People at John Wayne Airport began noticing that something was odd early in April. Passengers waiting for their luggage to emerge on the conveyor saw instead bag after bag after bowling ball bag. "I've never seen so many," one traveler said.
The parade of bowling balls will continue through July 1, when the world's largest participation sports event ends its 90-day run in Costa Mesa and Tustin.
It is the 67th annual Women's International Bowling Congress (WIBC) Championship Tournament, open to every woman bowler who bowls in a sanctioned league.
Three years ago, 71,764 of them traveled to Las Vegas to put that tournament into the Guiness Book of World Records as "a record number of teams and participants" for a sports event.
51,261 Women to Compete
By July 1, an estimated 51,261 will have come to Tustin Lanes and to Kona Lanes Bowling Center in Costa Mesa, bowled nine games in two days and gone home or gone sightseeing.
Sometimes their presence can make a host city take notice. "Last year, the teams in Portland (Ore.) got together and chartered a 747," said WIBC publicist Bill Krier. "It was the first time a 747 ever landed in Toledo."
But at other times in other places, the bowlers blend with the other spring tourists, and their presence is apparent only at the bowling alleys.
At Kona Lanes, the only hint a passer-by may notice is the unusual numbers of recreation vehicles in the parking lot. "Probably a third drive here," Krier said. That, he added, is the reason the WIBC has never seriously considered a tournament in Hawaii, despite its obvious attraction.
Once inside Kona Lanes, however, the tournament is everything. To attract a WIBC tournament to your bowling alley, you must turn it over entirely to the WIBC. Your regular customers have to go somewhere else for two to three months.
Banners welcome them, and poems praise them. ("Here they come, the gals who bowl/From far & wide with just one goal--/To score 'em high!/To roll 'em good!/To make that ball/Eat up that wood! . . .")
The waves of bowlers monopolize the 82 lanes at the two alleys from 8 in the morning until 1 the following morning. "The maintenance people only have seven hours to get ready for the next day," Krier said.
One of them is Rex Flanders, who, as it began to lighten outside around 5:30 a.m., had been working on the Kona's lanes for about four hours.
At that particular moment, he was the only one in the vast room. He was standing at a foul line and sending a robot the size and shape of a large suitcase down the lane and back again. On its way, the robot spread oil on the wood and buffed it.
"I've been here since 12:30," Flanders said. "The lane man always works graveyard. I'll be glad when this is over."
A bit later, Bill Robb, the desk clerk, was making his way from one end of the alley to the other to be certain that all was ready for the bowlers.
"They're a nice bunch of ladies," Robb said. "I cash their traveler's checks, give them change, sell them shoes, give them directions to the bar. You'd be surprised how many of them come in and first thing they ask is, 'Where's the bar?' "
Bar business is hardly booming, however. "They're not allowed to smoke, drink or eat during the games they bowl," Robb said. "That's hardest on the smokers, let me tell you."
But what they don't spend on drinks they make up for at the front desk, where there has been a run on lottery tickets.
"These women are gamblers, " Robb said. "They're just buying and buying lottery tickets. 'Give me 10, give me 20, give me five more,' and they stand there scratching them off. I've only had one $50 winner."
How many has he sold? He shook his head: "I don't know. Every time we order, we order 5,000. Let's see--three months, maybe 50 or 60% of them buy tickets--we must have sold 50 to 60 thousand, at least. I've had some spend a hundred dollars on tickets."
"Most of them are here to have a good time," Robb said. "It's their day in the sun. A lot go on to Hawaii or somewhere on vacation."
Like other vacationers, they want to buy, and a souvenir stand has been erected where the pool tables once stood. It has an unusually large selection of novelty jewelry and T-shirts, but the big seller appears to be a blue dish towel with a picture of a toilet and the inscription: "The Only Pot I Won."
The pro shop has been waiting for these bowlers for two years. "We bought thousands of bowling shirts on close-out as soon as we knew they were coming, and we're selling them for $3 each," said the shop clerk, Gregg Arnold. Little else is selling, however. "We do sell some balls now and then when they're turned down over there."
"Over there" in the room next door, tournament officials test and weigh contestants' bowling balls, then send the contestants on to the official tournament photographer, Dudley Peebles of Sun River, Ore., who specializes in this sort of thing.
Karen McCarthy of Maumee, Ohio, is actually running the photo business, however. She posed each two-woman team in front of an orange drape, put Mickey Mouse ears on them, proclaimed "Welcome to Mickeyland" and instructed them to say "sexy mice" before she snapped the shutter. Couple J-20-6-10 politely declined to wear the mouse ears.
McCarthy has been doing the same thing since the tournament opened. "The first week I was here training people, I worked 110 hours. One hundred and ten hours. One week. Believe it or not, I came out here with a tan," she said, palely.
But there is excitement out on the lanes. What they're still talking about is Rose Walsh's perfect game--12 straight strikes. It was only the second time it had happened in the tournament since it began in 1916.
This time it had been done by a 60-year-old grandmother from Pomona whose average was 156. By the final frames, a large, silent crowd had gathered behind her. After the last strike, she kissed the lane and the crowd cheered.
"Now everyone asks, 'Which lanes, which lanes?' " said Red Bischof, one of the officials who tests the contestants' bowling balls. "It was three and four," he confided.
There is $1.05 million set aside for cash prizes, but no one will know who won them until about two weeks after everyone has gone home. It takes the WIBC that long to sort out the array of results for three events in each of three divisions--singles, doubles and five-women teams. (The prize money in each division is based on the number of entries.)
Who cares, Bischof said. "To me, it's fun and games. The majority of these people are on vacation."
Like the group in the "Ah! Kansas" T-shirts--members of the Herrin family from Wellington, Kan.
"They're just out here for the fun, I think. They try, but they're not professionals," said Charles Herrin, a retired railroad conductor who was watching his wife Wanda, his daughter Linda Ricketts and his sister-in-law Dorothy Drummond compete.
"Since Sunday, we've been to Disneyland, Universal Studios, down to that Chinese theater where the stars are, that Spruce Goose and Queen Mary, and we waded in the beach and got wet. Just a fun time," he said.
It was much the same for June Simons and Vivian Kocour of Mead, Neb.
"It's fun," Simons said. "We didn't bowl too great. We'll get the bowling out of the way and then go sightseeing."