The first recorded game of 'bowls' took place in 1299 at Southampton's Old Bowling Green
By Barbara Rodriguez
I thought I knew everything there was to know about bowling. I mean, I have bowled. In fact, when nothing else stuck—acting, golf, sewing, piano—the relief of my parents was palpable when I asked them to sign me up for bowling lessons. I loved everything about it from the shoes to the atmosphere. The explosive clatter of flying pins became the adolescent soundtrack that pulled me away from my pink Princess phone. Now, desperate to unplug my son, Elliott, from his electronic cave, I am curious to know whether Arlington’s new International Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame might fan the flames of a new interest. For equal opportunity research purposes, I invite our 17-year-old neighbor, Chloe, to join us.
Surprisingly, both teenagers eagerly agree to the adventure. By eager, I mean they are willing to get up before noon on a Saturday. And during the 20-minute drive from Fort Worth, we chatter about past bowling experiences. Chloe bowls in a coed pack from her high school, and while she says it isn’t about winning, I know her to be highly competitive. Elliott hasn’t bowled since his eighth birthday, but as today’s mission involves heavy equipment, a fair amount of bicep flexing, and a few hours with a young woman, he is intrigued.
The history proves surprisingly ancient. I stare in disbelief at a replica of an Egyptian tomb wherein a well-wrapped mummy embraces what appears to be … yes, a bowling ball.
“It’s huge!” Chloe says, as we park the car. Indeed, there’s a collegiate feel to the complex, which is in fact known as the International Bowling Campus. (Facilities here include the International Training and Research Center, which develops and tests equipment and training software for professional bowlers. Team USA coaches also offer lessons.)
We step inside to pay a quick visit to the Gift Shop, where high-heeled bowling shoes and a leopard- print bowling-bag purse prove such stellar attractions that a ringing cell phone goes unanswered. Both teens disappear to root through T-shirts, pin-shaped water bottles in fluorescent colors, and bowling shirts. (I struggle to resist a ’50s-style pink one myself.)
Next, we head out into what the museum characterizes as “5,000 years of history and 18,000 square feet of fun.” The history proves surprisingly ancient. I stare in disbelief at a replica of an Egyptian tomb wherein a well-wrapped mummy embraces what appears to be … yes, a bowling ball. In 1930, I learn, archeologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered a tomb dating to 3,200 BC that was filled with pins and balls—the better to equip the afterlife of the boy mummy. In 2002, another Egyptian dig revealed a 1,700-year-old, limestone bowling alley. Who knew?
How the sport traveled to Europe is still open to debate, but by the 3rd Century, an early incarnation of the game had reached Germany. The first recorded game of “Bowls” took place in 1299 at Southampton’s Old Bowling Green; it’s reportedly the oldest green continuously in use.
There is history aplenty to read in displays accented with German steins and vintage equipment, but it’s the onset of interactive displays that steps up the action—see yourself in Henry VIII’s bowling shoes and learn how King Edward III banned bowling to keep his troops focused on archery lessons. Suddenly, I hear Elliott shriek. I discover him staring down a life-size mannequin of a boy near his own age. As I approach, it makes eye contact, raises an eyebrow, and smiles. The holographic projection is uncanny, at once eerie and irresistible. Ronnie, as he introduces himself, is a pin boy from the 1940s, not at all happy about the advent of automated pin-setting technology.
Sure, he tells us, his job is a hardscrabble, repetitive activity that means busted shins from time to time, but it’s steady money about to be lost to technology.
More unexpected insights keep us moving along and exclaiming to one another. We watch early episodes of bowling shows on a black-and -white TV (the need for limited camera angles made the game ideal for early television) and admire the uniforms of female teams—from Gibson Girl bloomers and wool knickers to frills and satin glam. At a full-size replica of a diner counter, Chloe sits on a stool and reads a menu of bowling trivia. I hear her phone ring. I am gratified when she pulls it out to silence it.
We join Elliott in a nearby theater for a video production that strikes the balance between information and bells and whistles (a screen rises to reveal full-size, early 20th-Century lanes complete with semi-automated pin setters). Much to Elliott’s delight—he has recently discovered the funky joys of the ’70s—the movie ends with a disco-ball light show.
I continue to enjoy the profiles of the sport’s top performers and touch-screen quizzes, while the teens segue into a flank of video games. When we arrive at two mini-lanes, with bowling balls the size of small melons, we realize the entire museum is an appetizer making us hungry for competition.
The contest is on. Chloe, no longer denying her nature, offers Elliott some advice: Stop catapulting the ball, she says, and use some finesse in laying it down the lane. Miraculously he listens, and his game immediately improves.
Our last stop is a digital archive featuring footage of climactic career moments, distinguished shots, and to our delight, several mind-blowing bowling stunts that we watch again and again.
On our way home, I realize neither teen has sent or received a text message
From the February 2011 issue.