Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My Sunday Of Candlepin Joy

The last time we met in this space, I told you about my friend who was going to be competing on a televised candlepin bowling show. Urb, whose real name is John Kafalas, was making his return to television competition after an absence of 32 years.

If you read that previous piece, you know how I feel about this achievement. I like it so much, I’ll tell you again: I think it’s just about the coolest thing ever. For a person to make a successful comeback, in any endeavor, is a wonderful thing. To do so in a competitive sport, where age so heavily takes a toll over the years, is that much harder. To have given up a sport completely and then work hard enough to do something that you once did 32 years before? I consider it heroic.

(To truly understand how much I admire this feat, it helps to have read the piece I wrote about my own joys and disappointments in this same sport. I tried - and failed - to achieve this thing that Urb has done. I am so full of admiration for his accomplishment because I know how hard it was to do.)

The taping of the TV show took place this past Sunday at Woburn Bowladrome. I had been scheduled to have the first practice of the season with one of my fast-pitch softball teams, but that practice was cancelled due to torrential rains. I was now free to go see Urb make his return to the airwaves. MY WIFE and I took an early drive to Woburn and arrived at about 9:15.

Comcast was taping four hour-long shows this day. Urb had previously told me, via e-mail, that his match would probably be on the second show taped. This turned out to be true, so MY WIFE and I settled in to watch the taping of the first show. A small section of bleacher-type stands had been erected behind lanes 35 and 36. We climbed into a couple of seats in the third, or topmost, row.

While this was Urb’s big day, MY WIFE and I quickly figured out that we were seated in a spot that would provide the television audience with a good view of US throughout much of the telecast. It was OUR return to TV, also. This is, of course, another reason why you should want to tune in when the shows air. You already know what I look like, if you’ve been paying attention when visiting here, but I’ll give you the further aid of telling you that I was wearing a herringbone scally cap. MY WIFE is to my right at all times.

(And if you were paying attention during that last paragraph, you might now be saying, “Wait, Jim, you said that this was the return to TV of you and YOUR WIFE. Pray tell, when were the two of you on television before?”

I’m glad you asked. Here is a complete list of the previous boob tube appearances by both of us, whether singly or together:

Bozo The Clown
A televised Catholic mass
A filmed review, on the news, concerning a play we attended
A WCW wrestling show
A quiz show on PBS
A cable talk show that I hosted for three or four weeks

Yes, it IS a stunning resume. And I’m sure you want to hear about each and every one of these things in excruciating detail. Rest assured that, if I’m the one telling you about them, the detail will definitely be excruciating. However, this piece would take you three days to read if I did that, so I’ll tell you about them tomorrow – and maybe the next day and the day after that, too.)

OK, back to the real substance of this piece – candlepin bowling on television. There used to be many televised candlepin bowling shows in this area. While it is strictly a regional sport, confined to New England and Eastern Canada, it was a big enough deal at one time to afford some guys a very good second income as professionals, via the TV shows and the pro tour. There was even the possibility, if you were good enough, to eke out a living as a professional candlepin bowler. Granted, you wouldn’t be eating caviar and living in a penthouse, but you could keep yourself in burgers and afford a second-story one-bedroom apartment on River Street in Dorchester, where you could spend your declining years cursing the fates and trying to handicap the daily double at Wonderland – maybe.

In recent years, the sport has become even less of a possibility for profit than it once was. There are probably about half as many candlepin houses as there once were. Tenpins, with its national TV exposure and relatively large payouts, has begun to make inroads into this area, wiping out the small profit margins of some of the smaller houses and thus putting them out of business. Whereas there were five or six weekly candlepin bowling shows being telecast at the peak of the sport’s popularity, there is now just the one – although a second show has had a start on Channel 56 and may start up production again in the future. If you’re good enough to compete on what remains of the pro tour, you’ll mostly be lucky to make back your expenses. The biggest payday possible comes via the Comcast show we were seeing taped, with a grand prize of $5,000 to the bowler who wins the season-ending championship.

None of the foregoing makes Urb’s comeback any less spectacular. The competition is still tough. The best bowlers of today stack up favorably to those of yesteryear. Expenses are higher. And getting onto TV is now that much harder since there is only ONE show to be on.

In order to get onto the show, a bowler must win a preliminary match called a roll-off. They are held at various differing locales throughout the year and the entry fee is just the cost of the bowling. I entered a number of these, myself, back in the day. They are open to everyone who wants to test themselves against the best the sport has to offer. You bowl five strings and top scorer advances. It’s as simple and fair as that - best bowler wins. Urb won his roll-off and that’s how he earned his TV appearance.

As MY WIFE and I watched the first show of the day being taped, I spotted Urb warming up, in preparation for his match, 9 or 10 lanes away. His opponent, Skip Easterbrook, was warming up with him. This was the first time I had ever seen Urb in person, by the way. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but we had never actually met. We knew each other only from interaction on-line.

I didn’t want to make a pain of myself during his pre-game prep, so I decided to wait until after his match was over to introduce MY WIFE and myself. Maybe when he came over to bowl his match, he might recognize me in the crowd. As it turns out, that’s what happened. Just before the match began, he looked up into the crowd, saw me, and waved. I gave him a “thumbs up” and wished him good luck.

The crowd at the event is an interesting one. It appears that they mostly know each other and that they all come out for every taping. There is one fellow, something of a Colonel Sanders look-alike, who has been sitting in the front row of every televised candlepin show for years and years. He is here. As we were waiting for the camera crew to do a white balance, and for the other members of the show’s production staff to give the OK to begin taping, one of the hosts inquired about a couple of missing audience members, by name, as though they were uncles late for a holiday dinner. She is informed that they will be here later because of the storm – and they do show up later, to a warm welcome.

(One fellow has worked really hard on a poster. It reads, “Don’t forget your income taxes!” The “I” in “income” is a drawing of a candlepin. While his heart is in the right place, the crew informs him that the shows will not air until after tax returns should have been filed. He says that he will put the poster away until next year. MY WIFE and I expect that this is the literal truth.)

Certain parts of the telecast have an odd life of their own. For instance, Earl.

In candlepins, the “wood” is live. That is, the pins downed by the previous ball or balls, if remaining on the pin deck, may be used by the bowler in making his next shot. This is what gives the sport much of it’s cachet, really, as it lends a billiards-like quality to the shotmaking. However, if a downed pin is beyond a certain line, it is illegal to use in the shotmaking and must be physically removed. This is where Earl comes in.

Earl is the scorekeeper and he is also the official remover of illegal wood. There is an unusual amount of illegal wood produced on this day. Earl is called upon to remove an offensive pin five or six times during the course of taping. And, each time, the crowd cheers and Earl’s name is called out, somewhat to his embarrassment. The cameras follow him on his task and he will be a more prominent part of these shows than he usually might be.

As to the matches themselves, it’s an interesting phenomenon to watch a sporting event, with money on the line, involving someone you actually know, competing in a sport you’ve had experience competing in yourself. I could easily imagine myself in Urb’s place, feeling perhaps the same mixture of pride and nervousness, wanting to make that first ball a good one to relax me and allow me entrance into “the zone,” that place where muscle memory takes over for an athlete and allows forgetting of the cameras, lights, announcers, prize money and whatever other distractions are at hand.

(You’ve come this far in the narrative, probably hoping for some sort of resolution, but I’m afraid that, at this point, I have to let you know that I won’t be revealing any results of the matches. This way, if you’re in the area served by Comcast in New England and will have an opportunity to view the shows, they won’t be spoiled for you. If you want to know the results, drop me a line at suldog@aol.com and I’ll reply with the spoilers. If you’d prefer to watch them – and I hope you will – the show airs Saturday morning at 11am and repeats at 5pm on Sunday, on CN8, the Comcast Channel. The shows we saw will begin airing this coming Saturday, the 21st, with Urb’s return to TV slated for a week from then, on the 28th.

As enticement to get you to watch on the 28th: There was a 171 thrown by one of the competitors – a very high total for candlepins, perhaps equal to a 260 or 265 in tenpin. The crowd gave a standing ovation for the match, very rare.)

After the taping, we went over to say “Hi” to Urb. He was a bit sweaty, putting away his gear. He gave a big smile as we shook hands. I introduced MY WIFE and then we exchanged a bit of small talk. I again told him how cool I thought his accomplishment was. He was extremely self-effacing, almost embarrassed to acknowledge what he had done. He told me an interesting fact. Although it was 32 years between TV appearances for him, the record – so far as he knew – was 42 years, accomplished by another bowler last year with an appearance on the Channel 56 show mentioned earlier.

Urb pocketed a check for his appearance, of course. I can’t give you the total without somewhat giving away the ending – at least to those of you familiar with the payouts on the show – but I can tell you that some other professional athletes make that much by the time they brush their teeth in the morning. Even more reason to admire Urb and the other bowlers – it’s a labor of love.

Well, even a blowhard like me can rhapsodize for just so long about candlepin bowling. See you tomorrow with tales of our fleeting TV fame.


Unknown said...

I hope Urb won, it would be a great sports story.

Urbie said...

Thanks, man. And for those who don't have Comcast cable (as I don't here in Providence), you can watch the show via Web feed at http://ne.cn8.tv -- you'll need some kind of a media player; I use QuickTime, but I think MS Media Player works, too.

-- Urb