By Jason S. Mandell
Special to the Los Angeles Times
February 4, 2011
Reporting from Brooklyn, N.Y.
The odd coupling of tradition and trendiness that characterizes Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood is perhaps nowhere more evident than at Full Circle Bar, a watering hole on a quiet block that dead-ends at an expressway.
Here, young urbanites, who welcome the competition (and the shelter from the snow), are carrying on a century-old New York pastime whose extinction, until recently, seemed inevitable.
The pastime? Skee-ball, a contest played at breezy boardwalk arcades by generations of New Yorkers.
"I can remember going to Coney Island with my dad and playing skee-ball," said Joe Franquinha, who runs a hardware store in Williamsburg with his father. "It has a sentimental place in my heart."
The game is simple. Players roll light wooden balls up a sloped ramp or lane and try to land them in a series of rubber pockets. The more challenging pockets offer more points.
It's easy entertainment, but the game's popularity peaked decades ago. As the boardwalk culture crumbled, skee-ball slipped out of fashion.
Full Circle Bar, which opened a year ago, is a living shrine to skee-ball. Steps from the front door stands a 10-foot wooden lane salvaged from Coney Island.
Three more lanes are lined up against a wall in the bar's cozy backroom, where a league known as Brewskee-Ball gathers three times a week. Last season, 250 players from several boroughs and nearby suburbs competed.
"I like to think we're saving skee-ball," said Eric Pavony, 31, who co-founded the bar and the league.
Skee-ball's resuscitation began a few years ago. While running a now-defunct Brooklyn magazine, Pavony and business partner Evan Tobias got serious about the game. They purchased some broken-down skee-ball lanes, refurbished them and installed them in a bar in Manhattan's East Village.
As their informal league kept growing, they decided that Brewskee-Ball needed an official home.
Long, dark and divey, Full Circle Bar is a natural nook for the unfussy twentysomethings who prowl Williamsburg. On tournament nights, ecstatic cheers and trash talk spill out of the back room.
"It's pretty amazing how competitive it is," said Amy Felmeister, a league member. "I just go to have a good time, but other people practice. To them, it's a skill."
Pavony said it's much more than that.
"It's a sanctioned competitive sport," the black-bearded ex-jock said. "I cover this like ESPN would."
He's not exaggerating. Pavony posts statistics and videos online after every match. He created a lexicon of scoring terminology. He even mounted a television above the bar with a live feed from the lanes in the backroom, so players who have gone to refresh their drinks can follow the action.
There is something quintessentially New York about Pavony's obsessiveness. But like "Seinfeld" or Woody Allen films, that eccentricity crosses state lines.
"What grabbed my attention was when Eric started talking about stats," said Roy Hinojosa, who helped build an affiliate league in Austin, Texas, after meeting Pavony two years ago.
There are also league outposts in San Francisco and Wilmington, N.C. Players in those cities say Pavony's fervor is contagious.
"When I started out, I got way too serious about it," said Mary Jo Fish, a 24-year-old accountant in Wilmington. "It would affect my mood."
The league has also introduced outsiders — from as nearby as Manhattan and as far away as Northern California — to Williamsburg's unusual alternative charm.
"Williamsburg is definitely welcoming to this type of activity," said Joey Mucha, a San Franciscan who last February flew to New York to roll in Full Circle's Brewskee-Ball national championship. "That's where you want to be if you're in an alternative sport."
When they're not competing face to face, players from different cities watch one another's performances online. "Me and Joey are always supporting each other on Facebook," Hinojosa said. "We've formed some really good friendships, and I think that's what it's really all about."
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