by Catherine Cramer
Entering Sacco’s Bowl Haven in Davis Square is like crossing through a time warp. Not only for the faded black and white photos on the walls, but for the number of patrons who crowd the lanes, like it was the old days.
The bowling alley witnessed a lot of bowling’s history as a sport and social institution. The candlepin bowling alley and billiards was established by a father, Joseph B. Sacco Sr., and his son, Ralph, in 1939.
The family continues the tradition through Joseph Sr.’s grandson, Damon Sacco, and his brother J. P., who own and operate the business.
“To give you some idea of how old this place is, before we opened the building used to be a garage for horses and carriages,” said Damon.
Even before opening Bowl Haven, Ralph and Joseph Sr. had been in the business for years; in the early 1900s they owned 22 bowling alleys in the state, he said.
Sacco’s Bowl Haven played a major role in establishing and maintaining candlepin bowling, he said.
Joseph Sr. helped design the candlestick pin, which is thinner and requires more skill to knock over than duck pins. He sought to expand the appeal of bowling to women and children who had previously been excluded from the alleys which were dominated by working class males, Damon said.
Because of the difficulty of using a smaller ball and smaller pins, players bowl three times against the same set of pins, unlike the two tries against duck pins.
“When women began bowling in the early 1900s they had to bowl behind green curtains to shield them from onlookers,” he said.
However, as more women began bowling they came out from the curtain, so to speak. Joseph Sr. also pitched the sport to church folk who had previously been warned from the pulpit against hanging around bowling alleys, Damon said.
Then there’s the other tool of the devil, the pool hall.
Sacco’s Bowl Haven until recently had a number of traditional non-pocket pool tables, and still has a large pool room.
“Most of the old time billiard players have died off and no one knows how to play anymore, so we had to get rid of them. A lot of pool legends used to come in though back in the day because the Bowl Haven a hole in the wall where they could be out of the spotlight,” Damon said.
Among legends that frequented Sacco’s was Larry Johnson, a.k.a. Boston Shorty, who stood at only 5 feet 2inches tall, he said.
Among the titles he received were three world championships for one pocket as well as the 8 ball and 1 pocket titles at the Stardust Tournament in Las Vegas, he said. “Before he died a couple of years ago he used to come in here and then go down to Red Bones Bar barbeque for ribs.”
Damon said he recalled that the popularity of pool and bowling dwindled in the 1970s and 1980s.
The socio-economic meanings of the rise and fall of bowling’s popularity of bowling was a major theme of Andrew Hurley, who is the author of “Diners Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture.”
In his book, Hurley said bowling alleys were reflective of a consumer culture that preceded World War II. At this time the American Dream was marketed to working class suburbs in the form of chrome and neon diners, bowling alleys, and trailer parks.
Although the ideal behind these institutions was inclusion, they were highly divided upon socioeconomic lines. Hurley concluded that one reason the popularity of bowling declined is that it was never quite able to shed its blue collar ties.
Damon said bowling resurged in popularity in the late 1990s with the movies like Kingpin and Big Lebowski. Those films were in the theaters just as the retro look came into fashion.
Pool had a similar push from the Tom Cruise and Paul Newman film, “The Color of Money,” he said.
It surprised him to see people were wearing bowling inspired shoes and handbags, Damon said. “It’s kind of funny; people come in here wanting to by bowling shoes.”
Damon is happy to see some old timers, but he likes the new business. “It’s a different crowd, a lot of young people 18-35.”
Hedda R. Steinhoff, the director of MassPirg’s summer office in Davis Square, said she loves to bowl, but never has the time. “I have meant to come here all summer.”
She said she was first brought to Sacco’s in June by her regional director as a team building after a meeting with other office directors. This night she was brought members of her team to hang out and have some fun, Hester Van Hooven Ward, Sarah E. Lessard, Rachel L. Morris.
Their MassPirg T-shirts were turned inside out as a precaution, so that their hi-jinks did not embarrass their employer, she said.
As the MassPirg-ers played out their strings, David J. Taylor, another worker, went behind the pins to check out the pin-setting machines. A long time friend of the Sacco family, Taylor said he started working for the alley two years ago.
The machines date back to the 1940s and parts are so hard to find many have to be custom made, Taylor said. The most common repair Taylor makes is to replace the cloth belts that carry the pins up over and down for the next string. “The toughest part is figuring out what is wrong."
Taylor has seen one celebrity since he started the job. “He was one of the last guys on that Fox show ‘Paradise Island.’ I think he lives around here. I recognized him because I watched the show, but I left him alone,” he said.
Taylor said other employees have told him that the alley was haunted. “I’ve heard pins dropping, but that happens anyway from gravity and because the machines are so old. But, I’ve heard other things, too.”
“Someone told me that the jukebox started playing even though it was unplugged,” he said.
Damon said the haunted stories were old wives tales, and that his employees were scaring themselves and each other.
Still, it is hard not to think about ghosts when surrounded by the trophies, old photos and other relics of the last 60 years of bowling.
The collages of newspaper clippings on the walls that speak of a time when pin boys set up pins for nickels thrown down the alleys and hustlers could make some real money off a game, are certainly a lot cooler than thrift store bowling shirts or Camper shoes.
As if to prove the Bowl Haven holds its own in the present and the past, the jukebox was blasting The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” into the pool room.
A quick look confirmed it was plugged in.