Bethesda's bowling game started in the 1890s and is still going strong today
Photo illustration by Alice Kresse
In 1947, President Harry Truman’s new White House attraction—a bowling alley—ushered in a golden age in the sport’s popularity, and over the next two decades it became ingrained in American culture. Military personnel returning from war bowled across the nation; an alley opened on the grounds of what was then known as the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda following the completion of the tower in the 1940s. (The lanes there today are open to the public, but a base pass is required.)
Bowling in Bethesda actually had been around since 1891, when the trolley arrived in town. The tracks’ terminus was Alta Vista Road, and an amusement wonderland soon rose north of Cedar Lane. Called Bethesda Park, it offered indoor bowling, roller coasters, shooting galleries and a Ferris wheel, among other things.
A hurricane decimated the park in 1896. It would never recover, and bowling in town languished until the 1920s, when the State Theatre opened near the southwest corner of Old Georgetown Road and Wisconsin Avenue (the Hyatt replaced the theater in the 1970s). Beneath the single-screen theater, with an entrance from the back parking lot, was a small bowling alley that offered a handful of lanes—with pinboys. The developer’s idea was to combine the theater and alley to create an amusement center.
Automatic pinsetters appeared in the late 1930s. That technology became the centerpiece of Bethesda’s shining new bowling alley, built in 1942 with 40 lanes in a sleek art deco building on the northwest corner of Woodmont Avenue and Old Georgetown Road. Ads for the Bethesda Bowling Center boasted a cool, air-conditioned environment.
The center was also a duckpin alley, a variation on tenpins unique to the Eastern Seaboard. Reportedly having originated in Baltimore in 1901, the game, with its smaller pins and lighter balls, became a hit among all ages, and lanes spread throughout Maryland. Spurring public popularity was local entrepreneur Nick Rinaldi, who opened his first alley, Wheaton Triangle Lanes, in 1951—tenpins downstairs, duckpins upstairs. By 1970, Rinaldi was the largest single proprietor of duckpin lanes in the county, operating the Glenmont Lanes (originally opened in 1952 by NFL Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans); Takoma Park Bowl; and, eventually, the Bethesda Bowling Center, which he rebranded “Bethesda 40.”
Rockville got into the game in 1959, when a no-frills tenpin alley opened beneath the newly completed Congressional Plaza. That same year, the White Oak Duckpin Lanes opened in the basement of a strip shopping center along New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring; the original 24 lanes still operate. Within a few years, both were eclipsed by River Bowl on River Road (now the site of a Whole Foods Market), which had a sleek ’60s design—all plastic and chrome, with a snack bar, arcade and multicolored balls. Bowl America Westwood would open in the early 1960s, less than a mile away on Westbard Avenue, a hybrid offering 13 duckpin lanes and 20 tenpin, but it couldn’t compete with the River Bowl behemoth.
Both eventually suffered as bowling declined in popularity at the end of the last century. Yet, while River Bowl—later Brunswick Bowl—faded and eventually closed by the early 2000s, in 2001 its competitor was transformed into Bowlmor Bethesda, the brainchild of Tom Shannon. His original Bowlmor Lanes in Greenwich Village in New York featured “high-end” bowling in a modern lounge setting, with video screens, glow-in-the-dark lanes and lane-side food and drink service. Bowlmor Bethesda was the first center to test Shannon’s New York solution.
Bowling again is rolling in Bethesda: Lucky Strike’s new lanes are humming in the basement of Westfield Montgomery mall, and Pinstripes recently opened in Pike & Rose in North Bethesda.
Author and historian Mark Walston was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.