One of the last places in the region to partake in duckpin bowling is White Oak Duckpin Lanes in Silver Spring.
The year was 1959. Alaska and Hawaii officially became U.S. states. Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba. And the White Oak Duckpin Lanes opened in the basement of a New Hampshire Avenue strip mall.
Since then, the bowling alley has hosted countless senior leagues, birthday parties and cosmic bowling nights. Not much has changed at the lanes since Ralph Curry bought the place in 1979. And that’s likely the key to its success. Curry sat down with WAMU to chat about duckpins, the bowling community and what the future might hold for the business.
On how he got his start in bowling
I started at the age of 13 in a bowling center in Hagerstown, Md. as a pinboy. Our job was to be down there in the pits, send the balls back as people rolled them and then set up 10 pins for each bowler. This was before the automatic pinsetters. We set them up by hand and that’s where my love came from for the game.
On how he came to own a bowling alley
In 1956, 1957 somewhere in that period, I noticed there would be a need for mechanics to work on the pinsetters, so I asked the owner of the alley where I worked and he said sure, he would send me to learn. Then I became a manager of a bowling center in Winchester, Virginia. And then after three years there, I bought in as a partnership. Myself and another gentleman owned that for seven years. Then we sold that center and bought this center.
On the [possibly fictionalized] duckpin origin story
It’s said it was started in Baltimore by two baseball players who played for the Orioles. Basically they bowled the other game with 10 pins. And they took some 10 pins, whittled them down and made them smaller. Somehow they got a smaller ball. And the first time they hit them, the pins kind of flew. So it reminded you of a pack of ducks flying. And that’s where the name comes from.
On duckpin bowling strategy
More than with 10 pins, the strategy for duckpins is you have to make your spares. That’s what makes this game a little harder. Most people in duckpins they throw a little curve to the ball or a straight ball. You have to hit the pocket — that’s between the 1-3 pin and the 1-2 pin. You have to be pretty precise. That’s where you aim for.
On what makes White Oak Duckpin Lanes special
Basically a lot of the equipment here is original equipment. The pinsetters are original. It’ll take you back into nostalgia. You have to keep score yourself. We’re not automated so you have to use a pencil and score sheet. We do have a lot of people that love that. If you come in here on a weekend, you’re going to find a whole gamut of people. We have people in their nineties bowling to little kids three years old bowling. And they just love it. They love the game.
On the future of the bowling alley
This place has three more years left on the lease. So in 2017, I’ll have to look at the lease. Rents keep going up. So that’ll be a big decision maker at that point whether the center stays open. I hope it does, whether I’m here or not. I would like to see this center stay open so people have something to do in the area.
Thanks to a recent ruling of the Virginia Supreme Court in Richmond, developers now have a green light to start demolishing a series of old abandoned warehouses and building structures in Alexandria that are much larger than what's there now.
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