Bowling Alone

Arcade Lanes is nothing fancy, and Jim Lampson likes it that way. Could this faded jewel be the best bowling alley on earth?

According to county property records, Lampson bought the place in 1976 for $57,000. Whether he was an official owner or not, press clippings and some of the top names in bowling confirm Lampson's presence in the early 1960s.

"I've bowled in a lot of places, but I've never been in a place like that," says Dick Weber, a member of the Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Fame who won 26 PBA tournaments during his career. "Just being able to bowl there was something else. Of course, the most memorable thing was the antiques the guy had around there. My God, he had his own resurfacing machine around there that was an antique made in prewar days. That was sitting alongside lane 1 there." Naturally the machine is still there and Lampson still uses it, though not as often as he'd like.

Weber bowled at Arcade Lanes during the late '50s and early '60s as a member of the infamous Budweiser Kings team, whose battles against archrivals the Falstaffs were the stuff of legend -- Lampson eagerly points out a storage area that was once their dressing room. Fifty or more spectators, quite a crowd for an eight-lane house, would gather to watch the matches. Weber has nothing but praise for Lampson. "He was one of those guys who manicured his lanes like a golf green all the time," Weber recalls. "He's a fun guy. He's been an asset to our industry and does quite well for us. Anything I can do for him, I'm happy to do." But back in the heyday of the Budweisers and Falstaffs, Arcade Lanes wasn't popular with everyone.

Lampson keeps memories -- and scores -- from bowling's yesteryear on Arcade's walls.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lampson keeps memories -- and scores -- from bowling's yesteryear on Arcade's walls.
Charlie Nack, night bartender, has been at Arcade nearly as long as Lampson.
Jennifer Silverberg
Charlie Nack, night bartender, has been at Arcade nearly as long as Lampson.

Lampson boasts that 300 or so perfect games have been rolled at Arcade Lanes, most since he took over and none since the 1980s, which brought plenty of suspicion and accusations from American Bowling Congress inspectors who certified that lanes and pins were within specifications before perfect scores were sanctioned. High scores started showing immediately after Lampson and his partner Bartels arrived -- the first thing they did was close the place for three days so they could strip and refinish the lanes. At a time when fewer than 1,000 bowlers reached perfection each year, the notion that a tiny bowling house in suburban St. Louis could account for more than a dozen 300s was preposterous. And so Arcade Lanes was the most frequently inspected house in the nation during the 1961-62 season, when there were 30 games of 298 or better, including 14 perfect ones, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Bowling magazine. Elvin Mesger rolled an 855 series at Arcade Lanes that year, highest in the country, and he shot a perfect game on lanes 5 and 6 a few weeks later, the same night Don Dubro shot 300 on lanes 7 and 8 -- both men are now enshrined in the Greater St. Louis Bowling Hall of Fame. By midseason, the ABC was springing surprise inspections at Arcade Lanes. They never found anything, but that didn't stop skeptics and purists from claiming the business was doctoring lanes by laying down heavier-than-allowed layers of oil to keep balls on target, a technique known as blocking.

At the time, Ron Bartels, son of Lampson's partner, was in charge of the lanes, but high scores remained after Lampson became greenskeeper of Arcade Lanes' hardwood -- in 1978, a team from Portland, Ore., rolled a 3,782, tops in the country that year. Lampson prefers to work his magic in secret, but those who've watched say his technique is eccentric. He is infamous for applying oil with a pump-style bug sprayer like the one Vito Corleone uses on his tomatoes in The Godfather. And whereas everyone else uses Zambonilike machines to finish lanes, Lampson uses burlap strapped to that ancient buffer sitting next to lane 1. The buffer weighs well over 100 pounds. He can still lift it, but just barely. Family and friends helped out the last time he stripped and refinished the wood, about four years ago. The lanes, which must be level side to side within four 1,000ths of an inch, are certified annually by the Greater St. Louis Bowling Association.

Back in the day, Lampson delighted in leaving inspectors flabbergasted. Take the time they accused him of dragging the lanes -- removing excess oil before inspectors arrived -- after yet another 300. Not being able to find any ball marks, they initially rejected the scores. Come back tomorrow, before league bowling, he told them. When they arrived, Lampson had the inspectors sit in the billiards room while he prepped the lanes. After two hours of league bowling, Lampson invited them to inspect to their heart's content. What they found seemed impossible: Ball marks on the first third of the lanes, no marks whatsoever on the middle third and marks again on the last third just before the pins, as if balls had levitated midway through their journey.

The score was sanctioned. Lampson still won't say how he did it.

"At one time, Jim seemed to pride himself -- and that was one of his problems -- on trying to provide the bowler with an opportunity to win award-winning scores more often than necessary," says Don Granberry, an ABC inspector in the '70s who later joined an Arcade league. "He was a master craftsman at fixing his lanes. Jim would stretch the rules to the nth degree -- that's what I remember about him. He would do what he could to keep within the limits, and sometimes he would go beyond the limits. We were the bad guys, but we weren't against him, really. We were just trying to maintain what ABC, the national headquarters, said was the rules. Some of his scores were turned down. But many of them were approved."

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