No time to spare

The Baltimore Sun

Washing the bowling balls was his Saturday morning ritual. Lance O'Hara was just 7 when he started hitting the lanes with a bucket of soapy water and a terry cloth rag, cleaning the oily grime off the house balls at Seidel's Bowling Center in Northeast Baltimore.

His dad and a friend owned the place then, in 1967, when business at Seidel's was booming - its shiny red plastic booths packed with duckpin bowlers. In the late 1990s, with his dad getting older, O'Hara took over, managing to keep patrons with his fast talk and folksiness. He's been known to throw a favorite customer a deep discount, like the $4-a-person charge he lets one longtime league pay.

"You're never gonna get rich running a bowling alley," O'Hara said. "But you have fun."

But good times are not enough to keep a business thriving. So, with a mix of dread and a dose of relief, O'Hara is closing Seidel's. Today will be the last day.

"Happy and sad," said O'Hara, when asked how he feels about the impending closure. "I don't know life without it." He learned to bowl with his sister in a kiddie league there. O'Hara's children, too, rolled their first balls down Seidel's lanes.

But as recreational tastes nationwide turned from bowling, crowds at Seidel's faltered. Since 2000, a major decline in leagues has hurt business, prompting O'Hara three years ago to sell the building, including its nine apartments on the upper floor. When the new landlord decided to raise the rent, O'Hara decided to close for good.

Located in the 4400 block of Belair Road in Gardenville since 1929, Seidel's is a Baltimore relic in this town where, according to local sporting lore, duckpin bowling was born about 1900. The shoddy storefront along this busy thoroughfare fails to hint at the treasures inside: the handwritten scorecards shown on projectors, the 50-year-old bowling ball cleaning machine, which costs 25 cents a shot.

The 60-foot-long lanes at Seidel's are half-maple, half-pine. (The maple, which is sturdier but more expensive than the pine, makes up the beginning of the lanes, because the ball drops there.) At 12,000 square feet, the center, with its low fluorescent lighting, has a snack shop, a "smoking room" with video poker machines and a full stock of shoe rentals.

As for duckpin lanes in the city, only Patterson Bowling Center on Eastern Avenue, founded in 1927, predates Seidel's.

Charlie Lockridge, association manager of the Greater Baltimore USBC Bowling Association, a membership group for the tenpin set, said both styles of bowling have been in decline for decades nationwide. He points to his own organization's membership, down to 7,500 from 20 years ago when it numbered 23,000.

"Quite frankly, it doesn't surprise me," Lockridge said. "There are fewer and fewer duckpin lanes available. The day of the little guy and everything is probably coming to an end. It's a sign of the changing times, and not for the better."

Seidel's original owner, a man that O'Hara knows only as "Mr. Seidel," was a farmer who planned a five-story building for the site, but had to stop building after the Depression hit. He lived in a three-bedroom apartment (No. 1) above Seidel's with his wife and daughter Margaret, who took over after the elder Seidel died in the 1940s.

Bowling was a man's sport then, and the alleys catered to them: They smoked cigars, drank rum and gambled.

"Bowling centers, going back to the '30s and '40s, were pretty nefarious places," O'Hara said. "There was a criminal element in there. My wife is 46 years old, and she remembers her mother telling her, 'You can't go to a bowling alley!'"

In the 1940s, a fire destroyed the first six lanes at Seidel's, an event O'Hara only learned of from reading "the corporate minutes," he said. They were later fixed.

Back then, there was big competition for bowlers. One place in downtown Baltimore boasted 100 lanes, 20 on each of its five floors. Automatic pin resetters didn't exist then. There were "pin boys," usually high school or college students, but sometimes guys off the street, who set the pins after every roll.

"We still have people that come down here and shake their heads and say, 'I used to set pins down here,'" O'Hara said. "My dad used to have to go downtown and find some stumblebums and give them some whiskey and say, 'Come on, I need you to set up some pins.' People weren't always reliable."

Although the origin of duckpin bowling is a matter of some dispute, old-time Baltimore bowling aficionados say the tenpin variation featuring smaller balls and pins was started at a Howard Street establishment owned by two members of the old Baltimore Orioles, John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson.

They named the smaller pins "ducks" because of the way they sat and went flying when hit by the scaled-down bowling ball - one small enough to be held in the palm of the hand. At the height of its popularity, duckpins managed to make it to a handful of states, burnishing its image as the Rodney Dangerfield of bowling.

"We're the ugly redheaded stepchild," O'Hara said.

In 1967, O'Hara's father - Robert O'Hara and his business partner Glenn Berry - bought Seidel's. During the 1960s and '70s, duckpin bowling was in its heyday. The game had turned to a family sport by then and was full of women's and children's leagues. There was a push to stop calling them alleys. And rather than gutters, where the balls fall off the edge and miss the pins, they're called channels.

In the summer of 1984, Lance O'Hara bought out Berry. Already, business was declining. O'Hara and others in the industry tried to muscle some attendance using TV. The Baltimore Duckpin Bowling Properties Association, a group of 25 duckpin bowling center owners, produced bowling tournaments on Channel 54, thinking they could boost business with a TV audience. But the advertisers never materialized.

Over the past few years, the volunteer-run Roots Cafe brought a variety of local and national bands to Seidel's for a series of Duck-n-Roll nights, helping to draw crowds for music and bowling.

And there were still some regulars. The Tom L. Memorial League, named for Tom Lewald, a former player who died of colon cancer two years ago, came every Thursday morning. They love playing, they say, and kept on coming to Seidel's, though parking is in short-order, because they got the kind of attention they wouldn't anywhere else.

"They treat us real well, and I think it's one of the oldest bowling alleys in the city," said Patricia Christie, 72, of Bowleys Quarters. "It's going to be sad to see it go. There'll be a few tears."

Newer patrons Chris Youngston, 29, and Jeff Gray, 35, are sad, too. The couple, who have lived in the Midwest, Seattle and Austin, Texas, and now make their home in Original Northwood, wanted to give friends and family a quintessential Baltimore experience when they came for their wedding in April last year.

So after the rehearsal dinner, a group of about 80 bowled, danced and drank margaritas at Seidel's. Nobody at the party had ever played duckpins. They left huge fans.

"You say the word wedding, and everything gets marked up twice," Youngston said. "And all of a sudden, there's this bastion of humanity. [O'Hara is] like, 'Oh yeah, bring whatever you want.'

"It's a special place in our hearts."

In recent years, several armed robberies at Seidel's unnerved O'Hara. Once, a couple of hundred dollars were taken. Another time, a couple of thousand. Late last month, manager Mike Kowalewski, who has worked there 12 years, staved off another would-be robber.

"It's not fun to come to work when someone sticks a gun in your face," O'Hara said, explaining why in some ways it's a relief to be closing. "Maybe if you're in an area where people aren't robbing the joint and people aren't getting their cars broken into, then maybe I'll invest $100,000 and put in computerized scoring. But not in a crime-ridden neighborhood like this."

Not all duckpin lanes are dying. There's still a handful in Baltimore County and other parts of the state. The folks from the Tom L. Memorial League are moving to lanes in Parkville.

At the Patterson Bowling Center, which has a half-dozen lanes on each of its two floors, the top floor rents out for $100 an hour, said Charlie Justice, the center's mechanic and an avid duckpin bowler. Its proximity to Canton and Fells Point helps.

"Business is really good," Justice said. "We got a really nice weekend crowd, you know ... the people, I guess you can say the yuppie crowd or something, the ones that are paying $300,000 for a rowhouse. Fridays and Saturdays, you're not getting in unless you got a reservation."

Justice, 48, who in his day bowled in a traveling league that made stops at Seidel's, said, "I'd hate to see it go."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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