In the Great Emptiness between the end of football season and the beginning of baseball, it’s nice to remember how people survived before we had cable TV and cell phones to help distract us through the endless winter months.
It hit me as I drove along Liberty Heights Avenue the other day. There it was, that bastion of thunderous noise, that madhouse establishment where the height of superior athletic achievement was making the impossible 7-10 split – the location that used to be Toots Barger’s duckpin bowling alley.
Remember Toots? In post-war Baltimore, she was the queen of ducks when bowling was as big around here as meetin’ ya at Ameche’s or making out at Carlin’s Drive-In during the slow scenes of “Gidget Gets A Hickey.”
Duckpin bowling’s still around, but it was everywhere in those days, a secular Bawlamer religion celebrated not only on the hundred lanes on Howard Street but joints on neighborhood corners, beneath strip malls, in church basements, above shops and movie theaters, and on television every time you turned on the set.
Remember “Pinbusters?” Remember “Duckpins and Dollars”? Remember, every winter when WMAR-TV carried the final round of the Evening Sun duckpin tournament?
Toots was always among the finalists, along with some others who became household names of that era, strictly from their Sunpapers TV exposure: Dave Volk and Vic Lancelotta and Jimmy Dietsch, Mary Kuebler and Patsy Stroessner, Ruth Kratz and Alva Brown, Ethel Dize and Audrey (Sis) Atkinson, and big Min Weisenborn, who’d toss the ball into the air like a Russian shot-putter, catch it and then heave it so furiously that even the pins seemed to cringe.
I can picture it still.
Toots’s place was one of the three or four great bowling establishments in Northwest Baltimore. There were the Hilltop Lanes, around the corner from the Hilltop Shopping Center; the Forest Park Lanes, where you could spend an entire Sunday afternoon impatiently waiting for them to call your name because the place was so jammed; and Northwest Bowling Lanes, which came along a few years later.
Even now, when I drive toward Highlandtown on the city’s east side, to pass the ancient Patterson Lanes feels like passing some kind of athletic religious shrine.
There wasn’t another town in America that made such a big deal out of duckpins. Most cities used the big ten-pin balls, where the scores were so much higher but the game lacked the idiosyncratic spill of the duckpins. It was just one more distinguishing feature of our local character, like beehive hairdos or slurping “urshters” or believing Charley Eckman spoke the King’s English.
For me, Toots’s old place was the heart of it. It was just below Gwynn Oak Junction, with its old Ambassador Theater, Read’s Drug Store and the Ben Franklin 5 & 10 store.
As memory serves, Toots’s place only had about a dozen lanes. For a lot of years, it still had pin boys, with their duck’s ass haircuts and cigarettes dangling from their lower lips. They’d work two lanes at a time and holler at cheapskates who failed to toss a 10-cent tip down the alley at game’s end.
Toots’s place was also good for playing hooky from an occasional Sunday school class. But I’ll leave that part out. The statute of limitations might not have expired yet.
Until the arrival of baseball, I’ll just nurture old dreams of making the elusive 7-10 split.
Also see: Is Bowling Still Cool?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.