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Bowled Over 

Cosmic Bowling throws the sport for a loop

It's Friday night, the Commodores' "Brick House" is pumpin', your hands are greasy with lane oil and you're having more fun on a bowling alley than ever before. Your bowling ball glows a fiery orange in the darkness, and you're winding up for another strike at Brunswick's Four Seasons Lanes in Chesterfield, which has been transformed into a disco inferno.

What is Cosmic Bowling, and why does it seem to make plain old bowling so much cooler? The Four Seasons version features giant TV screens that descend from the ceiling to show Top 40 videos alternating with tunes spun by a DJ. Colored lights spin from the ceiling, and a whole lot of black lights illuminate fluorescent-hued bowling balls and bathe most everything else in dark purple. Management is selling those break-it-and-shake-it glowing necklaces you see at raves, and the DJ is circulating among the bowlers with a microphone for those who want to embarrass themselves in front of 40 lanes of customers. For further embarrassment, cameras hanging from the ceiling capture bowlers in midstride and display their images on the screens between videos.

Music and lighting effects, like beer, really liven up the bowling experience. During the past five or so years that Four Seasons has featured Cosmic Bowling (Brunswick says it has trademarked the term), the industry has embraced the disco-style makeover. Most alleys have welcomed their own versions of mood-lighting and loud pop music during these special sessions. Parents are booking Cosmic Bowling birthday parties in droves, and "almost all of the plastic bowling balls these days are starting to be designed so they glow underneath a black light," says Four Seasons assistant manager Mike Flanagan.

He explains that the trend evolved from "rock & bowl," events at which bowling alleys would turn out all the lights, except those near the pin decks, and hire a DJ for the night. Technology and marketing advanced to include specially made Day-Glo bowling balls, black lights, fog machines and DVD players. On a Friday night, $12 will get you shoe rental and two hours of bowling -- 11 p.m.-1 a.m. -- to the sounds of the likes of Everclear, Nelly, Papa Roach, Shaggy, Linkin Park, Ludacris, the Dixie Chicks and Kid Rock. If you're lucky, you'll hear some of the aforementioned old-school funk, too.

The formula would seem to lend itself to some interesting variations. Flanagan envisions musical theme nights, such as a "soul bowl" or "country jam," or showing movie musicals: "We're looking to do some stuff, maybe this summer, with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, showing that in here on the big screens, and maybe Grease" -- or maybe Grease II, with that "Score Tonight" bowling number. Better yet, why not just show Kingpin? How 'bout theme nights for ska and Barbra Streisand? Let the Cosmic Age begin.

At 10:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, the regular bowlers are clearing out and the Cosmic crew clots the entryway. High-school kids are nervously checking each other out and moving to their assigned lanes. As you look across the lanes, the ball returns resemble gumball machines from which giant, brightly colored jawbreakers have emerged. At the stroke of 11 p.m., the theme from Star Wars begins. "Ladies and gentlemen," intones the DJ, "we 'bout to get cosmic."

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