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Mary and Elling Reich have enrolled in a tenpin bowling class that starts next month in Falls Church. She’s 90 years old. He’s 92.
“We wish we didn’t have to do this,” says Elling. “But we want to be prepared.”
The Reichs want to be prepared for the closing of the Falls Church Bowling Center. That’s a duckpin housethe last duckpin house remaining in Northern Virginia. They go there together every Friday afternoon, to bowl with friends in an informal seniors’ league.
But word came down recently to the Reichs and the precious few remaining regular patrons of the 32-lane Falls Church Bowling Center that the decades-old rumors about its demise are about to come true.
Last week, at a meeting of the local chamber of commerce, developers unveiled plans to put a new face on the quaint little city of 10,409. The Arlington-based IDI Group, a firm specializing in condo and office buildings (and the outfit that gave us Leisure World), and the retail-centric Young Group of McLean disclosed that they want to jointly construct 241 luxury condos, along with upscale shops, on the south side of the city. And the site the developers have targeted for their construction is the 4.7-acre plot on South Maple Street, not far from the Reichs’ home, where the Falls Church Bowling Center now sits.
The builders had previously filed an application with the city of Falls Church for a zoning exemption allowing the landdubbed the Diener Tract, in honor of the bowling alley’s longtime owner, Milton Dienerto host residential properties. Currently, only commercial structures are permitted there.
According to the IDI Group, the city council will vote on the exemption “within the next few months,” and nobody has yet stepped forward to object to the developers’ proposal. The IDI/Young coalition has a deal in place to buy the land from Diener, the 96-year-old former D.C.-area carpet czar who now lives in Miami. If the zoning exemption is granted, the bowling alley will be razed.
The demolition would put an immediate hole in the Reichs’ weekly schedule, as well as the schedules of others in their seniors league. To fill it, they intend to take up tenpin bowling. They’ll be taking “Have a Bowl” classes at the Bowl America on South Maple Street in Falls Church, just a few hundred yards from their beloved but ill-fated duckpin center.
It’s not a decision they made lightly. The Reichs have always been faithful to duckpins. They met while bowling in a U.S. Navy duckpin league in the ’40s.
“He loves to tell people he met me in an alley,” says Mary. “Then he gets around to telling them it was a bowling alley.”
Mary’s been bowling in at least one league at the Falls Church duckpin lanes for about 30 years. Along with joining her husband and others for the Friday sessions, she’s there every Tuesday and Thursday morning for league bowling. They’ve been so loyal to duckpins, they never bothered learning how to bowl tenpin. Now, they have to.
“I don’t get around all that well anymore,” Elling says. “Doctors keep asking me, ‘Are you doing any walking? I say, ‘Yeah, I walk out to my car.’ But bowling is fine. You throw a ball, throw another one, and you sit down. I like that. So we’re going to take classes to learn [tenpin].”
Duckpin bowling dates back to 1900 in Baltimore. Legend holds that a group including future Hall of Famers John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, then with the Baltimore Orioles, shaved down tenpins, used smaller balls, and encouraged the ballplayers to play the game to keep their arms in shape.
Baltimore and Washington were the first hotbeds of the small-ball versionduckpin orbs weigh only about 4 pounds, while their tenpin counterparts are up to four times as heavy. Eventually, it spread to pockets of New England and the Deep South. The demise of duckpin bowling has been gradual but quite palpable. At one time, more than 60,000 bowlers were registered with the National Duckpin Bowling Congress (NDBC). Fewer than 13,000 are currently on the NDBC’s rolls. And there are only 72 duckpin houses still operating. That’s counting the Falls Church Bowling Center.
Even die-hard patrons are resigned to its disappearance.
“We could see this coming,” says Jim Viel, 60, an Annandale native and a regular of the Reichs’ Friday-afternoon sessions. “It’s just getting worse and worse. There are chips in the alleys, and the bowling balls they have there, you roll them and the ball goes ‘clump clump clump’ because of flat spots and chips. And the machines don’t work at all like they should. Every week, the lane we’re on shuts down and the balls get stuck and there’s nobody there who can fix the equipmentand nobody makes the duckpin equipment anymore, so they can’t just buy new machines. So most of the time, I have to climb down and get the balls when they get stuck. I don’t mind having to get all the balls unstuck myself, but it just makes me sad. Duckpins is the game for me. Gosh, I’m going to be sad to see that place go.”
Viel first visited the Falls Church lanes in the late ’50s, when he was a teenager, and bowled in duckpin leagues there on and off throughout the years. He fell away from the game when duckpin centers in Culmore and Arlington closed, and only began going back to the Falls Church Bowling Center on a regular basis in 2001, while recuperating from serious injuries he suffered after being run over by a drunk driver. That accident forced him to retire from the U.S. Postal Service after 38 years.
“I was just driving around looking for something to do one day, and went into the duckpin center in Falls Church, and about eight seniors were getting ready to bowl,” he says. “They asked me if I wanted to join them, and I was feeling down at the time because of my injuries and told them I can’t bowl. But I went back a couple weeks later and hoped they’d ask me again, and they did, and I’ve been with them every Friday since.”
Viel said he asked others in the senior league about shifting their Friday gatherings to some duckpin house in Maryland if the demolition goes through, but he found little support for that idea because of the long commute it would demand. So he recently completed a “Have a Bowl” course, the same tenpin classes that the Reichs and others in the group will take for six weeks starting in July. He thinks they’ll enjoy the tutelage about ball delivery and use of lane markers. But the demographics of their classmates might come as a shock to the 90-something couple.
“Other than me, about everybody in the class was a little kid,” says Viel. “I think adults are already supposed to know how to bowl.” Dave McKenna