The bigger centers competed with each other at installing crowd-pleasing amenities. "Tower Bowl had a high bar, and behind it were six to eight rows of theater seating, where spectators could sit and watch people bowl." The seats at Comanche Bowl in La Mesa climbed almost all the way to the ceiling. It was common for bowling alleys to be open around the clock. "We used to have night-owl leagues, when Solar, Rohr, and Convair were going, and those people got off work at midnight or later."

Although Doris became the paid secretary for the women's bowling association in 1971, she never ranked among the city's highest-scoring women bowlers. She was a "fairly decent" player, she allowed. "I would just be old steady Eddie. To get the strikes was not my way of playing the game. But I could make the spares." At her peak, she averaged 185.

On the day I watched her, she was playing in the 150- to 160-point range. "Come on, Doris! Bring it in!" her octogenarian teammate called out as Doris hurried off to bowl her last frame of the third game. Ruby explained to me that she herself hadn't started bowling till she was 40, when her husband retired from his job as a fireman and strong-armed her into joining a league. He died in 1990, and Ruby might have abandoned the game, but Joe Norris, the founder of the Tuesday noon league, prevailed upon her to join a team. She was placed in a group with a veteran bowler she'd never met before, and three years later they were married. Heart problems have since forced her second husband to stop playing, but he still drops in from time to time to watch the action. "Hi, Ed!" Doris greeted him warmly as he approached the area where his wife's team was playing. "How are you? You come down to watch the old ladies bowl?"

Despite the decrease in bowling leagues, joining one isn't that different today from when Doris and Ruby first started playing. Each of the remaining bowling centers has a league coordinator who maintains a waiting list for individuals who want to get involved with a team. The wait is "usually not bad," says Woody Parcells, adding that it's not uncommon to find a spot for a newcomer within a week or two.

Parcells is the coordinator at Kearny Mesa Bowl. He says putting teams together is a little like being a matchmaker. "I don't just grab people and say, 'You're with them.' I've got to look at them. I don't want a hard-core drinker in with someone who's in their 70s. I try my best, and then I always try to see if they're gelling. If not, I'll move them around." It's miserable to be on a team where the teammates don't feel comfortable conversing, Parcells said. "Especially when you know you've got 33 weeks to bowl."

It was only four years ago that Parcells himself walked into a San Diego bowling center for the first time. How that happened "was weird," he recalled. He and a group of friends were out one night at a happy hour, "and someone said, 'Hey, let's go bowling.' " They drove to Sunset Bowl but found there was a 45-minute wait, and someone suggested trying Kearny Mesa. "I'd never been here before." In fact, the only time Parcells had ever bowled was in sixth grade, back in Connecticut. "But I walked in, looked around, got a lane, and I've been here ever since." He laughed at the possible implication that he never actually leaves the center.

Parcells says he and his buddies returned every Monday and soon "talked Johnny [Humble] into starting a league for us. We were all working in a bar at the time, so we had him start a bar league, and we tried to get all these different bars to join and have a little competition." That effort only lasted a couple of months, but by the end of that time, Parcells had improved his average from less than 100 to about 130. (It's close to 200 today.) Humble invited him to join a Sunday league, and two years ago, he hired Parcells to be the league coordinator.

"Woody is really good," Sharon Schendel told me. A member of the Thirsty Nights league, the 39-year-old Schendel moved to San Diego in 1996 to do postdoctoral work in biochemistry at the Burnham Institute. She grew up in Indiana and had bowled a bit there, but never seriously. "Golf was my main sport."

When a cousin of hers who had also grown up in the Midwest suggested six years ago that Schendel and four other women friends form a team and start bowling with a league, the scientist jumped at the opportunity. "I'd always wanted to do league bowling. And all of us thought it would be a cool way to see each other." Schendel quickly found that the game had advantages over golf, while still satisfying her urge to compete. Bowling costs a fraction of the price and demands less time. "Golf in San Diego is so time-consuming, because the pace of play is so slow. This takes three hours, and it's a lot of fun. It's amazing. Plus, I really enjoy the people. And they're people I wouldn't have met otherwise."

Her original women's group only lasted for one season. One of the women was a flight attendant, and she had trouble making the weekly games. "So we picked up a male co-worker of one of the girls on the team." Eventually, that man and Schendel were the only ones who wanted to continue. "We knew another team that had lost two people, so we wound up getting together. That was a really fun team for a couple of years, and then they kind of drifted off." Last year, Parcells directed Schendel to her current team, and she enjoyed that group so much that she's continued with it this season. Schendel told me she'd thought about trying to form a team composed entirely of scientists. "But part of the problem would be that bowling requires a commitment to be at the same place every week for 33 weeks or whatever." She thought it might be hard to get her colleagues to sign on for that.

The need for commitment is the biggest factor behind the decline in league bowling, as Bill Rossman sees it. "To be in a league, you've got to commit to somewhere between 16 and 32 weeks." Yet there are so many other activities competing for people's time.

Now 40, Rossman has worked at Parkway Bowl for almost a quarter of a century, serving as the manager for more than nine years. His facility is far and away the largest in all of San Diego County, with 68 bowling lanes. (No center in California has more, Rossman says.) Furthermore, patrons' choices are not limited to bowling. They can also play billiards at one of 17 tables or engage in laser tag with more than a dozen other combatants or feed their coins into slot machines and video games. Kids can frolic in a huge indoor amusement center that includes a carousel and little roller coaster. It's a model (multiple activities -- and profit centers -- under one roof) that some bowling-industry observers see as the wave of the future. That's ironic, considering that Parkway Bowl was built between 1958 and 1960 (Rossman isn't sure of the exact date), and in some ways it looks its age. Although the interior is attractive and well maintained, the façade is classic Googie design, with a huge orange isosceles triangle framing the entryway. The Mexican restaurant inside the center was remodeled in the early 1980s to be configured like a fast-food outlet. But the geometric pattern on the carpet, the blue swirls on the Formica countertops, and the chrome-edged tables all conjure up the spirit of a time when bouffants and ducktails were the reigning hairstyles.

The bowling lanes are being used as much as they were in the '50s. "We typically average about 42 to 45 games per bed a day. That's twice the national average." Strong programs for women in the mornings and seniors in the afternoons help account for that. A mixture of leagues fill up the 6:00-9:00 p.m. hours every night of the week. In all, the center claims about 3000 players in about 45 leagues. "That's down from 15 years ago." But at the same time, the number of "open bowlers" has grown to counteract the drop in league bowlers. Rossman credits part of the increase to the banning of smoking, which occurred at all the county's bowling centers at the same time that restaurants and bars had to toss their ashtrays. Open bowling also requires less commitment. "You can kind of come in when you want to."

At the same time, Rossman thinks that the social aspects of bowling have, if anything, grown more important over the past 15 years. "I see a lot more people talking and communicating and interacting and wanting to bowl for those reasons. With softball, it's hard to do that. With hockey, you're moving. You don't get to stand and visit." The same goes for movies or a play. But bowling allows plenty of opportunity for catching up. "It just happens to be the activity they're doing while they're socializing."

"The socializing is huge," concurred Johnny Humble (Kearny Mesa Bowl's general manager). "If you move to a new town, go join a league. You'll have 15 friends in a matter of 15 weeks. That's the way it is. It's a community." Humble agrees with Rossman that competition from other entertainment choices has siphoned members away from that community. "There's so much to do. The freeways are wide open in the evenings. You can get from Escondido to Chula Vista in 45 minutes. You got choices of movies, the malls, the arcades, the Boomers!, the casinos. I could walk into a casino right now and see, like, 100 ex-bowlers. Seriously. 'Hey, Bob, how come you ain't bowling?' 'Can't afford it.' " Humble rolled his eyes.

He also points a finger, however, at a factor that looms large in Bowling Alone author Putnam's analysis of why so many Americans no longer participate in once-ubiquitous social activities. Putnam blames time and money pressures for no more than ten percent of the total decline of American civic involvement. Suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl account for another ten percent. But up to half the overall decline is attributable to what he calls "generational change." This has occurred as the highly involved and socially connected generation born between 1910 and 1940 has been succeeded by its Baby Boom children and Generation X grandchildren. Putnam writes: "It is as though the post-war generations were exposed to some anti-civic X-ray that permanently and increasingly rendered them less likely to connect with the community."

Putnam suspects that the effects of television constitute part of that hypothetical X-ray. While TV claims time from almost all Americans and thus may contribute up to 25 percent of the overall civic decline, Putnam points out that Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers are the first Americans to experience television virtually from birth. Putnam theorizes that the psychological effects of World War II upon older adults account for much of the generational divide; shared adversity and a heightened sense of patriotism forged an extraordinary sense of community among those who experienced the war years.

Although he hadn't heard of Putnam or his theories, Humble echoed the political science professor's conclusions. "One or two generations before me, things were very team-oriented. People my parents' age, they'd been through world wars together. They were all on the same page. They did everything together." In contrast, "The younger generations are all about me, myself, and I. If they want to go bowling, they're gonna go bowling three times a year, and they're gonna pick their night, and they're gonna go with their buddies." That's what Putnam's talking about when he uses the phrase "bowling alone."

Humble thinks there are signs that the culture is approaching another generational shift. "The newer, younger generations -- the kids of today -- they're showing tendencies to be team-oriented again. That's the way it's starting to shape up." Grade-school kids in particular seem more team-oriented, "which is good for our industry, and I don't see where it could be bad for anything. Yeah, a lot of them are playing team sports again. Even the home-schooled ones come in and bowl for their PE activities, and they're making up teams." In the Midwest, high school bowling has undergone a huge resurgence. If I wanted to learn more about this, Humble suggested I talk with John Balla.

No one in San Diego has given more thought and energy to encouraging young people to become bowlers than Balla. Now 45, he's a commanding figure who wears a bushy salt-and-pepper goatee and black wire-rimmed glasses. His voice is husky, and his face is florid. Although his parents bowled, and Balla started to play himself at 12, participating in both leagues and tournaments through college, bowling was never the exclusive center of his universe. He played a number of sports and planned to become a history teacher. When he changed his mind and decided to coach high school and college volleyball, he figured that working mornings and nights in the bowling industry would allow him to take off afternoons for his coaching. For most of 1988 through 2003, Balla worked at bowling centers in Orange County. Then Humble hired him to manage the Mira Mesa facility.

Although the address for Mira Mesa Lanes is on Mira Mesa Boulevard, it doesn't face the main street. Balla says he meets people who have lived in the community for 20 years without realizing that the bowling center is there. It was failing when he arrived, and he had ideas for how to change that. "That's what I do," he said with a shrug. "I go in and revitalize bowling centers. To use a horrible cliché, I think outside the box." It seems to have worked. Since his hire, the Mira Mesa's annual revenue has increased by more than 80 percent. "We've quadrupled the number of junior bowlers we have here," Balla says.

One thing Balla has concentrated on is luring young people to the center during the 9:00-midnight slot. It's hard to market that time period to league players, he says. "Many people have to get up early for work. They don't want to stay out that late." But high school and college students often stay up till midnight. So Balla slashed prices to a level he hoped a young audience might find irresistible. "On Monday nights, you can come in and get a lane for three hours for four people and bowl for $24. Each person on average is paying $6 a person -- which is less than a movie. It's less than miniature golf. And we play music." Other weekday nights, the center offers similar deals. On weekends, disco-style colored lights supplant the bright fluorescents. "We have to do things completely differently from the way we did them 15 years ago," Balla said. "The Gen X kids need to be entertained. They're sitting all day in front of video games that blow up at them with lights and bells and whistles. There's constant immediate gratification. We have to give them bang for the buck."

Balla says the result has been that all 44 lanes are now full every night of the week between 9:00 p.m. and midnight. The young people come in around eight to wait for spaces. "It's like a reservation system. We get some very large groups from UCSD and San Diego State coming in early. And they come in week after week."

Balla has also slashed prices during the daytime hours. "My fixed costs were constant. My labor, my lighting, my electricity -- everything was fixed. We were charging $14 an hour and $3 for shoes. And we were averaging $100 a day. It wasn't even covering my payroll." Now pretty much everything the Mira Mesa center offers during the daytime costs a dollar -- games, shoes, hot dogs, sodas, draft beers. "I'm building the traffic," Balla said. "I'm building the bodies. And we're averaging between 400 and 450 games" during those hours. "They're only a dollar a game. But that's 400 percent better than what we were doing."

Among those new daytime players are a growing number of schoolchildren. For the past three years, Balla's had a busload of Torrey Pines High School students arriving at his center two or three times each week, in order to meet their state requirements for physical education. "They come in. They get their shoes and bowling balls. Program their own names. One teacher takes roll, and they're out there bowling. If you asked any PE teacher if he or she could imagine having one teacher for 90 students, with everything under control and 100 percent participation every day, with the exception of injuries, they would laugh at you. But it happens here every time."

He's had less luck with convincing nearby Mira Mesa High to offer its students a similar option. Balla says he understands the caution. Schools "think of me as the big, bad businessman trying to sell something to their children." What they're overlooking is that "not every child wants to participate in your status quo physical education program. Either they don't feel comfortable dressing out, or they're obese or out of shape or something else. This gives them an alternative." He has persuaded two nearby elementary schools and a middle school to establish bowling clubs at his center, and he's optimistic that student business will continue to build over time.

If only five to seven percent of the kids showing up for Balla's "Monday Madness" and "Wacky Wednesdays" move on to join bowling leagues, "We'll be successful." The leagues of the future may not look quite like the ones that flourished in the 1960s (and continue to attract true die-hards). Committing one night a week for 30-some weeks is too daunting for most folks. "But if we create leagues that are 14 or 15 weeks long, as are most adult leagues in softball and basketball," those will have a good chance of succeeding, Balla predicts. "We've eliminated so many other things that young people used to do -- the sock hops and the roller rinks and the ice-skating rinks. Movies are so outrageously expensive. Miniature golf courses are so limited. We have them hanging out all the time with nothing to do. They're bored to death."

Changing that is "all about pricing and entertainment," Balla says. "Bowling is something everyone can do together. Everyone can participate at the same level. It's not a matter of who's fastest. It's not generally who throws the ball the hardest. I've got a 350-pound person who can bowl as well as the twig who weighs 98 pounds. This is the only arena in which they can be equal." And if they get to chatting with each other and feeling, as a result, that the world is not such a lonely place, well, maybe that's worth at least as much as winning a flashy silver ring.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader