Roll Call

Roll Call

No one has ever logged a perfect game of duckpin bowling, Sandi Thomas tells me. She’s owned Johnson’s Duckpin Lanes in Hamden since 1985, and she practically grew up in the place.

“You mean here, or ever?” I ask, incredulous.

“Ever,” she says.

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You can look it up yourself. A perfect score is 300, but the world records for a single game are 279 for men (Pete Signore, Jr. of North Haven) and 265 for women (Carole Gittings of Maryland). The men’s record has held since 1992 and the women’s since 1973. Perfection seems all but impossible.

Nonetheless, it’s a ton of fun and great for kids because, unlike more popular 10-pin bowling with its big, heavy balls, duckpin is played with balls that weigh roughly three pounds and are about the size of a large grapefruit. When I show up with a friend at the alley late on a Wednesday afternoon, the Dunn family of Guilford is laughing and cheering over a game.

My friend and I have Thomas to cheer us on. She grabs a good, old-fashioned paper score sheet and pencil and sits down to watch. A champion bowler with three women’s pro tour titles and eight state wins in her day, Thomas also makes a good coach. Hold the ball firmly with your thumb and your pinkie to keep control and “push” it straight out from your body, she tells us. “Pretend you want to push something out of the way.”

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This advice yields good results at first, but through no fault of Thomas’s, our performance is inconsistent at best. “Off your fingertips, girl!” she calls out as my friend makes an approach. I manage to end the game with one spare, and neither of us pulls a strike.

What makes duckpin bowling so hard is those small balls matched with small pins that are set 12 inches apart, just like 10-pin’s larger ones. That combination of bigger gaps and smaller balls makes it much harder to take the pins down. You do get a third ball for every frame (10-pin allows two), but even that compensation doesn’t help much. I can sometimes break 100 at 10-pin (still an admittedly sorry score), but this day at Johnson’s Lanes I score a 73. You can look at that as discouraging. Or you can recognize the inherent challenge and the excitement of scoring a spare (it has to be done with the first two balls of a frame) or a strike in a game that’s tougher to master. It’s easy to understand how someone like Thomas could spend 60 years attempting to perfect her game.

Johnson’s Lanes is one of only three duckpin centers in the state sanctioned for competition, in which leagues bowl for cash prizes. Adult leagues play Monday through Thursday nights in Hamden, with a senior league on Thursday mornings and a junior league on Saturdays. Birthday parties and fundraisers can be booked as well, with regular lighting or Glo & Bowl party lights. And, of course, you can come on your own, though Thomas is currently offering a Groupon deal geared towards small groups of bowlers and families.

The facility was built by the Johnson family in 1955, when bowling was all the rage. “At the time, there was no gambling and… no stores open on Sundays, so the blue laws were in effect,” Thomas notes. “Sundays were phenomenal days for families to go out and do things.” She recalls people routinely accepting a 45-minute wait for a lane. The original benches and tables are still here—in fact, they were repurposed even then from a New Haven bowling alley that had closed—and the 64-year-old equipment is still running thanks to Thomas’s son, who keeps it in repair.

Still, the business almost didn’t make it to 2019. A 2007 fire that started in a tanning salon in the same building did major damage. The fire was contained, but water destroyed the wood lanes, all of which had to be replaced. Johnson’s Lanes was shuttered for over 10 months. Thomas clearly recalls her relief on the October afternoon in 2008 when she hung out the grand reopening sign. “Everybody’s just going by honking and , ‘Yeah, yeah!’ I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna be good.’”

Now the lanes boast synthetic flooring, which is more consistent and lower-maintenance. “It turned out that all the excuses of the ball a bad board went away,” Thomas says, amused. “Every single one of those is identical. Every little pattern is identical. There’s no loose boards!” She says the approaches to the lanes are still wooden, because synthetic just didn’t feel right underfoot.

I’m tempted to bowl a second game, just to see if I can boost my score, but league players are trickling in, and it’s time to get home. Thomas sends us off with some final advice: “It’s repetition, it’s practice, it’s knowing just a little finesse item such as the grip of the ball, not letting it go off one side of the hand or the other,” she says. “And then praying.”

Johnson’s Duckpin Lanes
2100 Dixwell Ave, Hamden (map)
Mon noon-9pm, Tues noon-3pm, Wed noon-9pm, Thurs noon-9:30pm, Fri-Sat noon-9pm, Sun noon-6pm (Glo & Bowl Sat 3-9pm, Sun 1:30-6pm)
(203) 248-1563 |
Open play: $26 per lane per hour. Glo & Bowl: $12 per person per hour. Shoe rental: $4

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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