Say goodbye to Ralph Kramden, hello to channeling By Brad Spencer • Photos by Frank PincPhotos by Frank Pinc Paul Barbahen and his daughter, Maggie, watch a friend bowl.
Here where strobe lights dance, flash and spin along the hardwood, life is good. A young kid in long, colorful shoes slides across the floor, winds up and lets one rip, then casually moon-walks his way back to the seats. Seconds later there's a loud crash, but no one is startled. His parents stand up and congratulate him, bopping to the thunderous music, as techno-lights splay along the floor in front of them and a cloud of misty fog forms above them.
It's not your dark, seedy, and smoke-filled bowling alley anymore. In fact, it's not even an alley. It's now a bowling center, where family entertainment is the kingpin. The image first stereotyped by the likes of Archie Bunker, Ralph Kramden and Fred Flinstone has been laid to rest.
"I see more and more families at the centers I frequent," says Rich Sadelski, a former professional bowler and current head bowling coach at Trinity High School, an all-girls Catholic college preparatory school in River Forest. "It's been wonderful for the game. Parents bring their children, their children get into it, get older and pass along how much fun the sport is to others. I've seen the surge in interest firsthand and I think it's just going to keep on this upswing."
Welcome to the rebirth of bowling.
Not your dad's alley Except for the game's basic premise, everything about the sport has changed. Families frequent these state-of-the-art bowling centers where many are equipped with "bumpers," light shows, stereo equipment, computer scoring and fog machines.
"In the last 20 years there has been a huge focus on changing the image of bowling," says Jim Zebehazy, executive director of the Young American Bowling Alliance (YABA). "There are now bright, well lit, and clean ‘entertainment centers,' making it more inviting for dads to bring not only mom, but the kids as well."
Kids bowling? More like gutter-ball bowling, right? More like "Hey Billy, go play in the arcade and we'll see you in an hour" bowling?
No more. Gutter balls are now referred to as "channel balls" and kids don't have to mess with them at all. Not with these new "bumpers" that emerge from the floor to thwart an errant shot. Kids, as young as 2, Zebehazy says, are guaranteed to knock over pins.
Sadelski lives in Romeoville with his 1-year-old son and pregnant wife Elizabeth, also a bowler who competes in leagues with and without her husband at such places as Palos Lanes, Lombard Lanes and Willowbrook Lanes. He says he's looking forward to the day when he can take his entire family bowling.
"My kids will be bowlers," says Sadelski. "If they don't want to compete in the sport at some level, it will simply be a fun and healthy hobby for them. In this day and age with video games and such, any time a kid can physically participate in something is a positive. Besides, what other sport can the entire family partake in? Bowling is where it's at."
Family appeal The family fad convinced bowling center owner Bob Habetler to fully upgrade last summer. Habetler Bowl, at 5250 Northwest Highway in Chicago, opened in 1957. But last summer it underwent an extensive face-lift to make the place more "family friendly."
"We completely gutted it out and remodeled inside and outside. We realized there was a large market out there that we were missing out on with our outdated format," says Habetler. "When the building was near complete earlier last summer, kids were peeking their heads in the windows to take a look. A lot of people were already excited and we hadn't opened back up yet."
Habetler Bowl is just one of the many bowling centers that have undergone extensive renovations in the last few years to better suit the times and the growing family trend in the sport. The new format also caters to teenagers and adults who want to bowl without the kids. "Cosmic" bowling or "Extreme" bowling resembles a "disco or rock 'n' roll atmosphere," says Habetler, which entails a light show, ultraviolet enhanced images on the lanes, fog and loud music.
"The building shakes," Habetler says of the up-tempo bowling, "It's really a hoot."
The alley offers cosmic bowling Friday and Saturday nights for the older crowd but kids can usually enjoy it on Saturday afternoons. Aside from the light shows and the computerized scoring, Habetler says it's the cost and the comradeship that draws families to the centers. "It doesn't take a week's paycheck to come in here and have a good time, compared to going to a baseball, hockey or football game. And it's a good way to bond with your children."
Bowling has become popular at the high school level as well. There are 174 girls' teams and 121 boys' teams participating in bowling competition this year. High school boys' bowling was just sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association last year, but girls' high school bowling had its first state tournament in 1973. Bowling organizations in the state are making a determined effort to bring the game to younger kids.
"One program our organization has been working on along with YABA is providing bowling kits to physical education departments at middle schools," says Bill Duff, executive director of the Illinois State Bowling Proprietors' Association. "These specialized kits contain a carpet you roll out that has the markings of a bowling lane. It also contains a rubber ball and rubber pins. Kids have taken a liking to the sport through these kits and it gets them to encourage mom or dad to take them on a trip to a bowling center."
Scholarships are another benefit to the sport, and it's not always a college scholarship. According to Duff, $250,000 has been awarded for bowling scholarships since 1989. Zebehazy said a 10-year-old Wisconsin boy who competed in a YABA Championship Tournament won a $2,650 scholarship.
"There's a lot of incentives involved with competing or participating in bowling for young kids and families," says Duff. "Once they visit a center and are aware of the ‘new-age' atmosphere, they'll be hooked."
Brad Spencer is a writer based in Oak Park, the father of twin daughters and sports editor of the Wednesday Journal, a sister publication of Chicago Parent.