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In the fast lane

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[Times photos: Dirk Shadd]
Aymee Laurain reaches to pluck her ball from the return while bowling with her brother and friends at the late-night Extreme Bowl at AMF Kenneth City Lanes.

By TOM ZUCCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2000


Bowling blasts out of obscurity with sound and light and a whole new attitude.

The hard truth is that for a lot of people, the biggest thrill in bowling is those funny-looking two-toned shoes.

All the heavyweights bowled in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. Ralph Kramden. Fred Flintstone. Archie Bunker. Even Richard Nixon. But by the '80s, people thought bowling just wasn't cool anymore. The sport had a major image problem. It lacked sex appeal -- unless you find something sexy about hair spray, wrist braces and the movie Kingpin.

When was the last time you saw bowling on TV? Remember Bowling for Dollars? Remember Chris Schenkel on Saturday afternoons calling the balls and strikes from some lane in Akron, Ohio?

They're all gone. In 1997, ABC dropped bowling after 35 years because of poor ratings. Aging demographics, the advertisers said. League membership was down, and membership in the Professional Bowlers Association fell by more than a thousand in just the past three years.

But the people at the PBA and the American Bowling Congress, bowling's largest membership organization, are not allowing their sport to go quietly into that good night. In fact, they're using the nighttime to push the latest in the sport: X-treme bowling.

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The colorful lights are upstaged only by the booming bass during Galactic Bowling at Sunrise Lanes in St. Petersburg. Here, Lloyd Lambert, 42, right, enjoys a beer, leaving the lanes to the younger bowlers.

Yes, it sounds like a classic oxymoron. Like X-treme reading.

But for bowling, this really is extreme.

What bowling center owners did was add lasers and strobes, high energy dance music and glow-in-the-dark shoes and balls, and hold a party every Friday and Saturday night after the league bowlers had gone home.

Studio 54 meets the bowling alley.

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Glow-in-the-dark balls are part of the new look at Sunrise Lanes.
Guess what? People are coming back. In droves. Teenagers, 20-somethings, parents -- even grandparents.

A little before midnight on a recent Friday, four former members of the St. Petersburg High School football team -- Robert Silva, 17, Matt Mitchell, 19, Thomas Allen, 21, and Paul Letellier, 19 -- are sitting around the ball return at Sunrise Lanes in St. Petersburg. They're sipping sodas, throwing more than a few gutter balls and kidding each other about how bad they are.

"At a lot of other places you go, you get drugs and all that," says Silva, "but it's a real clean atmosphere here. It's great. We got here at 9 and we'll stay till they close."

"Yeah, I'm 21 and I could go to a bar," adds Allen. "But I'm having a lot more fun here than if I was drinking."

That man smiling behind the counter is Sunrise Lanes manager Derek Dzierba. The center has spent close to $500,000 on lights and a new sound system to lure the public back. And now, even near midnight, all 32 lanes are in use.

"Used to be dead after 9 on Friday and Saturday nights," Dzierba says. "Not anymore. Tonight, we've been on a waiting list since 9.

"Every bowling center, if they're smart, is into it now. It's that big."

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Michael Trnavsky raises his arms in triumph while watching his ball glide down the lane at late-night Extreme Bowl at AMF Kenneth City Lanes.
Whether it's called X-treme bowling or Galactic bowling, as it is at Sunrise, the change came about as a matter of simple economics. When bowling's popularity faded, so did some of the centers. And when the centers were seen as smoky, seedy places, especially at night, the entire industry took it on the chin. People found other ways to spend their extra money.

"We're not competing against the other bowling centers," Dzierba said. "We're competing against movies, Celebration Station, the Devil Rays and the Bucs for the entertainment dollar."

In his recently published book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, observes that Americans used to bowl in leagues; now we bowl alone. Putnam found a center in New London, Conn., where people bowl alone while watching jumbo TV screens, "further reducing their chances of forming meaningful social connections."

This, Putnam says, is strong evidence that we are becoming more and more socially isolated.

Perhaps, but there are pockets of resistance.

Sharon Stone, 48, is a licensed practical nurse from St. Petersburg. She is bowling at Sunrise with her 11-year-old grandson, who is grooving to the disco anthem Play That Funky Music.

"It's something my grandson and I can do together, it gets us out of the house, and the best part is I can bowl stupid and it doesn't matter," she says over the din. "It really is more fun.

"It's like going to a nightclub and not having to dance."

Where to go to extremes
Whether they call it Galactic, Cosmic or X-treme, lots of Tampa Bay bowling centers are jazzing up their images with music and lights. Most happen late at night; some cater to kids with afternoon hours. Here are the centers we know about, and the hours and prices of the special events.
Even the PBA is getting involved. The league abandoned Akron earlier this year for that font of all things new, Seattle. The organization hired an army of tech-savvy marketing people to do some serious image changing, and there are now plans to re-package the pro bowler's tour as some sort of pro wrestling/pro golf/X-men hybrid.

Picture this: a pro bowler in a leather vest, with a major babe on each side, grabbing a microphone and verbally assaulting his opponent in the next lane. They might even come to blows. And use folding chairs.

Could happen.

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