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?

"Watch what happens when it doesn't count," says Schultz as he sets up on lane 4. Sure enough, it's another strike. Then another. Miller and a few others who are here for the Thursday-night league start watching. Boom. Ten more pins go flying, and Schultz, who customarily finishes his night by bowling until he doesn't get a strike, is on his way to a four-bagger. He's beginning his approach when the lights above the pins go dark and the pinsetter shuts off.

"Charlie!" Schultz and a couple of spectators shout at bartender Charlie Nack, who had figured everyone was done for the night. Miller walks to the bar. "Turn it back on," Miller says. A few seconds later, the pinsetter clanks to life, the lights come on and Schultz approaches the line. But the magic is gone. He leaves three pins but still smiles as he and Miller tally their scores. Halfway through the 35-week season, the defending champion Rockets -- there is no "the" in the name -- are in second place in the six-team league. They needed this.

Schultz occasionally bowled while growing up in Ohio, and Miller, a native St. Louisan, was pretty good in high school, but neither had rolled a ball for more than a decade before discovering Arcade Lanes a couple of years ago. Now, with averages 20 pins better than at the end of last season, they are house aces in Arcade Lanes' only remaining league. It's the only place they bowl.

Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.
Jennifer Silverberg
Arcade Lanes is one of two upstairs bowling alleys in St. Louis County.

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To be sure, being the best bowler at Arcade Lanes doesn't carry nearly the prestige it once did. About half of the league bowlers on any given Thursday don't have their own shoes or balls. But they do have stories you won't hear at any other bowling house in the city.

There was Waterfall Night a few weeks ago, when a sodden ceiling tile gave way near one of the scoring projectors. And a night last year was straight out of Hitchcock. Schultz was just ready to release his ball when a bird the size of a crow flew out from behind the pins and straight at him. It went up the lane, over his head and behind the bar before disappearing in the darkened billiards room. No one has seen it since.

These bowlers don't care that they occasionally have to sort through pins to find ones that will remain upright after the pinsetter rises. "Up here, we just worry about having fun," Miller says. But dilapidated or not, the Arcade can be an attractive target for money bowlers. With a $20 entry fee and a top prize of around $200, depending on number of entries, Lampson's annual holiday doubles tournament doesn't sound too tough for shooters with 200-plus averages. But battered though they are, these may be the last honest lanes in St. Louis. Even the best Brooklyn hook doesn't mean squat here.

Travis Hendrixson, who bowls tournaments practically every weekend, figured he and his nephew Ned Hendrixson had a better than decent shot during last year's tournament, which unfolds over the course of six weekends in December and January. Ned called him on the last day of competition. "I said, 'You mean to tell me that place is still open?'" Hendrixson recalls. "I hadn't been up there in years. He told me what the [high] score was. It was superlow." Hendrixson doesn't normally enter tournaments when a handicap is in effect -- as a scratch bowler, winning is tough these days when you spot pins and strikes come easy for mediocre bowlers on hot streaks. But with the top score so low, this was different. He and Ned headed straight to U. City, making it just in time to bowl the tournament's final game.

Traveling tournament shooters such as the Hendrixsons are regarded as gunslingers at Arcade Lanes. "You don't want them to break your tournament," says Nack, one of the few regulars from Arcade's heyday who's still there. "You want your bowlers to win." The Hendrixsons were easy to peg -- few bowlers bother lugging four balls apiece up the 19 steps. They came close, but even though they had the highest scratch score, they couldn't beat Schultz and Miller, who, with handicaps factored, finished 11 pins ahead and collected $180. Their winning score of 1,493, bowled the first day of competition, wouldn't have been in the money five years ago, when the 18th-place team rolled 1,558 and went home with $25. Travis Hendrixson, who plans to come back this year, isn't complaining.

"Put it this way: It's the most honest-scoring shot you're going to find, bad as it is," he says. "It's a very competitive lane condition. It's equal for everybody. People don't want to go up there and bowl under those conditions, but we get kind of a bang out of it."

You can't count on striking your way out of trouble at Arcade Lanes. "Spares, that's what counts," says Hendrixson, who isn't proud of averaging 220, about 20 pins better than he did 30 years ago when he was in his prime. He believes the game has gotten too easy and figures he'd average between 170 and 180 at Arcade Lanes if he bowled there regularly.

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