NORWOOD -- For more than 80 years, the rattle and thrum of bowling balls hitting pins has been the soundtrack to Charlie Kuietauskas’s life.
It still is, although these days the 92-year-old retired owner of the Norwood Sport Center makes only a cameo appearance, an hour or so, one day a week while his daughter, Ann McGuire, who now runs the business, takes a lunch break.
Across Massachusetts, the bowling scene has changed: There are fewer bowling alleys, dwindling leagues, and no more Saturday bowling shows on WCVB-TV (Channel 5). What was once a respected sport is now seen more as entertainment. Nationally, the number of bowling centers has steadily declined: According to US Census Industry Statistics, there were some 5,400 bowling alleys in the United States in 1998; by 2014, the most recent year for which data was available, just 3,329 remained.
But Kuietauskas isn’t ready to deliver bowling’s eulogy. He’s seen hard times. And he’s seen them get better. He says bowling could, too.
“Something’s got to turn around eventually,” Kuietauskas, widowed after 70 years of marriage and the father of six adult children, said in a recent interview.
He remembers the 1930s. The Great Depression was raging, and Kuietauskas, orphaned in infancy and raised in south Norwood by two older sisters, was playing outside the six-decker on Dean Street where he lived, a few hundred yards from the bowling alley.
“I heard bing-bing, a nice tinkling sound, every day that was like music to me,” he said. “A cousin told me they’re bowling down there, that’s what they do.”
Back then, bowling meant candlepin, a game invented in 1880 by Justin P. White of Worcester, who improved on the spindly broomstick pins then in use, by coming up with the more substantial candlepins still used today.
It was a man’s game until 1913 when women were admitted, and a few of them led the way, encouraging other women to try the game. But it would take decades before bowling alleys promoted women’s leagues and offered childcare, and began organizing leagues for youngsters.
If you were 16 and had a permit to work, you could get a job as a pin boy: five cents a string to reset the maple sticks by hand, arranged in a triangle at the end of the lane, plus free bowling when the place was empty, as long as you had someone to set up the pins for you.
Kuietauskas said it didn’t hurt to have a friend who would put in a good word with the boss. But more important was a steady hand, an even temper, and quick reflexes, because in the days before automatic pinsetters, invented in Massachusetts in 1947, a co-worker might get nervous or careless and drop a ball that landed on your head.
Or it might get so busy, as it did one Thanksgiving in the early 1940s when a snowstorm cancelled the annual Norwood vs Dedham high school football game, that you’d get just five minutes for a bathroom break.
Kuietauskas said his first job, in 1940, was at the bowling alley near his home. The next year, he answered a help wanted ad at the Norwood Sport Center, opened the year before by Fred Sherwood, who owned the local Buick dealership.
The sports center, modeled on the Belgian Building featured at the 1939 World’s Fair, cost $50,000. It had 16 alleys upstairs, plus pinball and a restaurant, and downstairs, where customers entered from the street, there was a game room with billiards, ping pong, horseshoes, archery, and more.
Those were good years for bowling.
Kuietauskas graduated from high school in 1942, was rejected from military service because of a bad ear, and took a defense industry job in a tannery. He stayed at the sports center part-time during the war and worked there full-time after it ended.
By 1960, television had annointed candlepin bowling as a spectator sport. The American Bowling Congress reported that the number of bowlers in the country had increased from a million in 1920 to an estimated 26.5 million. Business analysts prophesized that bowling would become a billion-dollar industry.
Channel 5 in Boston was in its second year of a 38-year run broadcasting candlepin bowling, aired at noon on Saturdays and hosted by the late Don Gillis.
“At times, the ratings were higher than ones for the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins,” said Mike Morin, a New Hampshire broadcast journalist who is writing a book about the history of candlepin in the television era titled “Lunch with Tommy and Stasia — Why New England Fell in Love with the TV Stars of Candlepin Bowling.”
Under John Mutch, the Norwood Sport Center’s second owner, Kuietauskas was promoted to assistant manager, then manager, then partner. After Mutch died, he took over as sole owner.
Leagues were cropping up everythere. At the Norwood Sport Center, players from Polaroid made up 16 teams; 32 teams were represented by the Knights of Columbus; and the Elks held a statewide tournament every year.
Kuietausksas’s wife, Eleanor, arranged babysitting so mothers could bowl on weekday mornings.
In those days, the Norwood Sport Center was known as a “tough house,” which meant that Kuietauskas didn’t make concessions — silicone spray on the plates, or bumpers along the gutters — to boost scores, and businesss.
“At a time when alleys were doing things to increase the scores, he stuck to his guns,” said champion bowler Jim Putney, a frequent competitior on Channel 5 and winner of some of the biggest cash prizes in the game’s history. “If you bowled well there, you could bowl anywhere.“
In his day, Kuietauskas was an imposing figure, almost 6 feet tall, exacting, and tireless. But two knee replacements, the loss of his wife in 2014, and time have taken their toll.
“He was a no-nonsense guy, old school, a tough guy, and he had to be,” said Putney, 56. “You had to respect him because of how hard he worked and how dedicated he was to that bowling alley, which was an extension of his family.”
These days, almost nobody wants to run a business where you have to work seven days a week and, no matter your pay grade, you sweep the floors, fix the machines, and clean the bathrooms. It makes more sense for owners to sell their property and set themselves up for retirement.
Charlie Kuietauskas understands all this. And he knows his daughter might decide to do that, too.
But if he’s learned anything in his 76 years at the Norwood Sport Center, it’s that opportunity sometimes comes dressed like work — and when it’s least expected.
“It’s in the doldrums now,” he said. “Myself, I’ll wait and see.”Hattie Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.