On Easter Sunday, only the hardest of hardcore pin jockeys are slinging the lanes at Pickwick Bowl in Burbank’s Rancho District.
They’re members of the coffee club, so named for the free potables supplied by manager Bryan Alpert. You can see them there every Sunday, regardless of weather, holiday or illness.
And I mean every Sunday.
“It’s kind of like church — we come here to pray for strikes,” joked Vance Bennett, who has played on Sundays here for 20 years.
The coffee club is an inflation-proof tradition that goes back to the early ’80s — everything from the price to the people has largely remained the same.
Joe Vaccare, 87, first brokered the deal, and I met him last weekend between strikes. He was making his triumphant return after a few weeks off. A bout with pneumonia kept him off the lanes for a few weeks, and his friends were happy to have him back.
“[The illness] brought you closer to your family,” Dave Hansen told Joe.
“Yeah, but they’re mad at me. I was supposed to be done at 11,” Joe replied.
For $1.25 a game, bowlers can crash pins beginning at 9 a.m. There’s a limit to the number of games at this reduced rate, and for the 30 years he’s been enjoying the outing he founded, Joe says he’s seen the place packed nearly full on some weekends.
His tight-knit crew of leaguers uses the opportunity to get in a little practice and catch up with one another.
“It’s nice because you can bowl eight games for ten bucks — you can’t beat that,” said Don Smallwood.
Don is a 14-time league winner. He says the Sunday practice pays off for a game in which “you can barely breathe coming down the stretch.”
It’s true. Bowling gets a bad rap. The stigma is that it’s too simple a sport, or that there’s no athleticism to it. There’s a build-up as your ball rolls down that oily lane — a soldier’s drum roll before the cannon goes off. And in that explosion when ball and pins make contact, a satisfying crash ends the tension. You’re either a strike, or you’re dead in the water.
From the looks of things, this crew has seen its share of victories. I peruse the plaques at the far end of the alley, and of the dozen or so bowlers in this corner of Pickwick today, many of their names appear next to some hefty accomplishments. Vance has bowled 14 perfect games, according to the wall.
Another bowler, Stan Bushinsky, has bowled a couple of perfect 300 games and also an 801 in a round of three games — considering 900 is a perfect round, this is as close as I’d ever hope to get.
If the Pickwick is a Burbank institution, these folks have made it so. Dave has been coming here nearly his whole life. He remembers visiting Pickwick as a kid in 1970 for a field trip. At that time, Pickwick had a drive-in movie theater and a swimming pool.
Its success is also fueled by its ownership — the Stavert family built it in the late 1950s and they still own the bowling/ice-skating/garden complex today.
Bryan, the bowling alley manager, knows that he’s running more than a bowling alley. It’s a community landmark. A former pro bowler himself, Bryan keeps up traditions like coffee clubs and the occasional free pizza because he wants to thank his customers, but he also understands the culture of an individual’s sport.
It’s a tough balance to strike. In team sports, he says, there’s no one to blame but “us.” In a solitary sport like bowling, the oil on the lanes might fuel a lousy round — subtle things like dirt swept in through the front doors may affect how a player performs.
But out on the lanes on a Sunday morning, when the competition is lifted and some longtime buddies are out for fun, the most important things are coffee and camaraderie.
Joe, a signalman in World War II, wears his U.S. Navy Veteran cap while he bowls. Between rounds he confers with fellow bowlers before starting the next. As they finish their games and leave, each bowler gives him a wave and a nod: Until next week, they say.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant to Burbank. When he’s not bowling gutter balls, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on @818NewGuy.