The dimly lit Big Fish Bar & Grill is brewing with excitement on a Wednesday night. A full parking lot and a jukebox blaring Pink Floyd can only mean one thing — members of the Reunion, a local dart league, are perfecting their throws in a game steeped in English tradition.
After a five-year decline attributed to the economy and fluctuating lives, darts are steadily making a comeback in Burbank, La Crescenta and Glendale, played at establishments such as Gilligan's Irish Pub, the Corner Bar and the Capri Lounge, among others.
Dale Reynolds, who runs the dart leagues in the San Fernando Valley, has seen an increase in the number of leagues over last year in the East Valley. His company, Unique Vending by Dale, supplies new electronic dart boards that automatically calculate scores. There were eight leagues last season, and there are 10 leagues this season, he said.
"Last season we were down two teams, but I kind of foresee that it's going to go back up this coming year," Reynolds said. "Players have shown interest and brought in new players to keep it going."
In fact, the game is more in demand these days than other bar games, said Steve Kwan, owner of Gilligan's Irish Pub in La Crescenta.
"Darts have become more popular than pool because of the simple fact that more people can participate, and you can fit more dart boards in a bar than pool tables," he said.
Kwan, who also operates the Corner Bar in Burbank, said patrons come in there just to play darts and stay for hours.
The competitive nature of the game — peppered with colorful lingo and the allure of international tournaments that yield money — keeps people coming back, area players said.
Just ask Doug Davis, a Burbank chiropractor who has been playing darts for 12 years. As a member of the Reunion, made up of veteran dart players who participated in leagues before the dip, Davis is hoping to rack up games in order to qualify for the National Dart Assn.'s 2011 International Dart Tournament in Las Vegas.
"I like the competition," he said. "I don't like to lose."
Friends for more than a decade, Jerry Redman of Burbank and Alan Greenberry of Glendale are prime examples of the relationships that can develop from the game.
Redman, who helps manage Pecos Bill's Bar-B-Q in Glendale, calls Greenberry his "brother from another mother," and says a troubling incident he witnessed while they were in Las Vegas for a dart tournament brought them closer together.
After walking into a souvenir shop, security guards cornered Greenberry, who is black, and left Redman alone, a scene that startled him.
"I saw racism with this man, firsthand," Redman said. "We were definitely brothers before that, but I saw something that I never saw in my life."
Soon after, the duo named their team "All in the Family," after the hit television show, and wore statement shirts for the tournament. Greenberry donned a white T-shirt with a photo of Archie Bunker and Redman wore a black T-shirt that featured George Jefferson.
The sport's unisex and social nature gives female dart players like Sue Young and Tanya Bouldin just as much chance to play.
Young, who lives in the Sunland/Tujunga area, has been playing in leagues since the early 1990s. Even an accident didn't slow her down.
"It changed a lot of things, but I kept playing," she said. "I'd go up in my walker and throw left-handed."
Glendale resident Bouldin is a newcomer. She has started to learn dart lingo from her all-male team, and made connections with several players.
"You don't feel any tension or weirdness," she said. "This is just people out having a good time and enjoying themselves."
Anyone can play, said Montrose resident Eric Cinocco, a veteran player who used to be the Southern California regional director for the American Darts Organization.
"You'll hear players say 'I'd rather be lucky than good,'" he said.
As for those intrigued by the social, yet sometimes serious art of darts, Cinocco invites people from all backgrounds and skill levels to give it a try.
"It doesn't matter what level you are; anyone can beat anyone on any given day," he said.