Maybe this has happened to you. You're flipping through TV channels on a Friday night. You get to the no-man's-land of low-budget cable: C-SPAN, HSN, C-SPAN2. Then you hit Channel 25, and here's what you see: In the middle of a bowling alley there's this boundlessly upbeat sixtysomething man looking directly at the camera, speaking into a microphone. His presentation is so genuine you think it might be disingenuous. A couple of bowlers are rolling balls down two lanes.
"On the left lane, let's watch Joanie Rouche of Diversey and Clybourn in the Lakeview neighborhood try to pick up this 1-3-7-9," the man says with a car dealer's enthusiasm. "She made a nice shot! She made a nice shot..." He trails off as the ball picks up just one of the four remaining pins. "Oh, it could have done better than that."
You've just stumbled on the hour of mindless bliss that is Local League Bowling, a thrice-weekly cable-access show hosted by Chicago broadcasting veteran Duane Dow, 63. He's been the show's producer, director, writer, advertising department, and host since its inception 17 years ago.
Dimly lit static shots alternate with a handheld second camera that follows bowlers as they take their turns. The production quality is on par for public access; the muted color spectrum ranges from off beige to liver, with tonal variations between the two cameras. The only light source besides the bowling alley's fluorescent overheads is a single floodlight mounted on a tall, thin stand behind the camera. "The Professional Bowlers Association spends $100,000 to light a bowling center just right for a national broadcast," Dow says. The audio often sounds like it's coming from inside a box.
As with every episode of the show, this one, taped at Habetler Bowl on North Northwest Highway, ends abruptly, with no indication of who has won or even that the contest is over.
Local League Bowling is like the C-SPAN of sports: Dow and a small crew simply point cameras at a pair of lanes and videotape people bowling. There's no clever editing to build suspense, let alone to reduce downtime between bowlers. (Another episode, taped at Lawn Lanes in West Lawn, includes a prolonged silence as Dow scrambles to comment over two temporarily empty lanes.) There are no ongoing tournaments or rivalries, no contrived situations to provoke reactions from an unwitting subject. It's just frame after frame of regular people bowling, accompanied by Dow's running commentary. But modest as it may seem, this is Dow's dream.
Dow was born in Rochester, New York, in 1940. His mother, Dorothy, who is 91 and still lives eight miles outside Rochester in Penfield, remembers her son conducting his first interviews as early as 1945, using an empty oatmeal canister as a microphone. "One time his kindergarten teacher told me, 'Duane has interviewed everyone in the class,'" she says.
"I was kind of a loner as a kid," Dow says, standing in the Santa Fe Lounge at Grand Palace Bowl in Cicero after wrapping an episode of the show. "I listened to the radio all the time and tried to mimic the announcers. Mel Allen was my childhood idol." (Allen was the Yankees broadcaster who coined the phrase "Going, going, gone!")
Dow was introduced to bowling through the black-and-white TV perennial Championship Bowling, but it only came to life for him in 1956, when the American Bowling Congress held its championship tournament in Rochester. He attended the event with his father, Herschel "Red" Dow, who was in the carpet business. Duane, says Dorothy, "is very much his father's son--sports crazy."
"I said to my dad, 'We've gotta go. We've gotta be there,'" says Dow. "All these guys from Championship Bowling are going to bowl." He still remembers how all the competitors marched out at the beginning of that tournament, holding their bowling balls in their right hands, and faced the flag for the national anthem before rolling their first frame. "For many years I had the score sheet," he says, "where I was keeping frame by frame what they were doing."
During his teens Dow wrote a high school sports column for the Penfield Press. During summers, after school, and on weekends he worked at a local radio station. After graduating from Colgate University in 1963, he got a job on a short-lived show syndicated out of Baltimore. That program, Pinbusters, broadcast kids' bowling matches. In 1964 he became sports director for a TV station in Dayton, Ohio. One of his first projects was a show called TV Bowling King, which featured the city's top bowlers competing at a local bowling alley. Dow got $25 a week for hosting and producing. It was his first time doing color commentary. "I was force-fed," he says. "I learned on the go, so to speak."
For years Dow bounced from market to market, finding work as a sports reporter and sports director on network affiliates in Milwaukee, Saint Louis, and Chicago, as well as a few radio gigs. In every city he tried to get bowling on the airwaves--specifically local league bowling. "People like watching bowling. They like watching their neighbors enjoying themselves," he says. "Bowling is the number one indoor participation sport in the world. And it's very easy to show--just with a couple of cameras you can capture the excitement of bowling very easily."
Dow's bosses didn't share this vision. At one point he went to his station manager at ABC in Chicago to pitch a bowling show for Sunday mornings. Dow recounts: "He said, 'Duane, we just can't put bowling on Sunday like you'd like to do, because we have to have that four-hour time block for our public service programming to keep our license. And every other moment of the day we have to carry ABC programming.'
"In the early 80s I went on with bowling," he says, "and station managers twice told me, 'I don't want to hear about it.'"
Finally, in 1987, the proliferation of cable TV and the availability of copious public-access airtime gave him the opportunity he'd been looking for.
"There wasn't any local bowling show in Chicago," he says. "I wanted to give the sport its due."
As the Sunday-night-league crowd trickles into Grand Palace Bowl, Dow's crew sets up its light and cameras behind lanes 11 and 12. Dow gathers vitals from bowlers on the two teams that will be using these lanes, My Mistake and Cinco Loco.
"Who's bowling on 11?" he asks no one in particular, notebook and pen in hand. "Who's on the Mistakes?" He makes notes on the team members so he can identify who's up: "purple shirt" next to one bowler's name, "long hair" next to another's. As he scribbles, one of the players corrects him: "It's not the Mistakes," she says. "It's My Mistake." Dow doesn't write it down. "OK, the Mistakes versus Cinco Loco," he says as he heads to his perch behind the bowlers and the cameras get ready to roll.
As his crew tapes the lanes, Dow reads his notes and cheers for each bowler. The nonstop play and Dow's on-the-fly prep make his play-by-play somewhat disjointed. This he acknowledges with resolute cheerfulness. "I like a challenge when it comes to play-by-play," he says. "You've got ten people bowling and they're not wearing numbers."
When he isn't calling the action, Dow reads sponsors' announcements: "For outstanding accounting and tax preparation, rely on LP Accounting Associates, at 6255 North Milwaukee Avenue," he says. His narration continues over video of proprietor Lydia Podroski, standing and waving self-consciously in front of her office. The sound of crashing bowling pins is detectable in the background.
Dow, improbably, makes a living from the show. He sells 15 ads per episode, at $60 to $67 a pop--that's $900 to $1,005 three times a week. Channel 25 charges $50 an hour, and while he won't say how much he pays his four-man crew, they say their earnings are modest.
He likens himself to the late bowling and broadcasting pioneer Eddie Elias, who created the Firestone Tournament of Champions in 1958--one of the first corporate-sponsored, nationally televised sporting events. Elias, says Dow, "went out and hustled the tour, the sponsors, like I'm doing locally."
Dow brings no sample tape and makes no documentation of the transaction. "They just write me a check and they're on the show," he says. "If they get response, they come back."
Jim Andrews of Andrews Paper Company has been advertising on Local League Bowling for several years. "I'd known [Dow] from when he was a radio personality," he says. "He's a nice man." Andrews estimates that two or three customers a month mention seeing the spots.
Tom Benson, owner of World's Largest Laundromat in Cicero, just signed on for his first ad. He has never seen the show.
"I'd heard about him from a couple of other businessmen on Cermak, where my store is," says Benson. "He just happened to walk in my store on a Sunday...and we talked and it sounded like something I would like to do."
Ralph Esterly has worked in bowling centers for over 20 years; currently he maintains equipment and works the bar at Lincoln Square Lanes. "Duane Dow is, I think, the biggest bowling fan ever to exist," he says. "Which is funny; I don't think he bowls at all himself. I've never heard him mention it, nor ever seen him pick up a ball and throw it."
Indeed, Dow can't recall the last time he bowled.
"I'm an announcer," he says. "It's kind of like asking Harry Caray when was the last time he got out and played baseball."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.