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On Second Thought

In its birthplace of Worcester, candlepin bowling has gone extinct

The Colonial Bowling Center in Worcester has gone dark.
The Colonial Bowling Center in Worcester has gone dark.Sean Dougherty/The Boston Globe/Freelance

The Colonial Bowling Center in Worcester went dark in March, and owner Nick Anderson, 91, decided last month to keep the doors closed for good.

Being forced to suspend operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be the final strike for the tidy center that has stood strong on Mill Street for 60 years’ worth of 7-10 splits, scattered deadwood, and the eternal camaraderie of midwinter league nights.

“I think Nick would have gone one more year if it wasn’t for the [coronavirus],” said Paul Wambach, 61, the Colonial’s general manager for the past 30 years. “But that made his decision a little bit easier.”

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So candlepin bowling is dead in Worcester, sad enough for the game’s thinning legion of devotees, but also a blow for local sports historians. The candlepin (“small ball”) game was invented in Worcester by John J. Monsey at the start of the 1880s, and the first strings were bowled at Justin White’s billiard hall there on Pearl Street, just down the street from today’s St. Vincent Hospital.

The original pins, noted Wambach, were fashioned out of late 19th century broom handles, and wood remained the industry standard for some 80 years, until the advent of plastics in the ‘60s. Beyond today’s thicker, heavier pins, fancier balls, and the invention of the automatic pin-setter in the late 1940s, the uniquely New England game looks much like it did upon its debut soon after the end of the Civil War.

“It breaks my heart to see Colonial go — breaks … my … heart,” said Mike DeRienzo, whose family still owns and operates the Woburn Bowladrome it opened in 1940. “It’s sad to see the candlepin era going down.”

Businesses come and go. Recreation trends ebb and flow. Some candlepin lanes have poured money into modernizing facilities, while others have remained museum pieces frozen in a ‘50s time capsule with poodle skirts and tubes of Brylcreem.

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Colonial ignored the industry trend to add arcade machines and also didn’t install TVs that might have enticed, say, a Patriots fan to roll a few strings on a Sunday afternoon while keeping tabs on how things were playing out in Foxborough.

However, what Colonial may have lacked in bells and whistles, noted Wambach, it forever tried to balance with cleanliness. A tiny irony now, our ongoing war with germs triggering Colonial’s closure.

“I mean, Nick is a clean freak,” said Wambach, a trace of lament in his chuckle. “Oh my God, he’d drive you nuts. For me, it’s been 30 years of, ‘Oh, Nick, I can never get clean enough for you!’ ”

DeRienzo, 34, helps run the family bowling business in Woburn and is also the first-year president of the Massachusetts Bowling Association, which advises its 20 member candlepin centers (418 lanes total) in Eastern Mass. Some 40 years ago, the numbers were much bigger, the MBA helping to guide 110 centers.

Edward Gangi (left), general manager of Woburn Bowladrome, and Mike DeRienzo, assistant manager.
Edward Gangi (left), general manager of Woburn Bowladrome, and Mike DeRienzo, assistant manager. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

For the most part, said DeRienzo, candlepin alleys remain family-owned operations, contrary to the corporate-run Kings centers that in recent years have tried to market the tenpin game (“big balls”) to a younger, more free-spending demographic.

“A lot of owners are retiring,” said DeRienzo. “Maybe their kids don’t want to take over their centers. And obviously, nowadays property is worth a fortune.”

Any bowling center today has to worry amid the ongoing pandemic, said DeRienzo, whose family already has decided to keep its Woburn site closed through the summer, even if Beacon Hill relaxes the state’s reopen rules earlier. For the majority of centers, he said, summers are slow, with revenue not recovering until leagues start up again after Labor Day.

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What no one knows, said DeRienzo, is how soon or how robustly business will return. Much of the league crowd is seniors, a vulnerable age group in the pandemic age. Some bowlers own their own balls, in sets of three or four, but many roll house balls, a factor that adds challenges in a time when the world is figuring best ways to cope with a highly contagious virus.

“Customers have to understand, when they go out in public, there’s risk,” said DeRienzo. “One of my uncles said, ‘Well, maybe we give them a crate of balls, they carry them down to their lanes, and when they’re done, we take ‘em back and clean them.’ I mean, uncle, if we were busy, that’s going to be crazy.”

Prior to the pandemic, said DeRienzo, a number of senior bowlers in Woburn routinely wore latex gloves on the lanes.

“I like to give them the business, right?” he said. “So one day I said, ‘What are you, germophobes?’ This one lady in particular, Danielle, she says to me, ‘No, I do it so I can hold onto the ball!’ ”

Bowling, particularly the candlepin game, for decades was stitched firmly into our sports culture. Channel 5’s beloved Don Gillis, and before him Jim Britt, helped make “Candlepin Bowling” a centerpiece of local Saturday programming for nearly 40 years (1958-96).

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Over on Channel 7, sports anchor Bob Gamere in 1973 debuted the campy “Candlepins For Cash” that ran on weeknights as the 30-minute lead-in to the station’s 6 p.m. news. Ex-Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli hosted the show briefly in the early ’80s.

In my hometown, the Saturday morning special at Bedford’s candlepin lanes in the early ’60s included three strings for 99 cents, with a coupon for a hot dog and soft drink at the snack bar. If the No. 1 pin was ringed with a series of horizontal stripes, a strike paid off with three free strings.

The freebies never made my box score, but decades later, I’m still wearing the hot dogs. The old bowling alley made it through the ‘70s, but then became a CVS, its walls bearing no mention today of my career-best 103. Losers.

Some 50 miles west, a parking garage now stands where they first set up the candlepins at White’s billiard hall on Pearl Street. The closing was so abrupt at Colonial, said Wambach, that he has met some longtime league members there in recent days, so they can pick up personal items. A few have asked to take home a pin and ball as mementos.

There are lanes in nearby Spencer, Webster, and Whitinsville, but in Worcester, the flame no longer glows atop the candlepins.

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Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.