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, 2019-08-29 16:45:00
ERVING — Bowling was 50 cents a game, plus 15 cents to rent shoes, when the French King Bowling Center opened on Sept. 3, 1959 — 60 years ago on Tuesday.
The bowling center is still in its original building, just west of Ervingside on Route 2, which owner Ralph Semb built in the spring of 1959 with his father, Jack. When it opened, it had 12 lanes and a grill serving hamburgers, French fries and coffee for 10 cents a cup; and people could smoke while they played.
The building grew over the years, reflecting the popularity of bowling. A bar was added, first serving only wine and beer, then with a full liquor license. By 1987, the building had doubled in size to fit a total of 36 lanes. Now it has 16. Ralph Semb, now 78, and his son, Erik Semb, 53, converted the extra space into storage units.
In those heydays, interest in bowling was bolstered by the region’s historical connection to the game. Candlepin bowling, the particular variety offered at the French King Bowling Center, was invented in Worcester in 1880, according to the International Candlepin Bowling Association (of which Ralph Semb was once the president). The game is distinguished from standard “ten-pin” bowling by a smaller and lighter ball, thinner pins and three rolls per frame rather than two.
Excitement over local candlepin bowling was stoked by a weekly TV show on the game, hosted by Boston sportscaster Don Gillis, which ran from 1967 to 1996.
“In its day, it was probably more popular than the Boston Red Sox,” Ralph Semb said.
The show’s limelight lured new players to the game and heightened local competition. The French King Bowling Center would get 300 players a night, most of them in local leagues with their own regularly booked weekly playtimes, Erik Semb said. On Saturday mornings, Ralph Semb would bus youth leagues from Athol and Orange to the bowling center; then while they were playing, he would pick up the next batch from Turners Falls and Greenfield.
The decline of bowling happened at the end of the ’80s, Ralph Semb said. There was market pressure for bowling centers to offer more than just bowling — arcade games, live entertainment, a broader menu of food. But most bowling centers had been built without extra room to accommodate such big additions, he added. At the same time, real estate values were going up. Rather than adapt to the changing bowling business, many owners opted to rent their space for other uses or sell out, Ralph Semb said.
The French King Bowling Center has managed to hang in, although the Sembs admit that it’s harder than it used to be. Bowling parties are still popular, whether they’re to celebrate children’s birthdays, workplace outings or bachelor/bachelorette parties, Erik Semb said. In 2004, some of the extra lanes were converted into a banquet hall that could fit 300 people; but it didn’t draw enough business, Erik Semb said, and the space was turned into storage in 2015.
The sheer level of interest in the game hasn’t bounced back. Local leagues with weekly playtimes, which were the major source of business for the French King Bowling Center, aren’t nearly as prevalent as they used to be. Compared to its height of 300 players a night, the bowling center now gets about 100 a week, Erik Semb said.
Ralph Semb suspects that it’s connected to the rise of home entertainment. Erik Semb said it may be the economy, that people don’t have as much free time as they used to. He’s trying to encourage new leagues that meet less often than every week.
“If you want to commit to every Wednesday night for 30 weeks, it’s hard,” Erik Semb said. “People work harder today. They do longer hours. But we still have the dedicated, diehard people who love to bowl, love to socialize, love to be with friends.”
The French King Bowling Center’s hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays through Fridays — as well as 6 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and 7 to 10 p.m. on Fridays — and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays. The bowling alley is closed on Sundays through Tuesdays.
Reach Max Marcus at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.
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