STRIKE UP THE MUSIC : If You Haven't Bowled Lately, It's Time to Get Back in the Groove

Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

It's after midnight on a rainy Friday at the Westbrook Bowl. Hay bales are stacked outside the door; inside, country music is blasting, and employees are dressed in Western duds.

General manager Max Epps has taught bowling in Europe and Japan and has 30 perfect games to his credit ("I've been lucky a few times," he says with a smile), but tonight the game is secondary. In his denim shirt and tin marshal's badge, Epps is busy trying to get customers to join him in a line dance.

Most of the customers on hand, alas, seem more interested in bowling than dancing. But the week before, Epps said, when rain wasn't keeping the crowd down, one line dance stretched across all 40 lanes. Country music and dancing weren't the only added attractions that week: One lane was open for folks who wanted to try knocking the pins down with a frozen turkey.

Welcome to bowling's new look. "Kick-n-bowl," the newest promotion at Westbrook, is the fast-growing country equivalent (sponsored by country music station KIK-FM) to the "rock-n-bowl" nights that have caught on at alleys across the county. As bowling centers cope with a continuing slide in league bowling, their old staple, they're trying hard to come up with new ways of bringing customers in.

In addition to rock and country music nights, there are casino nights, during which bowlers knock down colored pins in hopes of winning cash prizes, random-draw mixed doubles tournaments, "no tap" contests (in which nine pins down counts as a strike), hourly bowling rates, keno, karaoke, two-for-one nights, smoke-free nights and "coffee club" tournaments.

For a time, Kona Lanes in Costa Mesa even advertised "nude bowling" on its marquee, but it turns out that was just the gag name for a new league. It's not as far-fetched as it sounds, though: An alley in Lake Elsinore used to have a real nude bowling league.

"The entire game of bowling has changed a lot," Epps says. "We used to just open the doors, and people came in."

Now, bowling centers are having to work harder to attract business. The effort seems to be paying off, especially as teens who once shunned the game as unhip are rediscovering the sport, largely through the popularity of rock-n-bowl nights.

"A few years ago, bowling wasn't cool," says Butch Maxwell, owner of Westminster Bowling Supplies. "Now, it's an accepted thing to do again. It goes back and forth all the time."

The decline in league bowling is fueling all the emphasis on special promotions. In the 1970s, Epps says, a typical bowling center might have derived 85% of its business from league play. In 1986 to 1987, the figure dropped to about 65%; now, at Westbrook, just 54% of business comes from bowling leagues.

The Orange County Women's Bowling Assn., which sanctions women's bowling leagues at centers throughout the county, has a membership of 14,470. That's down from more than 40,000 in 1986, according to association secretary Marge Miyoda. Figures for men's and mixed leagues have taken a similar tumble in recent years.

"(The number of) sanctioned league bowlers has gone down every year for the last eight years," Maxwell says. While many centers once had two shifts of league bowling on weeknights, from 6 to 9 and then from 9 to midnight, most of the league play is now concentrated in the earlier shift.

Theories explaining the decline vary. Some say the heavy bowlers of a decade ago have had to cut back under increasing job and family pressures. "I've been a bowler for a whole bunch of years. It was not uncommon for me to bowl four or five nights a week" in years past, Maxwell says. He said that he and other bowlers have cut it down to one or two nights a week.

Miyoda and others say that much of the traditionally blue-collar bowling crowd has moved out of the county in recent years, in search of lower housing costs. In the late '80s, in fact, there was a boom in bowling center construction from Riverside to Moreno Valley.

In Orange County during this time, not only was league bowling declining, but bowling centers were closing down with disturbing frequency. Maxwell says he can remember at least a dozen that have closed in the last decade, most recently Champions in Garden Grove, which shut down last year after some 40 years in the business. Many sit on land that has skyrocketed in value since their opening; when long-term leases expire, they opt to close the doors rather than pay dramatically higher rents.

Meanwhile, only one new bowling center has opened in Orange County in recent years, the Concourse in Anaheim. Another has reportedly been built in Rancho Santa Margarita but has not yet opened.

Bowling center operators have tried a variety of ways of coping with the drop in league bowling. One has been to offer shorter league schedules of 10 to 12 weeks, rather than the traditional 32 to 36 weeks for winter bowling leagues.

"With today's hectic schedule, we just can't know what we're going to be doing at 6 o'clock on a Tuesday night for the next 35 weeks," says John Balla, general manager of Westminster Lanes.

Some of the shorter leagues culminate in a final tournament trip to Nevada or Catalina Island. Weekly tournaments, including some with cash prizes, are another way of accommodating serious bowlers too busy to commit to a league schedule.

Meanwhile, the good news for bowling center operators is that efforts to increase non-league (or "open play") business, largely through special events and promotions, are starting to pay off. Most of the promotions and price specials are concentrated in the off-peak hours (before or after the 6 to 9 p.m. slot, where leagues still dominate).

Some junior leagues are also on the rise. One recent weekday afternoon at Fountain Bowl in Fountain Valley, some 20 lanes were occupied by young (mostly pre-teen) bowlers. Jaclyn Page, a 13-year-old from Fountain Valley, says she has been bowling regularly for four years and thinks that the sport is getting more popular among her age group.

Jason Marez, a 14-year-old from Santa Ana who has bowled for three years, agrees. "We'll tell our friends, and they'll tell their friends" about the sport, he says, after bowling a tidy 167.

Mandy Higgs, 11, of Huntington Beach says she enjoys the social aspect of her once-a-week league. "I like meeting new people," she says.

At the opposite end of the center, the Somerville family was getting together for a weekly league tournament. Daughter Marty started bowling in a league five years ago and got her parents, Fran and Jim, involved.

"They hadn't bowled in 20 years," Marty says. As a child, she adds, "I used to keep score and they used to bowl."

Jim Somerville bowled in several leagues back then at the now-defunct Huntington Lanes, maintaining a 185 average before his attentions turned to golf. But now, he says, golf is getting too expensive, and he has come back to bowling. "I can bowl for a week for what it costs me to play one round of golf."

Although leagues remain an important part of all bowling centers--and the mainstay at some--many are trying to pump up their open-play business with weekly promotions. At rock-n-bowl events, disc jockeys spin records at almost ear-splitting levels, and the kids come in force to bowl, as was demonstrated on a recent Friday night at Fountain Bowl. Despite a steady rain outside, the center was packed with clean-cut teens bowling to a KROQ-style mix of alternative rock and hip-hop.

Westminster Lanes is credited with pioneering rock-n-bowl locally 15 years ago, while most other centers have added it in just the last year or two. The increased competition hasn't hurt so far, though. Balla says over the weekend he drew his biggest rock-n-bowl crowd.

At Westminster Lanes, the rock-n-bowl music mix leans on classic and mainstream rock in an attempt to appeal to a slightly older, 25-to-35 crowd that has "more disposable income," Balla says. The center also has added a country bowling night on Sundays. The advent of overhead video screens installed to display automatic scoring at some centers now allows the use of music videos, as well.

"For most of our generation, it's not enough to just go down and bowl," Balla says. "They want to be entertained."

For instance, karaoke has become a popular way to drum up bar business, an important revenue generator for many bowling centers. Keno is gaining popularity too; Epps said he does about $7,000 a week in keno business and has employed a full-time keno runner.

In addition to the young crowd, centers are re-attracting older bowlers who dropped out of the sport to raise families. Daytime senior leagues are one growth area for many centers.

Many local bowling centers also have made a big pitch for birthday parties and other family business. One of the latest innovations for very young bowlers eliminates the gutter ball. Inflatable tubes fill the gutters and keep the ball in the lane. Gutter balls, according to the current wisdom, can be too discouraging for tykes.

Automatic scoring (and, more recently, color automatic scoring) is another innovation that has caught on widely in recent years. No more need for sometime bowlers to wrestle with figuring out the strikes and spares.

Primarily because of the cost of building a new center, bowling has not undergone the kind of upscale revolution that has transformed the pool hall, but many centers have remodeled in an effort to update bowling's image.

"It's kind of tough sometimes to get rid of the negative connotation of bowling," Balla says.

The future of bowling can be glimpsed at some of the new centers in Riverside, and locally at the Concourse in Anaheim. Windows --lots of them--are the most notable addition, creating a sense of space reinforced by the high ceilings. The vertical space, coupled with ceiling fans, keeps the air circulating and relatively smoke-free compared to many older centers.

It's "the Nordstrom of bowling," says Scott Hatmaker, general manager of the Concourse. "It's a bright, open, airy place. I think we saw that it was time to uplift bowling . . . to get rid of the dreary, dark reputation that bowling had."

How to Keep Score

Many bowling centers have automatic scoring these days, but the ability to keep score is still required at some--and it's a nice skill to have, in any case.

Strike:

If you knock down all pins on the first ball of a frame, you get 10 pins plus the total pinfall on your next two rolls.

Spare:

If you knock down all pins with two balls, you get 10 pins plus the total pinfall on your next ball.

* Example . . . . . . . . .Strike . . . . . . . . 17+strike(10)+6+2=35 (8)(1) (7)(1) ( )(X) (6)(2) (8)(/) (7)(2) (6)(/) (8)(1) ( )(X) (8)(-) ( 9 ) ( 17 ) ( 35 ) ( 43 ) ( 60 ) ( 69 ) ( 87 ) ( 96 ) ( 114) ( 122 ) (122). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . Spare . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69+spare(10)+8=87Source: Kona Lanes, Costa Mesa

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* ALMOST MYSTICAL

Writer Jim Washburn finds the bowling alley experience goes well beyond the game itself. Page 46.

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