Going, Going, Not Quite Gone

With summer approaching, a note on three pastimes that were staples of my youth – time-capsule American pleasures, one still thriving even as the other two sink into the mists of time.  

I was aimed in this nostalgic direction by a totally delightful article by the incomparable Dan Barry, in the New York Times ten days ago, titled “The Lost Art of Duckpin Bowling.” In part a profile of Amy Bisson Sykes, the world’s top female duckpin bowler, it’s also a funny and nostalgic look at a vanishing world.

Having spent much of my life in Connecticut, I was unaware what a local phenomenon the sport of duckpin bowling is (by the way, if you chortle at the idea of duckpin bowling as a sport, please take a look at Amy Sykes’ strapping physique). Its origins trace to the 1890s, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and Barry’s article reaches back into duckpin lore, retrieving tales of the nimble-footed “pin boys,” who cleared away fallen pins and set new ones, and the local tinkerer whose invention, the automatic pinsetter, ultimately put them out of business. Live by technology, die by technology: since those machines are no longer produced for duckpin bowling, no new lanes can be built -- and the closing of an alley brings other owners in like a swarm of vultures, Barry explains, to scavenge parts.

So duckpin bowling is dying out: from a peak of over 450 alleys a half century ago, the nation is down to just 41. One of them, Ducks on the Avenue, is right here in my own neighborhood in Hartford. It’s a windowless basement room, next to the CVS, where we have twice held our daughter’s birthday party (bad pizza, funny hats, beer for the grownups), and from whose open door arises the signature explosive clonk and clatter of falling duckpins, taking me back to similar parties of my own half a century ago, at Family Bowl in Waterford, CT. It’s a sound that to me will forever mean childhood.

The Barry article reminded me of an even more critically endangered icon of Americana, the drive-in movie. Just the other day we were driving down Berlin Turnpike in Connecticut (itself a living tribute to the motels and diners of eighty years ago), and I pointed out to my daughter, who is ten, a condo development on a hilltop just east of the road. Until five years ago or so, I told her, it was the site of the Newington Drive-In.

Over eighty years have passed since Richard M. Hollingshead aimed a Kodak projector at a screen nailed to a tree in his yard in New Jersey, and soon thereafter made patent application for “a novel construction in outdoor theaters whereby the transportation facilities to and from the theater are made to constitute an element of the seating facilities of the theater.” Hollingshead’s drive-in opened in Camden in June 1933, showing Wife Beware with Adolphe Menjou. Drive-ins boomed in the late 40s and 50s, plateaued through the 60s and 70s, and got decimated in the 80s. My childhood coincided with the tail end of the boom – I remember sitting beside my sister in the jump seats of our parents’ Checker, both of us sobbing away at the closing scenes of Old Yeller

The drive-in (you can read my 2001 Commonweal essay about drive-ins here) was geared to a particular mid-century moment in American life: the baby boom and rush to the suburbs; low-cost real estate; a romance of big roomy cars; and the advent of a huge class of people wealthy enough to afford entertainment of a summer eve, but frugal enough to want it cheap. Here in Connecticut, 42 were operating in 1965; a half century later, just three remain. My daughter was unfamiliar with the entire concept, and when I explained it to her, she was wildly enthusiastic. “I want to go to one!” she said. And this summer we will.

Finally, a third bygone pleasure and rite of summer: miniature golf. I grew up just three blocks from a terrific mini golf course, at Ocean Beach Park in New London, CT. Its majestic centerpiece was (and still is) a 30-foot-long concrete whale that turned the city’s seafaring heritage (The Whaling City) into pleasurable kitsch even as it afforded giggling kids the chance to launch their golf balls, with Biblical adventure, into the whale’s giant maw and then see them emerge from... well, from the other end.

Mini golf, it turns out, originated in Europe – in Germany, in the 1920s – but quickly became an American passion, with the first national “Tom Thumb Open” occurring in 1930.  From the start the courses expressed a particular, wacky strain of American imagination, their grandiosity and gadgetry revealing a culture captivated by technology and prone to kitschy extravagance. They conjure a Coney Island, early-midcentury mojo, and yet far from being outmoded, they continue to thrive. Estimates vary wildly, but there are still well upwards of a thousand courses, coast to coast. National magazines regularly bring out lists of the best mini-golf courses in the US. Novelties include an indoor, black-light course; a course in a funeral home; a course where golfers hit balls onto a roller coaster that does a loop; even a scripture-minded course (in Kentucky) featuring three 18-hole sub-courses -- Old Testament, New Testament, and Miracles, where each hole relates to a biblical verse. And, of course, many layouts involving volcanoes, waterfalls, planes and trains, flying pigs, Congo River rafting adventures, and the like.  

Why is it that some fads subside, while others persist to claim a more enduring place in our lives? Where the duckpin alley and drive-in movie teeter on extinction, miniature golf has proved a vehicle for wave after wave of improvement. But all three notably share their origins, and their spirit, in the pre-digital era. Clanking machinery, whirring reels of film, Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, wires running from posts to speakers hung on car windows: they are avatars of an era when tinkering was mechanical rather than digital, and inventive genius concrete rather than conceptual.

These period-piece treasures of American recreation hang on – black-and-white pastimes, as Dan Barry puts it, in a Technicolor world – and my family is still enjoying all three. Maybe you are, too.



Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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