My friend Brian, who lives in New Jersey, holds an annual bowling party. Like me, he prefers old-school lanes with manual scoring, but those sorts of places have been dropping like flies in recent years (a trend accelerated by the pandemic, which claimed several of my favorite local pin-bashing venues — sigh). But then Brian learned about a private NJ men’s club that has its own bowling lanes in the basement. Last fall he applied for membership, was accepted, and promptly joined the club’s bowling league. Then he asked if he could use the lanes for his annual party.
And that’s how I found myself bowling on a beautifully preserved set of six Brunswick lanes in New Jersey last Saturday. Judging by the design features, I’d say the last renovation was probably in the early to mid-1960s. Look at these gorgeous fixtures:
Nice scorer’s tables and seating areas, too:
The lanes had my favorite kind of ball returns — exposed above ground, with what I call the “speed bump” ball-slowing mechanism:
In a nice touch, there’s a big photo on the wall of Dick Nixon bowling at the White House (additional info here):
I also liked these 1970s certification stickers from the American Bowling Congress (now known as the U.S. Bowling Congress). Lane certification means, among other things, that if you bowl a perfect 300 game, it will “count” in the sport’s historical register:
The old-school bowling theme even extends to the men’s room, which has this poster on the wall (worth enlarging and studying!):
Cool, right? But the best part was when Brian brought me behind the lanes to check out the pinsetting machinery. I’ve been bowling almost my entire life but had never spent more than a few seconds around this type of equipment, so it was a real treat:
Our time on the lanes raced by much too fast. But I told Brian that if he ever needs someone to fill in on his team, I’ll happily drive to NJ just to experience these lanes again.
Very nice article. Not an avid bowler myself but I love the graphic aesthetics and the large amount of engineered wood involved.
Very cool! I used to go five pin bowling with a buddy quite often when I was 14-15. The local alley had something called “Midnight Bowling” on Friday nights where you could bowl all you want between 12:00 and 2:00 AM for some nominal fee. We would play multiple games in those two hours. If at any time during a game the center pin was red, instead of a normal white pin, you would notify the person working behind the counter and if you rolled a strike you would win a large bottle of pop. We drank way too much pop back then.
Not a bowler, but that “I can’t believe it’s not gutter!” T-shirt is priceless.
Absolutely agree about the shirt – I love this whole post (I had my 30th birthday party at a duckpin bowling alley that has sadly bitten the dust), but the shirt made me laugh out loud.
Curious to know Paul – what is your personal high score bowling?
231. Spare in the 1st, strikes in the 2nd thru 8th, spare in the 9th, and then an open (!) in the 10th.
That’s a great game, Paul – wow!
If you ever want to go bowling, Cliff, just say when. Have ball, will travel!
Where in NJ is this located?
Secret location will stay secret — sorry.
I can tell you that it’s NOT located in Palmyra, NJ, which for decades was home to a stand-alone, open-to-the-public 8 laner.
Since its’ closure about 10 years ago it has been converted into a baseball/softball batting alley. The new owners kept the old bowling sign…sans neon…in place until a couple of years ago.
For a secret-ish club, it’s surprisingly easy to Google. They even have bowling info and photos on their website.
I would be shocked if it were down here in South Jersey, but I have been wrong about plenty of things before…
Ah…that ball return reminded me of Shell Lanes in Brooklyn, where I started bowling at age 3. Remind me why there has never been a Uni Watch bowling outing again?
Hey Steve, fellow Shell Lanes bowler here! It was just a few blocks from the site of my baseball infamy– Gil Hodges Little League. My time frequenting Shell was in the early to mid 70’s. Did you ever have the pizza from the vending machine? You baked it yourself. That pizza with the fountain Coke in the wax cup– a bit of heaven!
I also played in Gil Hodges in the 70s…on the Mets one year. Of course remember the pizza….also the soup machine. I must know you. I bowled there from about 1973 through the early 80s. I graduated PS 216 in 1976 and Lincoln in 1982.
I’m sure we crossed paths! Though I’m a little older. I played for the Dodgers at the level when you played for the Mets. PS 209. And Lincoln 1978!
Wait a minute— I entered Lincoln in 1978 and graduated with you in 1982!!! Memory gets fuzzy!
I think I remember you. Starts with D end ends with -witz, right? Did you play on Mike F’s team with the Mets?
No…that is someone else. I entered Lincoln in 1979.
The suburb where I grew up, there was a catholic school that had a 4 lane alley in the basement. We would bowl there all the time after school in the 80s.
“The old-school bowling theme even extends to the men’s room, which has this poster on the wall (worth enlarging and studying!)”
Is there a larger version of the photo? Only a small one is embedded.
Very surprised to learn that picking up a Greek Church is harder than a 7-10 split.
I was under the impression that it wasn’t necessarily HARDER to pick up the Greek Church than a 7-10 split, but more a matter of statistically, the Greek Church is picked up less often, due to the fact that most bowlers will go for the more “sure” thing with the pins that are adjacent to each other, rather that try to pick up the entire spare.
Damn, I love that poster!
Phenomenal article! I remember bowling on lanes like this when I was a kid. My father used to take my brother and I to a bowling alley similar to this. It had maybe 10 lanes. Thanks for this article – it brought back great memories of my dad teaching me how to score. May he continue to Rest in Peace.
The Bowling Centers of Wisconsin runs a regular Vintage Alleys Tour, in which tour goers pay $99 for a day in a coach bus, traveling to four “vintage” centers in Wisconsin. I have been on three of these tours (and another one is scheduled for later in April).
Above link has photos from all previous tours. I was on the fall tours in ’17 (I was in the red dress shirt and tie), ’18 (I wore a boring purple polo) and ’19 (I am in the pink shirt and white hat).
The 2017 tour was also written up in the Wisconsin State Journal and syndicated
When I was at ESPN, I tried to get them to let me do a story on this. My editor said no.
ESPN had the PBA contract for about 40 years until recently. If they really had cared about bowling, their rationale might have been that they didn’t want the “vintage” branding to conflict with the state of the art centers being used on the telecast.
Trust me, it had nothing to do with that. Was just about travel budgets, projected page views, etc.
The “page views” business model has absolutely destroyed professional journalism. It’s disheartening.
Can you imagine if the music industry only released music that was sure to get a certain amount of radio plays?
Did you ever roll at Maggio’s in Patchogue? It was on the opposite corner from Shand’s if I recall correctly.
Yes! Bowled there only twice, sadly. More often went to the lanes near the train station.
I adore the locations of the ball returns along the walls, too.
Hi Paul! Mike Grimm here. I absolutely _love_ this whole story/images/videos! But the highlight for me has to be learning that 40+ years after high school…my lifetime top score is 2 pins higher than yours (a 233 back in the early 90s!)! Who, me, overly competitive much??)! Lol Talk about an extra treat I didn’t expect waking up this morning!
Carry on my friend!
Great to hear from you, Mike. Your high game may be higher than mine, but I’ll always remember striking out in the 10th frame to beat you and go to that Yankees/Red Sox ticket from Chris G. in 1979!
The machinery video is really cool – thanks for sharing!
Our local Bowling Alley still has wood lanes but not much else is vintage about it. But those wood lanes still draw people. A big group from a Dayton-area bowling alley makes the hour trip north about once a year to bowl on the old lanes. Almost everything else in the area is synthetic. They laugh at the younger guys who think they’re pretty good at bowling try to play the wood lanes and learn that every lane is slightly different and that they’re different from the beginning of game one to the end of game three.
The Commonwealth Club has been in existence since 1904 and the lanes were installed in 1906. The Commonwealth Club’s bowling league has been continuously since then and is thought to be oldest continuously operating bowling league in the country.
As Mark said the lanes went in well over 100 years ago. Anyone who bowls there will tell you it is very different than bowling on synthetic lanes.
For many years the pins were set manually. We have signatures of the pin boys on the boiler room wall going back to the teens and 20’s.
The pinsetters are the very first model produced by Brunswick: the model A, which came out in 1956. The club purchased them in the very early 1960s. It is a somewhat a labor of love to keep them running. Stops are not uncommon, and some club members have become adept at fixing jams and extracting stuck pins.
My personal best was 140. It was bowled at the University of Albany lanes directly behind the Campus Center cafeteria, in 1983.
For anyone that’s interested in complex machinery (like me), the back end of a bowling alley is a treasure trove. My uncle managed a bowling alley for years, and I got to see a lot of that equipment. Those are Brunswick machines, everything in the back of the house – the sweep arm, the pin carousel, and ball return – are all operated with a single 1 horsepower motor per lane. The only thing that doesn’t operate is the small blower for drying hands; also, the underground ball tunnels use a separate motor to lift the ball out of the hole. A stroll through the Qubica (Quality Bowling Supply) catalog is a treat for mechanical geeks like me.
Why do bowling alleys always look so much better with the mid-century modern design aesthetic? Any alley trapped in 1959 is a treat to the eyes.
I am mechanically impaired, but (or so) everything about that pinsetting machine is just the coolest.
If you find yourself in Chicago, you need to check out link.
Here’s some more info: link
We live in the neighborhood and were able to score one of the coming soon posters, which matches our living room perfectly!
First time posting here – the place is called Avondale Bowl (did not know it turned into “link” upon posting)
Wow! Looks like the old lanes that were located in the basement of the University of Toledo’s Student Union that were eventually replace by a computer lab some time in the 90’s. It was a great place to roll a few frames during long breaks between classes. Those same ball returns where the ball rolls back in the channel above the gutters was always a hazard as it seemed that at least once every game a ball would fall off the channel and head back at toward everyone in the gutter prompting everyone to scatter! Good times.
I searched for the information regarding the lanes and came across this page, Pauls article with someone else’s name. Plagiarism?
Wow — yes. Thanks for letting me know, Bob.
FWIW, there is a ‘source’ link at the bottom of the article. Not saying this makes it okay, I wouldn’t know about this kind of things, but it’s there…
And they have the guts to state this on their website : ‘We take copyright violation very seriously and will vigorously protect the rights of legal copyright owners.”
I bowled in a candlepin mens league starting when I was 11. They made an exception for me, wouldn’t give me a beer tho which I was miffed at. Seem to remember Paul doing a candlepin writeup a few years ago. Longtime listener, first time caller. Lol
Candles, ducks, tenpins, Canadian fivepins — I like all of it!
5 pins?? Youre sending me down a rabbit hole Paul
The pinsetter video reminds me of the old board game “Mousetrap”, only it actually works right.(mostly).
My girlfriend and I used to roll in a co-ed league at an old six-laner in Camdenton, MO. 1978-’79 – no idea of the name of the place, but one of the lanes had a notorious hump you had to deal with because the wood had warped. We always laughed, because everyone had to deal with it at sometime during the evening. Only lived there for one year, but still remember it after 40+ years.
Very cool old-time vibe, even way back then, complete with above ground return.
I doubt it’s still there – I’ve never been back.
I was a pretty serious bowler, I thought, back in my early 20s. I averaged over 200 for a while, even won some bucks in a local scotch doubles tournament with my cousin (scotch – players alternate shots through the game).
Then I went to a regional pro qualifier and averaged 220 for the set and came in near the bottom of the group. First person I bowled against threw a 300 game. I was pretty much done bowling soon after that – I really didn’t enjoy it anymore. I came to feel the same way about golf, too.
My high game was 290. 7-pin with a spare and then 11 in a row. I think I might have had the first 4 the next game. An acquaintance of mine locally here has something like 25 300-games now and has bowled a few 800 series. Scoring at local lanes with modern equipment and synthetic lanes using house conditions is through the roof compared with the wooden lanes and hard rubber ball I used back then.
Haven’t bowled a game in about 5 years. Used a house ball and house shoes and threw a 217. Found the board I needed to hit and it wasn’t that difficult. Haven’t bowled since.
I bowl at an the Falcon Bowl in Milwaukee, an alley that is very similar in style and the 5th oldest lanes in the country and still keeps manual scoring.
Love this article.
It goes to show that “Athletics Aesthetics” is about far more than just unifroms and logos.