Bowling alleys live on in local filmmaker’s documentary on Astoria Bowl community

Photo courtesy of Gabe Jacobs

Remember bowling alleys? Sadly, they could be a thing of the past.

While New York’s bowling alley remain closed, avid bowlers have been eagerly awaiting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision and hoping they could soon enjoy their favorite pastime again.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a young filmmaker from Brooklyn — with a passion for the beloved game-turned-sport — set his sights on Queens’ ever-popular Astoria Bowl, and captured its unique vibe in a just-released indie creation titled “A Place to Bowl.”

While the film centers around the community of older people who used to frequent Astoria Bowl every week to play and hang out with their bowling buddies, the film’s message is about much more, and you can view it here.

“I like to think my movie shows us the value of in-person communities, and is a lesson for younger people, like myself,” Gabe Jacobs told QNS. “Fast forward to July and August, with the pandemic still raging through the U.S., and with Astoria Bowl still closed. The film started to feel like it had a new purpose.”

For many bowling fans, Astoria Bowl was the coolest place in town. Teams competed there and folks of every age and proficiency could show off their bowling skills — while praying for a lucky strike. But for the senior league, the best part was the camaraderie; the guys loved to schmooze over a cup of joe or a soda with fries.

Jacobs, 26, saw the beauty in bowling. He understood that for the members of this special group, it was all about having somewhere to go when there was nothing much to do.

“As a silent observer at the bowling alley, I would watch the senior club, and in a way, actually be very jealous,” he shared. “I grew up in the internet age. Finding friends and socializing on the internet is no longer an unusual story. But here, at the bowling alley, I witnessed something I didn’t have much of in my own life: An in-person community where lots of friends would get together and for little to no money, just have fun. It sounds so simple, but I really missed those kinds of experiences.”

Jacobs continued: “With the film, I wanted to show the community at Astoria Bowl the way I saw it … fun and ridiculous, but most of all, loving. Part of the reason I showed myself at the end was to send a message to my friends and people my age: It’s up to us to keep these sports and communities alive. We might really be missing out if we let them fade away into the past.”

The rising filmmaker said he bowled at the alley “at least a hundred times,” and that it was really the only place he was willing to bowl that wasn’t more than an hour away from where he lives in Greenpoint. “I’m picky, but for good reasons,” he added.

“A Place to Bowl” actually came out of Jacobs’ very personal obsession with the sport of bowling.

“I started bowling a few years ago with my brother. As we got more and more into the game, we began searching for good bowling alleys, ones that treated their lanes well and catered to the sports enthusiast, rather than the partygoer,” he recalled. “Most places in NYC were either too expensive or functioned more as a bar or arcade with bowling on the side. Then we discovered Astoria Bowl. You could tell it was different from the moment you walked in. There were some good bowlers there. Really good. Some were so good, I had fun just watching them.”

Growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, young Gabe could see Astoria whenever he played baseball on Randall’s Island.

“My weekends used to be filled with tennis and baseball tournaments, but that all went away by college, as I got more involved with technology and art,” he said. “As an adult though, I’ve come back to sports with a renewed respect.”

That’s when his bowling addiction really took flight. Jacobs would play in his free time, spending hours alone in the alley trying to get a perfect game. He said his highest was 248. Like the other regulars at Astoria Bowl, he would show up when the alley was at its quietest, typically Tuesday mornings.

“It was around that time when I met some of the other regulars, people like Gene and Nick, who were part of the senior league. As I was practicing, I would watch them (and admittedly eavesdrop),” he remembered. “They were trying out new balls, working on different oil patterns, and always had some new theory about the Yankees.”

In the doc, Nick, who’s 86 years young, says, “This is more than a bowling alley for us. You have a problem outside, you come in, you forget all about it. You sit down with the guys, you have a cup of coffee, you bullshit here and there … and it’s great!”

And Gene (the newbie), remarks: “If bowling stopped tomorrow, I guess you might as well look for my pine box … there’s really not that much to do.”

You can hear how passionate these bowling buddies were about their favorite hangout and sport. Says another: “I fell in love with it immediately; I could never get enough of it!”

For them, bowling was everything.

“It wasn’t really about the scoreboard like it was for me; it was simply a place to be together and that’s all it needed to be,” Jacobs explained. “As Gene puts it, ‘What else could you ask for?’ That was what was so beautiful to me, and that’s what inspired the film.”

Butch, another member of the senior league, offers viewers some sound bowling advice: “There are two minds; the conscious mind and the subconscious mind,” he says. “You need the conscious mind to teach yourself how to bowl. But at some point, you have to let the subconscious do the bowling….”

Here’s a fun fact: The sport became a national pastime and got really popular in the early ‘60s. Every week, fans would tune in to watch professional bowling on channel 7.

But sadly, those days are gone now.

Astoria Bowl’s owner Elaine Poulos, tells Jacobs: “Back in the 80s, there were [about] five bowling centers in Astoria alone. Now there are five in all of Queens. That’s crazy to think about!”

So, how did the senior leaguers react when you were filming them?

“I think the guys were very happy that a young person was interested in the sport (and in them). We often talked about ways in which we could get young people bowling more, or ways I could get my friends to come to the lanes,” Jacobs recalled. “I think they were so open to making the film because I convinced them that it could really be a good thing for the sport, as a whole.

“Everyone at Astoria Bowl loves bowling so much and would do anything to make sure that the bowling alleys they love stay in business (I’m one of them). It’s also not every day that a bowler gets to be filmed, so they were excited to be involved.”

While most of the seniors live in Astoria, some hail from other parts of Queens. Bowlers traveled far to come to the alley, since there weren’t that many options. Some came in from Long Island and Westchester. Some folks featured in the film had been coming to Astoria Bowl for over 30 years.

The league guys would play for different reasons. “Some, like Butch, found the physical act of bowling incredibly rewarding. Just the feeling of throwing a strike gets them to come back. It really is one of the best feelings in the world,” Jacobs said. “These types of bowlers were always trying to improve their game. For others, it wasn’t about being competitive: People loved to bowl because it was something to do with their friends; a ritualized way of meeting new people, and discussing life.”

He added: “When I grew up in NYC, I only went to bowling alleys for birthday parties. It really was treated more as a game, rather than a sport. Most of the time, the alleys were filled with neon lights, which made it hard to play the game seriously (as a kid, I also didn’t take it seriously). But when you walked into Astoria Bowl, you could really feel the difference. It treated bowling with respect, and most importantly, there was a real community there. And in the end, that is what was most special of all.”

Jacobs’ film career as a cinematographer and director, is relatively new. He formed a production company called Turtle Down Films and began taking on freelance jobs and making his own films.

“My interest in film first came from filming music. I was greatly inspired by live music sessions that I would watch on the internet. So, many of my first films are live sessions with friends that are extremely talented. This is my first narrative passion project and was completely self-funded,” he noted.

While there haven’t been many upsides to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacobs found one.

“I spent the first two months editing. It was the perfect time to edit because I wasn’t getting any jobs filming, due to COVID-19. One upside to being locked in my apartment for all this time, is that it has given me the time and space to really focus on the film,” Jacobs said. “Financially though, it hasn’t been great.”

But when the film was finally finished, he knew it wasn’t the right time to release it. “George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had just been killed, and COVID-19 was surging with no end in sight. Those sort of things were on my mind, and I knew they were on all of my friends’ minds, as well,” he recalled. “It just wasn’t appropriate to tell people to pay attention to bowling at that time. So, I sat on it for months, not knowing when I would release it.”

Presently, the senior league at Astoria Bowl has nowhere to go. There’s uncertainty as to when, if ever, it will reopen.

“I think about the league, and how they must feel not having a place to come together,” Jacobs told QNS. “Just the other day, Astoria Bowl made a social media post about four members of the community (none in the film) that passed away from COVID-19. It’s truly awful what is happening. All this makes the film feel even more relevant. It’s a reminder to salvage what we have left of these great community centers, when we come back from all this.”

In a discarded clip from the film, Nick called Astoria Bowl a sanctuary. “That sums it up well,” Jacobs added. “The bowling alley was an oasis in the truest sense of the word.”

Astoria Bowl has urged people to write Gov. Cuomo and tell him why bowling centers should be allowed to reopen.

“If this bowling alley opens soon, I have no doubt that the owner would take every precaution necessary to keep her customers safe,” Jacobs noted.

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