Candlepin bowling lovers aim for a comeback
HAVERHILL — It's 9:30 on a recent Sunday morning. Most people are either in church or in bed, depending on whether they worship the Holy Spirit or imbibed too many spirits the night before. But the Pilgrim Lanes are rocking. A busload of Canadians has journeyed 14 hours to bowl in the Candlepin for Kids International Teams Tournament. There's an even bigger contingent of New Englanders (ages 4-18) who are fired up for the match. When the TV lights are switched on it's like being magically transported to a Saturday morning when "Candlepin Bowling'' on Channel 5 (1958-1996) sometimes got better ratings than the Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins.
''When that show left it broke everybody's heart,'' said Bart Maderios, coach of the Pilgrim Lanes youth league program. There were a slew of others that also have been canceled. But today's show is being taped, albeit for a web broadcast at www.cp4k.com.
Rob Taylor, 20, the executive producer, and co-host of Candlepins for Kids, is a former youth champion bowler. "Bowling" was one of his first spoken words. Growing up in Haverhill he pounded the upstairs hallways of his parents home with a plastic pin bowling set until they banished him to the basement.
''Robby Taylor was here when he was 4 years old,'' says Maderios. ''The kid was deadly. He dominated for 8-10 years. I have never seen anybody as intense.''
But now Taylor has a dream: To bring candlepin bowling back to television. He's got multiple cameras, multiple prizes, and unlimited energy. ''It's a bit of mission,'' says the Northeastern student. ''People say it's dying but they're not doing anything about it. The old way of candlepin bowling has run out of energy. We found a way to tap into some of the young kids and give it a future.''
Taylor is the P.T. Barnum of candlepin bowling.
''We're trying to celebritize them,'' he says of the show's contestants. ''I wrote a blog comparing the kids to the Avengers. This kid's like Hulk, this kid's like Captain America.''
He also appeals to every kid's sweet tooth. One table is completely filled with candy bars. Roll a strike; pick your choice of candy.
''It makes the kids feel special,'' he says. ''Throw a candy bar at him for a buck and the kid feels like he's a celebrity for a day.''
There are 84 contestants in the all-day session, with the top prize $100. Taylor works with a volunteer crew of eight, including co-host/producer Dan Gauthier, who handles the budget and even donates giveaways like his Red Sox tickets as prizes. The production gets better every season.
''It's very professional,'' says Taylor. ''What used to cost $200,000 to produce, we can now do with $1,000.''
Today the Canadians in the gallery are ready for their 15 minutes of fame. Some of them have a Maple Leaf painted on their foreheads and wear festive red hats. They hug their New England counterparts like they are family and some weep when they leave.
''Candlepin bowling is definitely not dying here,'' says Katelyn Parsons, 20, from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
But candlepin bowling is endangered. Only a third of the candlepin houses that were open in the late 1980s in New England are still operational, according to Ralph Semb, president of the International Candlepin Bowling Association. Semb cites factory closings and a changing culture for the sharp drop in bowling leagues.
''People don't want to make a commitment of bowling every Wednesday at 8 p.m. anymore,'' he says. There's also the intense competition from other sports, social media, and video games. But Semb thinks the bowling industry has bottomed out. The recent gutter ball thrown by Curt Schilling's 38 Studios LLC. may be an indicator of things to come.
''Video games are getting fancier and fancier,'' Semb says, ''but sooner or later people are going to get tired of sitting on the couch. Bowling is a very healthy sport. You get out and communicate with people and exercise all sorts of muscles.''
Invented in Worcester in 1880, the same year Thomas Edison patented the incandescent electric lamp, candlepin is as New England as clam chowder. It mostly is played in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Canada's Maritime Provinces.
It is much more difficult than ten-pin bowling. Candlepin uses a grapefruit-sized ball with no holes, and has three shots per frame. The pins are lighter and skinnier, with more spacing, resulting in lower scores. Downed pins are left on the lanes, either creating advantages or leaving obstacles. A 130 average is considered elite for the top professional bowlers. No one has bowled a perfect game. Ever. The highest recorded score is a 245, bowled by Semb in 1984 and later by Chris Sargent in 2011. Maderios, who has worked at Pilgrim Lanes for 30 years, once won $25,000, the highest single payout in candlepin history for bowling five strikes in a row. He went out and bought a new Harley. He says candlepin bowling gets no respect.
''We get phone calls all the time, 'Do you have real bowling?' Well, this is real bowling, they're looking for ten pin.''
Pilgrim opened in 1967. Keeping it going requires long hours and Yankee ingenuity.
''There are a bunch of things jury-rigged to get you by,'' says Maderios. ''Parts are available but not readily available. If one of the belts breaks, you just take the belt off your pants and use that or tie a piece of cloth to get you through the league.''
But he's convinced candlepins are forever. Glow bowling, disco music, and computerized scoring have helped the bottom line.
''Is candlepin going to die? No, I don't think so,'' Maderios said. ''The ownership has got to change with the times. We need to send out reminders. It's not a lucrative business. But it's a fun group. I love being with these people. There's nothing I'd rather do.''
On the lanes, one bowler stands out. Nate Fontaine of North Brookfield is 10. He wears size 2 bowling shoes and weighs just 65 pounds, including the 2½-pound candlepin ball in his hand. He learned to bowl from his grandfather, Tom Olszta, who was known as the ''Larry Bird of Candlepin Bowling'' back in the '80s.
''He taught me the most important thing was to stay focused,'' says Fontaine, who says the tournament is ''nerve-wracking.''
None of his friends bowl.
"All they do is play video games every single Friday, Saturday and Sunday,'' he says.
But after Nate rallies his team into the finals, his teammates hoist him in the air, like he is a human Stanley Cup. Fans from two countries hoot and holler. The scene is real and not computer-generated.
"When they picked me up it was the greatest moment of my life,'' said Fontaine.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.