Long before mega booksellers, video stores, bagel shops and themed eateries vied for attention in Bel Air, U.S. 1 met Route 24 in a pastoral pocket of farms, nurseries, a thoroughbred racetrack and, for its time, a cutting-edge bowling alley.
Lil Scheppelmann walked into the low-slung brick building one day in 1961, saw row upon row of polished lanes, automatic pin setters and waitresses serving homemade minestrone soup over the restaurant's Formica counter and knew she'd found a second home. "Swanky," she thought, especially compared with the cramped duckpin alley in town where pins were set by hand.
Since then, the Bel Air Bowl has become something of a Harford County landmark, a place for serious bowlers in leagues -- no video arcade here. A place to meet for lunch to keep up with the old high school crowd -- from 50 years ago. A place where the waitresses know your name and how you like your eggs. It's a place where Ruth Sullivan, the cook known to all as "Miss Ruth," has roasted up to two turkeys a day for 32 years.
"I've fried enough eggs to fill this bowling alley," said Sullivan, 72, who took the job as a young widow supporting two children. "I've fed some of these men around here more than their wives."
On Sunday, after 37 years, the bowling alley will fade from a landscape now dominated by Barnes & Noble and Bibelot, Blockbuster Video, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Pizzeria Uno.
For owner Prescott G. Coale, who is retiring and selling the property, it's simply time to go. He has come to work every day -- weekends too -- since 1960. His wife, Mary, joined him in 1975. Their grown children now have children and non-bowling-related careers of their own.
"We could stay on, I guess, but we're tired," said Coale, 68.
Still, he and his wife have mixed emotions. They'll miss the hundreds of patrons and employees they've known over the years. But bowling just isn't the same as in its heyday in the '60s and '70s, Coale said.
The bowling alley has changed with the times but only to a point. Blue and pink spectator benches gave way to modular seating. Paper scorecards faded out in favor of electronic ones. Game prices rose from the original 35 cents.
But today's bowling alleys need to offer more entertainment than tournaments and funny shoes, even at the relatively reasonable price of $2.75 a game, industry experts agree.
"Glow in the dark and fog machines and boom boxes, this is what you have to do for the younger generation," Coale sighed. "God love 'em, but I'm just not up to that."
Coale began noticing the shift in the 1980s. The decade ushered in change -- not all good for bowling alley operators. More women working meant fewer women in daytime leagues. And more entertainment options, from video games to virtual reality arcades, left fewer young people willing to commit to 35-week leagues -- the real money makers -- or to be satisfied with mere bowling, which is all you'll find at the Bel Air Bowl, along with hearty meals.
During the last two decades, the number of bowlers in Bel Air began to slide, down to an average 1,700 to 1,800 from a peak of 2,400 during much of the '60s and '70s. Many bowling alleys around the country have struggled to fill their empty lanes by coming up with new gimmicks, Bowl-aerobics or "cosmic" bowling under black lights and swirling red lasers.
Still, the reality of economics hasn't made the inevitable loss of their beloved bowling alley and restaurant any easier for regulars and some employees.
During lunchtime last week, waitresses scurried behind the counter as regulars took their places on the diner's cushioned stools. Bel Air native John E. Strawbridge perched at the counter where he's eaten, usually soup, each day since retiring from the government 13 years ago.
"They have the best homemade soup," said Strawbridge, 73, who usually hooks up with some of his old high school chums but has never actually picked up a bowling ball. "And you always see people you know. It's just like an old hangout for people who like to come in and enjoy their relaxation. We don't know where to go."
These days, waitress Martha Hopkins can barely serve jewelry store owner Arnold Darnell his usual iced tea without choking back tears. No matter that he's the one usually giving waitresses a "friendly" hard time about things such as garnishing dishes with carrots. Hopkins, 68, started at the bowling alley watching children for the league mothers, so long ago it's hard to remember.
"Martha's been here as long as the furniture," chimed in waitress Chris Blanten, who claims to guess fairly accurately what her regulars want before they order. "Tim here gets a medium iced tea and will take a cup of potato soup," she predicted, as 22TC customer slid next to Darnell.
Said Darnell, a lunch regular, "We're all trying to figure out where we're going to go, eight to 10 of us, people who've become friends in here, plumbers, bankers, you name it."
Down at the otherwise empty lanes, Rich Bucey, who bowls in 12 different leagues, rolled strikes and tried to put the inevitable out of his mind.
"I'm very depressed," said Bucey, an Eastalco Aluminum worker who often plays 50 practice games a day. "I've actually had to go out of here, crying."
On the cusp of what turned into a boom decade for the bowling industry, Coale and five partners -- among them New York Yankee pitcher and former Oriole Bob Turley -- had formed the corporation in 1959 that built Bel Air Bowl a year later. The partners bought 11 acres on U.S. 1 with a frame house that the fire department burned down for practice. At first, the establishment was Bob Turley's Bowl, advertised as "24 modern tenpin lanes" and the county's "largest and finest bowling alley." The celebrity name helped draw the first customers. And they kept coming back.
"There weren't nearly as many places for the discretionary dollar," Coale said. "We were the only act in town, other than the movie theater."
Twenty-four 10 pin lanes grew to 40 by 1962. A florist and a radio station that shared space with the bowling alley eventually moved out, and the partners opened the 11th Frame Lounge in 1971, in addition to the restaurant. In 1975, after the Coales' three children had grown or left for school, Mary Coale began managing the restaurant. By 1986, the Coales had bought out all remaining partners.
Two years ago, Pres Coale, as he is known, and Mary, 65, started thinking of retiring.
"We'll be the two that will miss everything the most," Mary Coale predicted.
In late February, the Coales contracted to sell the property to Raymond C. Nichols and his family, owners of the neighboring Bel Air Auto Auction Inc., a 50-year-old business that already owns adjoining property on U.S. 1. Nichols said he is still considering options for the site, possibly housing one of his own service businesses in the building.
As the bowling alley's lunch rush wound down last week, Scheppelmann, who first wandered in in 1961, had settled into a booth with bowling friend Savannah McGee. The two had just returned from a bowling alley in Forest Hill to get a feel for their league's new home starting next season.
"It's so strange to go into another bowling alley," said Scheppelmann, a member of the Recycled Teenagers League, which includes six others from her 1945 Bel Air High School graduating class. "This is like home. We won't ever forget this place."
Pub Date: 5/27/97