Lanes with ambience to spare

Bowling: The duckpin lanes in Stoneleigh are home to a mix of dedicated bowlers who relish its authentically retro flavor.

January 10, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Climb down the stairs past the neon blue and canary yellow walls and you'll find a slice of hon heaven.

Short, squat pins fly here and there as midget balls glide along the wooden boards. But it's not just duckpin bowling, the game invented in Baltimore in 1900, that most of the clientele seek at Taylor's Stoneleigh Duckpin Bowling Center. They're drawn by the down-home, slap-on-the-back flavor of the 52-year-old alley.

What makes the place unique, patrons say, is that this haven for a working-class game is in the middle of a Baltimore County neighborhood better known for its soccer moms, bagel shops and tree-lined roads.

"Stoneleigh is not exactly bowling mecca here," says Charles Ray, a 60-year-old produce manager from Baltimore who has frequented Taylor's for 20 years. "You can come here on any given night and find senior citizens, truck drivers, teen-agers and bank executives. It's that kind of place.

"When I first started bowling at Stoneleigh, they had doilies on the counter," Ray says as he rubs nonslip paste on his bowling ball. "I knew this was my kind of place. It's like family."

The doilies are long gone, but Taylor's has a "Smoking Den." While the center still sells a slice of greasy pizza and a soda, it also offers bottled water for the health conscious -- a nod to the changing clientele.

For Cliff Webster, Taylor's is a place to unwind. When the 56-year-old managing director of a bank bowls a strike to the cheers of his men's bowling league -- the Stoneleigh 510 Scratch -- the corporate world of pinstripes and annual reports is far from his mind.

For Chuck Schafer, taking the bus from Parkville to Towson isn't so bad when it means he can show off the 60-year-old green-and-black swirled duckpin bowling ball he got from the now-defunct Recreation League Center in Baltimore.

For Joh Bradley, the 34-year-old general manager of Taylor's, this was the place that welcomed him when Joppa Fairlanes closed two years ago. Taylor's immediately hired Bradley, whose love for the game began when he first bowled duckpins at age 17.

Mostly you'll find people like Ted McFadden on these lanes.

The Finksburg resident is legendary -- mostly by his account -- for bowling three near-impossible spares in one game: on two 7-10 splits, and on the Faith, Hope and Charity cluster (the 5, 7 and 10 pins).

"I drive 30 miles just to bowl here," says McFadden, who carries two 40-year-old bowling balls and a battered pair of shoes in a wooden case painted with the words "Knock Em Down Dad."

"I gotta be nuts, right?" McFadden, 59, says with a laugh. "But this is a friendly place and these are a bunch of nice guys."

Even though the center is hidden in a corner of the shopping strip with a hardware shop and a drugstore on York Road, people find their way downstairs.

Actor Andre Braugher discovered Taylor's when he was in town shooting "Homicide: Life on the Street." Television news personalities such as Stan Stovall and Tony Pagnotti have bowled a few games there. Linwood's/Due Restaurant catered a black-tie party there. Last spring, Taylor's held its first party for men in drag when a gay motorcycle club rented the center.

Most of the time, however, Taylor's is the venue for birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and the occasional wedding reception. "I was genuinely delighted recently when this man called up to reserve the alley for a party because his 80-year-old mother insisted on duckpin bowling for her birthday," says James Russell, the 46-year-old owner of Taylor's who took over the alley from his in-laws, Emma and George Taylor.

Russell is a true duckpin aficionado who has never bowled a game of tenpins in his life and doesn't plan to. Many patrons, especially the men of the 510 Scratch league who bowl every Thursday at Taylor's, also are purists.

Russell will tell you that bowling alley owners made a huge mistake years ago when they opened centers featuring lanes for both duckpins and tenpins, the more widely known game which uses larger pins and balls, and allows the bowler two, not three, throws per frame. It's like mixing tennis and racquetball, Russell says.

Or as McFadden puts it: "Tenpins is a sissy game. Duckpins is a man's game."

While many of Baltimore's remaining duckpin bowling alleys have died off as the popularity of the sport has waned since the 1960s, the chance of that happening to Taylor's seems slim -- even after Russell gives up the place.

"I'll probably phase myself out of the business sometime in the future, but this place will go on," he says. "Joh loves this place. He'll keep it going."

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