Keeping Kids Out of the Gutter : Bumper Bowling Gives Youngsters Respectable Scores

Nicky Sawyer may be the only bowler in the annals of history who consistently falls down before the pins.

Nicky, 7, is the one with the freckles, wearing the Yankees hat. Watch him scamper a few steps in stocking feet. Letting go with two hands, he bounces the ball onto the alley, an exertion that sends him flat on his rear.

The ball veers right, hitting the gutter. Then the ball ricochets, inching down the alley, toppling eight pins.

"When he's hot, he's hot," cheers David Marcus, 15, Nicky's counselor at Sports Plus Day Camp in Van Nuys.

This is bumper bowling--the latest thrill for the string-cheese and apple-juice set--and a fad that's sweeping the country. At Sports Center Bowl in Studio City, one of thousands of facilities offering bumper bowling, gutters are padded with 52-foot inflatable vinyl tubes that make it almost impossible to throw a ball in the gutter.

What testimonials for this game lack in eloquence, they make up for in brevity. As Nicky of North Hollywood puts it, "The bumpers are rad, neat, because you always get a hit and you never miss."

Which explains, in part, why business is booming. In the past 16 months, bumpers have blanketed 150,000 lanes in the United States, says Remo Picchietti, owner of DBA, a Lake Bluff, Ill., bowling equipment manufacturer.

Listening to the din at Sports Center Bowl, where about 60 kids hit the lanes one recent morning, it is difficult to determine which assault on the ears is worse: the constant thud of bowling balls bouncing on the hardwood floor, or the screaming, high-pitched dialogue--("Knock Knock," "Who's There?" "Mickey Mouse's underwear!").

How It Started

The padded bumpers were the brainstorm of Zena Sheinberg, a special-education teacher, and her social-worker husband, Alex Wortman, of Ann Arbor, Mich. After watching Sheinberg's mentally impaired students struggle to bowl, Wortman commented, "This is crazy. Every ball goes into the gutter and no one is having a good time."

The couple began experimenting with barriers. Their first attempt, with cardboard carpet tubing, although clumsy, was well received. "Once we figured out a way to make the ball continue down the lane, the kids started having fun," Sheinberg recalls.

But the road to invention was paved with obstacles, sending the couple back to the drawing board several times. Early efforts included using clothes dryer ducts as well as heavy-duty tubing from a local utility.

About 18 months ago, patent in hand, Sheinberg and Wortman signed a royalty agreement with manufacturer Picchietti. Bumpers retail for $400 to $500 per lane.

To the National Bowling Council, a Washington trade group, bumper bowling was good news. Concerned about inspiring a new generation of bowlers, the council recently conducted focus groups to find out what mothers liked and didn't like about the sport.

"One of the things that impressed us most was the mother who said, 'You people have to figure out a way for young children to be more successful. It was three weeks until my child could knock down a pin,' " says Rex Golobic, chairman of the group's education and training committee.

Skeptics argue that bumpers make bowling too easy. "(Bumpers) really aren't teaching you to bowl," explains Nicky's sister, Briana, 9.

Tom Cristy, Sport Center Bowl's manager, equates bumpers to bicycle training wheels. "We start 4-, 5- and 6-year-old kids with bumpers to keep them from getting discouraged. By the time a child is 8 years old, we encourage them to do without," he says.

Day camp director Howard Cahn said younger campers respond well. "In the days before bumpers, kids used to get very frustrated. Now, the little kids like going bowling a lot more."

A 6-year-old who might have bowled a score of 30 in the so-called "old days," now can bowl in the low 100s, Cahn adds.

Stephanie Gettis, "almost 8," of Van Nuys, loves the game, and as she plays on a recent day, she is on a roll. For Stephanie, whose ensemble includes a T-shirt with metallic designs accessorized with small gold heart earrings and purple barrettes, things are going well. She aces team members by scoring 135--"My highest game ever," she announces.

From a distance, counselor David Marcus is heard admonishing his charges. "Hey, you guys, God invented chairs for people to sit on."

"Now I know what it feels like to be a parent," he shrugs, noting that seven children of his own are not in the future. "The 'Brady Bunch' isn't for me."

The game over, his team engages in a round of "high fives." The high scorer is Allen Beck, 7, of Van Nuys, with 117. Allen, who came close to a "Turkey"--three strikes in a row--thinks bumper bowling is "pretty easy."

David Greening, 8, of Northridge, who racked rolled an 81, is content, but confides, "I'd really rather be playing baseball."

Outside, the bus driver sits alone in the big yellow school bus. "I'm enjoying my last moments of quiet," he smiles.

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