The next time you get an invitation to go bowling, don't smirk and say something sarcastic like, "Gee, that sounds fun, but Betty and Barney Rubble are busy tonight." Bowling is no longer the exclusive sport of the middle-aged, blue-collar crowd. Successful Valley lanes these days are attracting a young, upwardly mobile set, some of whom began bowling as a joke but now find that they like it enough to make it a habit. In fact, in the trend-conscious entertainment industry, it's become an enormously popular pastime.
"It started as a way to laugh at ourselves," said lawyer and agent Jim Mahoney Jr., who bowls every Saturday morning at the Sports Center in Studio City with a group of four to eight entertainment-industry executives.
"First we golf and talk about different deals, then we go to Jerry's Deli for brunch and bowl a couple of frames next door. It gets to be kind of competitive, though. Most of us are up to 150 or 200 per game. Maybe we'll just play for beer. But, you know, nothing's more serious than paying for a round of beer."
Ironically, bowling's popularity is rising again at a time when mounting operation costs are making it harder for alleys to stay in business. At least five Valley lanes have closed in the past three years, including Encino Bowl, which shut today. Part of the problem is increased real estate values. The sprawling bowling centers sit on land that could be more profitably used for shopping centers or high-rise office buildings. Another is spiraling insurance premiums.
"Last year I paid $9,000 with a $2-million umbrella," said Allen Shaw, owner of Corbin Bowl in Tarzana and president of the Southern California Bowling Proprietors Assn. "This year my maximum liability is $500,000, and I have to pay $40,000 for that with a $1,000 deductible. It's out of proportion. In seven years in business, I've had one claim for $700."
Successful alley owners are finding ways to expand their business beyond weeknight league bowling, the traditional mainstay of bowling centers. "We do a fairly resounding business Fridays and Saturdays," Shaw said. "It's the upper-middle classes here. One night, beside all the Mercedes in the lot, there were hand-built foreign cars with names I can't even pronounce, worth more than $125,000."
Since this crowd expects better than greasy-spoon-type food in the way of refreshment, Shaw recently took back his restaurant lease from a tenant because he felt that it wasn't being run properly. "I'm trying to establish a quality restaurant here," he said.
The Sports Center in Studio City has introduced "Midnight Madness"--all you can bowl for $6 from midnight to 3 a.m. on weekend nights--to attract a younger crowd. (Normal rates are $5 an hour or $2 a person; part of bowling's appeal is its relatively inexpensive cost.) "Bowling parties are a new fad," added general manager Tom Cristi. The cast and crew of the "Silver Spoons" series rented out the alley recently, and KABC-TV program director Craig Haffner hosted a surprise birthday party for his wife there. Haffner also takes his family bowling about every six weeks, even though his younger children can barely get the ball down the lane. "It's usually a gutter ball," he said. "But they get up there and push."
Until he rediscovered bowling two years ago, Haffner had pretty much ignored it since high school. What's the appeal? "There's not a high humiliation factor," he said. "The way a bowling alley is set up, you're never really the focus of attention. With golf, people are waiting for you to tee off. With bowling, you can just have a good time."
Deborah Harmon, an actress who plays the next-door neighbor on the new sitcom "Leo and Liz in Beverly Hills," began bowling after her husband, Eddie Leonetti, took it up with some teen-agers he met while going to hairdressing school. At one point, the Sherman Oaks couple were bowling about every other week.
"You get tired of renting movies," Harmon said. "I think of it as a change of pace," added Leonetti. "And it's probably more social than a lot of activities. It's not like constant playing. The appeal is you can just hang around, but you're still doing something. It's sort of like justified loitering."
Pam Roberts, a KABC-TV fashion reporter, bowls about once a month. She occasionally bowls near her beach house in Oxnard but more often uses the Sports Center, which is near her North Hollywood home.
Complaint About Shoes
"I wear black leggings and a sweat shirt and bulky socks I can push down to hide those ugly shoes," the fashion-conscious Roberts said. "I'm a bad bowler. But even, when I get it in that little side pocket--the gutter?--I still cheer myself on. I'm just so happy about getting that big ball down the alley. It's like 'The Exorcist.' Even when I get it down the center, it goes off to the side magically by itself.
"I'm a good scorekeeper, though," she noted. "That's the nice thing--everyone has a job when it comes to bowling."
When people are terrible at a game such as, say, tennis, they usually give it up in frustration. But bowling is perhaps unique among sports in that skill at it has nothing to do with how much you enjoy it. "I'm lucky if I get a 40," Roberts said. "Even kids boo me. But that sound when the pins fall, it's kind of like when money comes out of the slot machine.
"And it's great for dates. It's not like going to the movies, where you just sit there. This way, you can talk, and you can watch the person's coordination at the same time. And I would think, if your date didn't like bowling, he'd probably have a rotten sense of humor.
"You can't have a bad time bowling," Roberts insisted. "It's one of those sports where you just look so silly."