- Associated Press - Saturday, January 9, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - First you notice the flashing, old-timey neon sign showing a bowling ball crashing into pins.

Step inside the building and you see 10 shiny golden lanes, avocado-green ball returns and sturdy, curved wooden benches for bowlers to rest on as they sip a beer between frames.

The retro look of the bowling alley at Omaha’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church is an authentic one. The alley opened in 1955, when President Dwight Eisenhower ran the country, kids danced to “Rock Around the Clock,” and sedans looked like battleships on wheels.

Even though the alley has always looked like a blast from the past, recent changes have made it look even more like it did when bowlers first aimed for strikes more than a half-century ago at ICC, as the South Omaha parish is commonly known.

Enhancing the retro look and improving the marketing are part of an effort to boost business and keep balls rolling and pins falling for another 50 years, said the Rev. John Brancich, church pastor.

“The parish now sees it as a treasure,” he said.

ICC’s Bowlatorium - its official name - is the only parish bowling alley in Omaha and only one of a few left in the nation, Brancich said.

When it opened, though, it was one of two within a few blocks of each other. The historically German St. Joseph Catholic Church had one, but its lanes closed about 45 years ago.

The ICC alley arrived during the population boom of the 1950s, when South Omaha brimmed with the families of immigrants from Poland, Germany and other parts of Europe. ICC was a predominantly Polish parish, with priests and parishioners named Wisniewski, Krzcki and Konieczka.

The Bowlatorium is below the parish gym at 24th and Bancroft Streets, right across from Stoysich House of Sausage, another South Omaha institution.

Steve Sempeck, who formerly owned alleys including Sempeck Bowling & Entertainment in the Omaha area, was hired as manager in fall 2014 and said alleys with a retro look have become a popular niche in the industry. ICC was in a great position to capitalize on that, he said.

Over the years, some of the alley’s original equipment was replaced, but some was still in storage. In the past year, workers have reinstalled some of the original pieces, such as the avocado-green Brunswick ball returns and pin-setter “masks,” the fiberglass coverings at the ends of the lanes.

The Omaha World-Herald (bit.ly/1OBuBOv ) reports that plastic chairs installed in the 1970s were removed and replaced with shiny, 1950s-era wooden benches, the type ICC had when it opened. Walls were repainted avocado-green and cream to match the original colors.

Sempeck grew up in the parish and remembers how the Bowlatorium looked, but pulled out photos of the alley from the 1950s to make sure the changes captured the original style.

Trevor Petersen bowled at ICC last December during a corporate party and said he loved the atmosphere.

“It’s got a classic vibe,” he said.

Some parts of the alley never changed, such as the brown tile floor. There are even 50 bowling balls from the alley’s early days still in good enough shape to be flung down the lanes.

Another original piece is the bar, where bowlers can buy a Bud for three bucks or go upscale with a $4 Heineken.

You don’t have to look hard for signs the bowling alley is a Catholic one.

A crucifix hangs from a wall behind the bar. So do paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Below a counter lined with Skittles and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are children’s books about St. Francis and making a good confession. A parishioner’s rendering of St. Bernadette is painted on a wall by lane No. 10, providing inspiration for bowlers faced with knocking down a tough spare.

Like many alleys, the Bowlatorium at ICC for decades relied on business from leagues to keep the doors open. But as interest in the sport waned, so did the business at ICC.

The last leagues at ICC played five years ago, and now the focus is on private parties for birthdays, anniversaries and other events. Corporate parties also are important.

Sempeck said business last fall was better than in 2014, partly because of creation of a website for the bowling alley, adjacent party room and parish gym that gets rented for wedding receptions and basketball tournaments. ICC is also spreading the word through social media.

Brancich said the improved business is a good sign. The goal, he said, is for the bowling alley to become self-supporting by the end of this year.

The church remains part of the Omaha Archdiocese, but since 2007 it has been administered and staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, which is based in Switzerland and whose mission includes training priests to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass.

The archdiocese turned administration over to the priestly fraternity primarily so that ICC could become the home of the traditional Latin Mass, which has a loyal following among Omaha-area Catholics, said Deacon Tim McNeil, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Brancich said that when the fraternity first took over the parish, some church members questioned whether it was worth keeping the alley open.

But he said now there is good support overall for the alley because of its potential to become self-supporting, its importance to the church’s identity and the happy times church members have knocking down pins.

“It’s a good opportunity to get to know fellow parishioners,” said church member Mike LaGreca.

On the first Sunday of every month after 11 a.m. Mass, parishioners gather at the alley to bowl for free. Children squeal as they bumper bowl, and moms, dads and grandparents hoist a ball.

Just as in decades past, cheers ring out when a bowler rolls a strike.


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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