- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

Think of bowling, and what comes to mind? A minimall "guy" picture, no doubt: working-class white guys in ponytails and shirts from Mike's Towing whose pickups are parked by the 7-Eleven. On every table a pitcher of beer, and on the jukebox, Bob Seger.It's partly true, but mostly not."I think that cliche maybe was never that true," says Don Armel, a regional director for Bowl America, which owns 15 bowling centers in Virginia and Maryland. "It meant that people who bowled weren't very sophisticated. There was a rural slant to the image. I think that image is sure changing, let me tell you."
Today everybody bowls because everybody can.
"The best thing by far about bowling is that everybody can bowl," Mr. Armel says.
"I don't mean everyone can bowl like a professional or get perfect games. I mean everyone can play. A 3-year-old, if he can lift a bowling ball, can play. Women and men bowl. Teen-agers bowl. Handicapped people bowl. White and black people bowl. People who drive trucks, people who work in offices, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, you name it, and people bowl."
The guy with the pickup truck still bowls, probably in one of the many leagues that compete in the 50 or so bowling centers in the capital region, but so do young office workers who use their lunch breaks to roll a couple of games at Bowl America in Silver Spring off Georgia Avenue.
One tipoff to the change in image is the change in the way one describes where one bowls. The sport's public relations types say it's not an "alley" anymore.
"We prefer 'bowling center' or 'bowling establishment,' " Mr. Armel says. "It sounds better than 'alley.'"
Bowl America officials will point out that nowadays you're likely to find a Mercedes or two in the parking lot of a Bowl America center. True, the District has no real bowling alleys, though some of its universities maintain lanes. Capital area residents outside the District are catching up with bowling, however and the bowling industry is chasing a changing America.
Consider Strike Bethesda, which opened last year. More expensive than traditional centers, this alley on the 2002 frontier aggressively markets itself to upscale, high-end customers interested in socializing in a center where MTV and CNN are on the TV and martinis and Caesar salads are part of the evening menu.
With two large bars, music and big-screen TVs hanging over the lanes, Strike Bethesda limits the clientele to 21 or older at night. Oh, yes, the bowling: The scoring machines have terrific animated software that sings the bowlers' praises when they knock down the brightly colored pins for a strike or spare.
Bowl America Silver Spring is looking toward a similar clientele. The part of downtown Silver Spring where its Georgia Avenue lanes are located is a hotbed of construction sites, new offices and prospective new malls. Bowling, it is thought, will appeal as a form of entertainment and recreation to people who work there as well as people who live there.
"People don't go too far to bowl," Mr. Armel says. "The people we get in our centers tend to be people who work around there or who live close by."
Bob Cosgrove, 46, the editor of Bowling magazine, a publication of the National Capital Area Bowling Association, says the change in image is long overdue.
"I think the bowling industry sort of created an image problem for itself for a while. They sort of cooperated or went along with things like the television series 'Laverne and Shirley' or the Archie Bunker character, or the horrible movie 'Pinhead' in it you saw people bowling who weren't exactly the most, I don't know, positive kind of image you might want," Mr. Cosgrove says.
"The fact is," he says, "everybody bowls. That's always been true. I think people in the industry kind of forgot that."

They bowl in leagues men's leagues, mixed leagues, doubles and singles, women's leagues, junior leagues, all sorts of leagues, across the country and regionally and locally.
They compete at night and during the day, prime time for women's leagues. They compete during a regular season, with four-man teams and substitutes, with or without handicaps, and go on to regional and finally national tournaments, competing for prizes and trophies. Businesses also sponsor leagues and teams.
According to Mr. Cosgrove, league bowling makes up about half the revenue in the bowling business, with the rest going to recreational bowling. He says this area boasts about 22,000 male league bowlers and maybe about 15,000 female league bowlers.
All sorts of leagues serve all sorts of bowlers.
"We're just like everybody else," says Peter Pascua, a member of the Hot Stuff team of the Maryland Blind Bowlers League. "We like to get together, we enjoy bowling the competition, the social aspect, the activity. Some of us are pretty good."
It's a Saturday afternoon at the Silver Spring center, and the family of man, woman and child has gathered here, as usual. On the left side of the 30-lane bowling facility, birthday parties for young children are in progress. The youngsters hit the lanes with gusto between bites of pizza and ice cream. Balloons crowd the available space.
"Man, it is crazy today," Carolyn Marshall, general manager of the center, says. She's juggling shoes, lane placements and questions from bowlers. "We have a lot of birthdays today."
On the right side of the center, the blind bowlers take up three or four lanes. Mr. Pascua, who's here to score, not compete, is cheering on his teammates. Under the table, Martin, the seeing-eye black Lab, is sleeping, taking a break from his work.
He belongs to Chiffon Gray, who has just gotten a strike for the second straight time. She pumps her fist. "It's about time," she says.
"We have sighted, partially blind and completely blind people in our league," Mr. Pascua says. "I'm partially sighted. I used to be a semipro bowler, so it was difficult getting used to not being able to see so well. When I was bowling in the 1960s and 1970s, I would spot bowl. Now I can't do that." Spot bowlers use spots painted on the lanes to guide their aim.
Blind bowlers play on lanes for which a gate is set up, orienting the bowlers in relation to the lanes. "Practice," Mr. Pascua says. "It takes practice, but you get the hang of it. People with you, your teammates, they'll tell you how you did, how many pins you got, that kind of thing, so you know what you're supposed to do to make a spare. Sometimes you can tell, though. People can hear when they get a strike."
"I think we've all come to realize that lots of different kinds of people like to bowl, or will bowl, if you give 'em a reason to come," says Mary Wedic, a floating manager for Bowl America's numerous centers. "I'm 46, but I keep up with things. Young people will come in if the atmosphere encourages them a little."
Ms. Wedic likes the atmosphere in a bowling center, period. "People are noisy, sure," she says. "But it's a friendly noisy. People encourage each other to do well. They applaud you. They cheer for you. You don't see this often in other environments when somebody is working on a really good game, or a streak of strikes, how quiet it gets, how sensitive people are to not upset the bowler. People sort of watch out for each other; it's like there's rules of the road."
One of the ways Bowl America's Silver Spring center encourages players is with Cosmic Night, a bells-and-whistles show of swirling lights and jumpy music that strongly resembles aspects of "Saturday Night Fever."
"You'd be surprised," Ms. Wedic says. "People really love coming here in the evenings and at night. And it's closely supervised, so there are no problems. It's just a different atmosphere. It makes it more fun for kids, teen-agers and single young people."
Ms. Wedic keeps up. On a Thursday afternoon, just for fun, the music and the Cosmic stuff are turned on, and you can hear Pat Benatar, an '80s rock icon, and then Gwen Stefani and the very contemporary group No Doubt shake out "Hey, Baby." Ms. Wedic knows the words.

Mr. Armel probably doesn't know the words to "Hey, Baby," but he does know bowling. He's careful with his words and tries not to oversell. He was a truck driver once, among other things, and he comes from Winchester, Va., which, if it isn't Middle America, is something like it. He still bowls in a league and, after a little prodding, allows that he has a 200 average, which means he is serious about his bowling. He admits he once bowled a 300 game, not so long ago, either, and recalls that he strung together 17 strikes, all told.
"Yeah, that was a pretty good night," he says. "I'll never forget it."
Although he doesn't say so explicitly, you suspect he thinks bowling is about family and all the right and good stuff learning to do something well, competing in friendly and fair fashion, finding comradeship, being with friends, fathers and sons together.
His two sons are grown and living in Pennsylvania and have children of their own. He remembers, though, that bowling was something he and the boys did together. "You bet, you bet your life they tried to beat their dad," he says, smiling.
Everybody bowls. You don't have to have a 200 average to get satisfaction. For members of a group of supervised severely retarded adults who come regularly to the Silver Spring center, it's one of a few organized activities they can do while at the same time getting out and about.
For three men visiting from Austria, it is something to which they are just naturally drawn. "We are here to see three Washington Wizards games, meaning Michael Jordan," says Peter Krappel, 43, their leader and teacher at a university in Vienna, Austria. "So we wandered into this place, and we thought, why not?"
Richard Tekula, 23, the youngest of the trio, soon starts throwing a nice hook and displaying terrific form. "I don't know what it is with him," his friend Florian Havlicek, 25, says. "He just took it up, and now look at him."
Or watch the family that has come on another Saturday afternoon in Silver Spring. The father boisterous, encouraging, heavy throws a large, loud ball; every throw is going to be a strike, but most aren't. His wife is slender, smooth, calm. Her balls hit with the force of understatement; she strikes and spares a lot. Their son, a big teen-ager and a strike guarantor just like his dad, throws like him too, all over the map. Their adolescent daughter, as slender as her mom and just as understated, hardly says a word. They're having a ball.
Check out the young couple, acting out a form of courtship he trying not to preen when he throws a strike, she trying not to laugh when he gutters.
It's the same way at Strike Bethesda on a Sunday just after noon. It's still slick, but MTV has been replaced by Scooby Doo on the big TV screens, and hordes of children are here with parents, celebrating birthdays or Sunday. Sport utility vehicles and Lexuses sit in the parking lot. Little girls drop the ball the way they would a used doll and wait for it to roll ever so slowly down the lane, politely knocking over pins. Dads try to look like athletes, and teen-age boys throw beginner hooks, preening for the Britney wannabes.
Everybody bowls.

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