Fountain Square landlord keeps duckpin bowling alive

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The game seems like it would be so easy.

Bowlers at Atomic Duckpin Bowling took the smaller-than-normal ball in their hands and aimed at the miniature pins at the end of the lane.

The game gives them a third throw each frame for an even greater opportunity for success. With a lighter ball and tinier pins, the players assumed they'd be racking up strikes and spares.

They were wrong.

"Even though a 300 is physically possible, there has never been one," owner Linton Calvert told the Daily Journal of Franklin. "You can be so unlucky that even throwing the ball down the center of the lane can get you only two pins."

The deceptively difficult game of duckpin bowing has become a niche pastime in specific alleys throughout the country. Indianapolis boasts the only lanes in Indiana — and one of the few places west of the Appalachian Mountains — to offer it.

The game has become a must-have-reservations attraction in the historic Fountain Square neighborhood and one of Indy's most original activities for date night, corporate team-building or a fun time out with friends.

An offshoot of traditional 10-pin bowling, duckpins were born in the early 1900s. Back before automated ball returns and pin set-up, bowling was a labor-intensive game for the return boys who worked behind the scenes at local lanes.

For that reason, most lanes shut down in the summertime, though a handful stayed open to offer strange iterations of bowling. One of those was duckpin.

Like bowling, but tougher

Anyone stepping into a duckpin alley would find familiarity with the game of bowling that they know, said Stan Kellum, executive director of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress. The lanes are the same length and width. Knocking down all 10 pins on the first toss is a strike, and getting them all in two throws is a spare.

But differences exist, starting with the size of the pins and balls. A duckpin is about three-quarters the size of a normal bowling pin, and bowlers use a 6-inch-diameter ball.

Bowlers are given a third chance to knock down all of the pins, which would represent a score of 10 for the frame, Kellum said.

The game was easy for all skill levels to try, which appealed to society's wagering nature at the time the game was invented.

"For gamblers, this was kind of an equalizer," Calvert said. "The poor bowler was willing to bet the good bowler."

By the 1920s, the game had become immensely popular on the East Coast, mostly around Baltimore. Even today, that's the center of the duckpin universe, Kellum said.

But it has crept west.

Calvert brought duckpin bowling to Indianapolis in 1986. He opened a bowling alley on College Avenue in downtown Indianapolis, converting the alley to the duckpin style in an attempt to set itself apart from other alleys.

"I had experienced the game when I was serving in the Navy on the East Coast," he said. "It was a game that I thought was a hoot. I'm a very good bowler, and this game was challenging and fun."

Its original location near Eli Lilly and Co.'s corporate headquarters proved to be a boon. Employees would come over on their lunch breaks to roll a few frames, and those people told their families and friends. A following was born.

"Men and women could both play it equally as well, so it became a kind of universal game," Calvert said.

When his original alley closed, Calvert brought the game south to the Fountain Square Building. The historic 1928 structure — which contained a theater, a rooftop garden and banquet halls — also contained a bowling alley on the fourth floor.

"That was the primary attraction to me coming here to Fountain Square, because there was an existing alley that had been closed for 36 years," he said. "This is an original vintage bowling alley."

Pieces of history

While most modern bowling alleys are dark and closed in, Action Duckpin Bowl features large windows surrounding the lanes, giving an excellent view of downtown Indianapolis. Bowlers can sit on antique wooden seats waiting for the balls to return from the original 1920s-era return equipment.

Meanwhile, the lower level is home to Atomic Duckpin Bowl. Though the game is the same, the atmosphere is more retro here. Calvert built the lanes himself using pieces from classic bowling alleys from across the area, including Nora Bowl on the northside, Play Bowl in Irvington and Lynhurst Bowl on the westside, to give it an authentic feel.

"These were all alleys built in the '50s and '60s which had gone out of business," Calvert said. "It gives it a real sense of feel for the time. It's all turquoise and red and glass."

Since opening in the mid-1990s, the duckpin bowling center has become a funky draw to Fountain Square. It's entirely unique to the city and has become a must-see for visitors and residents, Calvert said.

The style and scale of the game make it ideal for men and women, children and adults at the same time. Businesses have started reserving the lanes for corporate get-togethers, and organizations often schedule to use the lanes weeks and months in advance.

The lanes are open to the public without reservations, but Calvert doesn't recommend just showing up on a Friday night.

"You'll only be entertained by watching. You won't have an opportunity to bowl," he said.

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