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Down a Dark Alley

Documenting the Decline of Duckpin Bowling--The Southway Won't Rise Again

Duckpin Country

Director:Cliff Hackel, James Mokhiber, Murray Pinczuk, Rick Young
Screen Writer:Cliff Hackel, James Mokhiber, Murray Pinczuk, Rick Young
Genre:Documentary, Local Interest

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/23/2003

In the long history of organized religion, the service conducted three years ago at South Baltimore's St. Stephen and James Lutheran Church may well have been a first for Lutheranism--if not Christianity in general. The sanctuary echoed with a memorial service/prayer vigil for a bowling alley. Specifically, appeals to a higher power were ushered upward on behalf of the circa-1939, 25-lane Southway Duckpin Bowling Center, on the corner of South Charles and Hamburg streets. Candles flickered on a makeshift altar bedecked with bowling balls, pins, and historic images of the sport's champions. And from the pulpit came the words, "There is no evidence at all in the Bible that God ever set foot on Southway's lanes. However, we know in our hearts and in our memories that God's grace was present with us each time we bowled."

One can imagine frazzled bowlers silently seeking holy assistance when staring down a dreaded 7-10 split, but an entire church service dedicated to small-ball bowling is something else again. But it was but one reaction to the news that fell upon duckpindom in the fall of 2000: The Southway had been sold to a developer bent on converting the bilevel duck house into loft apartments. And it is but one of the scenes captured in This is Duckpin Country, a 42-minute documentary chronicling the Southway saga specifically, and the duckpin story in general.

But then, Country co-producer James Mokhiber didn't set out to make an alley obituary when he first turned a lens on Baltimore's homegrown answer to tenpin bowling. A native of upstate New York, Mokhiber came to Baltimore in 1993 to work on a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University. He quickly found his way down to the Southway and became enamored with small-ball bowling.

"It was a curiosity at first," says thirtysomething Mokhiber, who now resides in Charles Village. "Then I got interested in [duckpins] because it seemed so incredibly tied up with the culture and the identity of the city."

He first envisioned filming a bio-piece on the late Elizabeth "Toots" Barger, the celebrated Baltimore bowler dubbed "Queen of the Duckpins." However, he soon discovered another bowling queen--Southway's septuagenarian manager Alva Brown, a celebrated bowler in her own right and member of the Duckpin Hall of Fame. Though arthritis had stilled Brown's duckpin arm, she served as mentor/mascot for a women's bowling team affectionately known as Alva Brown's Misfits. In 1999, Mokhiber began filming a cinéma vérité piece on the team--following the Misfits around to "capture their rituals and what they got out of bowling." Then came the fateful day when the boom was lowered on Brown's alley, which she ran, but did not own.

"When Alva came over me one day while I was bowling and told me they were selling the place, I knew that this was going to be the film's new focus," Mokhiber recalls.

With the new direction came ramped-up aspirations. Mokhiber, who had done some research and reporting work for public television's Frontline program, called in some seasoned professionals to help him with the project, including editor Cliff Hackel, director of photography Murray Pinczuk, and co-producer Rick Young.

"I recruited guys who normally work on things like the war in Kosovo and environmental policy," Mokhiber says. "I asked them to come up to Baltimore." He adds that it wasn't too hard a sell because at least two of his team members are "local boy" Marylanders who grew up with duckpins.

Funded by a $7,500 grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, their own of out-of-pocket funds, and sundry private donations and in-kind offerings, the quartet set about chronicling the ultimately failed fight to save the Southway. In the process, the filmmakers waded into a larger demographic clash occurring in Federal Hill: the neighborhood's deep-rooted blue-collar residents' conflicts with the influx of deep-pocketed white-collar professionals. But Mokhiber says they concentrated on presenting the Southway story with sensitivity and balance.

"You could have told this story as kitsch," Mokhiber says. "You could make it very lighthearted and not take it seriously. Or you could have made it with 'black hat' and 'white hat' characters. We tried to give everyone a say."

"Everyone" includes Patrick Turner, the developer who acquired the Southway. (Turner first made a local splash some years back with his plans--dead since the Sept. 11 tragedy--to convert a failed Key Highway brewpub into the "Crash Café," a bistro built around a disaster theme.) Mokhiber says he has "total respect" for Turner's "gutsy" decision to participate fully with the filmmakers. And Turner does have his say. The developer defends the economic changes occurring in Federal Hill, noting that the "beauty of capitalism is that the market dictates what's in or out." Hardened realists watching the film might conclude that given the Hill's new flavor--and given that duckpin houses have gone dark even in working-class strongholds--it wasn't a case of if the Southway would close, but when. Turner says he briefly considered keeping Southway's alleys intact but, after crunching the numbers, concluded that it wasn't economically viable.

With black clouds gathering, a consortium of bowlers and South Baltimore activists launched a Spare the Southway campaign with the idea of putting the alley's equipment--lanes and all--in storage until another venue could be found (The Nose, Oct. 25, 2000). To his credit, Turner agreed to donate the equipment to the Southway fans (providing they paid for its removal) and gave the group extra time to raise the necessary moving and storage funds--$50,000 at a minimum. There were bowl-a-thons, silent auctions--and prayer services--for the cause.

Though Turner is given a fair shake in the film, with his earring and sports jacket, he comes off looking somewhat villainous when set against white-haired Brown, who is seen patiently making her way down the marble steps her of Formstoned rowhouse and up Southway's steep linoleum stairway--a trek she made every day for decades.

Though the Southway fight forms the film's crux, for non-natives and Baltimoreans too young to recall duckpins' 1950s-'70s glory years, Duckpin Country provides a colorful and wistful introduction to the duckpin craze that once gripped this town. The documentary contains a wealth of vintage footage and still photographs, which the camera pans across à la Ken Burns. Among the footage (which Mokhiber says was "incredibly difficult to find") are snippets from the Pinbusters TV show, which, along with Duckpins for Dollars, once brought alley action into the city's living rooms. There's also ancient footage of manual pinsetters in action--with a voice-over from an erstwhile pinboy describing how it was "hard on the back and occasionally hard on the head." And no duckpin story would be complete without a telling of how the sport was developed by a pair of Orioles players at Howard Street's long-demolished Diamond Lanes around 1900.

While Sun columnist Michael Olesker enjoys some camera time explaining the city's fascination with the game, the tale telling is largely left to the folks who plied the maple lanes back in the day. "We made a choice to tell this as a non-narrated documentary," Mokhiber says. "We decided not to go with those meta-voices. We thought it was more effective to have people tell the stories themselves."

Sadly, the story did not end well for the Southway. Despite valiant efforts, its would-be saviors fell far short of the $50,000 goal. The equipment was yanked and the alleys broken up for scrap. (Mokhiber says the pinsetters--a rare commodity, seeing how duckpin machinery has not been built new since the '50s--ended up in a duck house in Dundalk.) While the camera pans across the duckpin detritus--Southway signage and sections of wooden benches briefly stashed in a leaky warehouse--a voice-over reflects, "We throw away a lot of things in this city--every generation makes mistakes." Mistake or inevitable cultural progression? Duckpin Country is neutral enough to leave conclusions up to the viewer, but we can at least be thankful that documentarians were on hand to capture events.

Near the end of the film, one year later flashes on the screen and the camera returns to the Southway. Turner walks amid overstuffed designer furniture filling one of the nine swanky apartments carved out of the alley. "The transition from bowling to living went really well," he says. Eager renters, it turns out, formed a waiting list for the lofts.

It's also revealed that not all the alley's wood was scrapped. "We wanted to bring some part of the original bowling alley into the new use," Turner says. And then the camera pans over the last vestiges of Southway's storied maple lanes--now serving as kitchen countertops for Federal Hill's newest residents.

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