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The Royal Ancients at Play : Alpine Croquet Was Conceived 20 Years Ago as a Final Tribute to an Illinois Dog

October 06, 1985|DEBORAH CAULFIELD | Deborah Caulfield is a Times staff writer

Bumbles bushwhacked and tree-banged, and Mokey aced a hole but almost killed a pigeon. It was a typical match for the six members present from the Royal Ancient Strongman's Croquet Club.

Earlier that muggy summer morning, the players had assembled at Pasadena's Brookside Park. Equipment manager Barry (Bumbles) Moore, an actor, unslung a duffel bag from his shoulder and dumped a heap of battered mallets and balls on a picnic table; all were quickly claimed. Strongman John (Johnny Black) Dennis--a theatrical director and the club's founder, course architect and a one-man rules committee--began to lay out the day's game. He took a wicket and a stake, eyeballed the park, then marched up a rocky hill and disappeared into a tangle of bushes. The sound of a stake being driven into the ground echoed through the deserted park. He planted the wicket in an equally impossible location, the wire straddling the lip of a rock-strewn ridge.

Moore and the five other players--Michael (Mokey) McNeilly, Tony (Tuan) Papenfuss, Robert (Bad Bobby) Covarrubias and Wil (Baton Rouge) Calhoun (one does not play this game without a nickname)--are actors in various stages of their careers. Papenfuss is a series regular (Daryl) on "Newhart," McNeilly has appeared as a Mighty Carson Art Player on "The Tonight Show," and the rest have, over the years, appeared in stage productions and on TV--in bit parts and commercials. They each glanced at the setup and set off for the stake, as serious as any professional sportsman.

The challenges on this course included:

"Masada," named for the ancient Jewish fortress, featuring four unevenly slanted terraces standing 20 feet high, with the wicket at the top.

"Road," which descended 100 yards down a rocky, curving dirt path.

"Deliverance" (named for the movie), which required the player to start on a bush-covered hillside and whack the ball over the roof of a small shack to a mound on which the wicket rested, 45 yards away and 20 feet below.These six players, and 20-plus other members scattered about (mainly in Southern California, Baton Rouge and Chicago), constitute the Royal Ancients, whose official sport is alpine croquet , a game that's two parts croquet and one part golf. More than 25 matches are played each year.

Instead of playing through a series of wickets on a closely clipped lawn, the Strongmen tour through 10 wickets laid out on the most rugged terrain available. The game looks--and is--extremely difficult and requires endless practice to master. (The ultimate goal, however, is to keep up friendships.)

This match--won by Mokey McNeilly--was held in honor of Dennis, director of Louisiana State University's theater program, in town for a production at the Mark Taper Forum.

According to Dennis, alpine croquet was born 20 years ago when a dog named Cook died in Oswego, Ill.

"My friend, Sanford, and I played traditional croquet in his backyard until Cook died and was buried in the middle of our course," Dennis recalled.

"We played around the mound for a while, then decided it would be a tribute to Cook to place the final wicket on top of his grave. That's why our last hole is always set on a mound."

Dennis refined his croquet technique and taught it to like-minded individuals whom he met while directing theater productions around the country.

It takes a special kind of individual to play the sport, according to Dennis: "You have to have a feeling for the theater of the absurd. The game is dead serious, but it's nuts; it isn't logical.

"There's a thin line . . . . We all play and want to win, but seeing people commit to the insanity is part of the game."

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