Average people bowl twice a year. That's about as often as they get their car serviced, visit their in-laws or help a friend move. Bowling, at least, continues to get more entertaining.
In the Southside Plaza, where you've probably gone to get your car out of the impound lot, lies Plaza Bowl — the plaza's only original building and one of 40 remaining duckpin bowling alleys in the state. Owner Jim Szilagyi preaches a zealous brand of mid-Atlantic doctrine that rationalizes duckpin as the most practical and fun form of bowling.
“Some people come in here, feel the weight of the ball and say, ‘This is the way bowling should be,’” Szilagyi says.
The differences between duckpin and 10-pin are few but far from subtle. The softball-sized projectiles weigh 2 to 4 pounds and the pins are significantly smaller, making them much harder to knock down in a single roll. Three balls per frame also mean you get to bowl more, so what's not to love?
How about nailing a strike while watching a local rockabilly band perform under black lights in the lane next to yours?
“I'm taking the place to a different level,” Szilagyi says. “Most bowling alleys these days succeed by finding a specific niche. I think retro throwback is a great way to go.”
With the help of local booking company Community Chest, Szilagyi began the transformation of the 54-year-old building into a music venue. Community Chest co-owner Tiffany Cale says by the time Szilagyi contacted them to come in and discuss ideas, a gaping hole lay in the middle of the alley.
“The first day we went in there, he was already in the process of building a stage right in the middle of the bowling lanes,” Cale says.
Of the 20 lanes that used to fill the Plaza Bowl, 16 remain, split down the middle by a stage built from the waxed planks that once made up lanes 9-12.
The original offensive fluorescent office lights have been replaced by four-foot black light bulbs, which make the alley's neon-stitched Velcro bowling shoes look pretty fly during the concerts.
Cale and associate Danny Ingram have been working closely to help Szilagyi realize his vision of providing leagues for his loyal family-oriented base while developing the musical entertainment for the fledgling venue.
“It's important for my customers to realize that this is still a duckpin bowling alley first and foremost,” Szilagyi says. “I don't want them to freak out and think we're going all-out in one direction.”
The alley still generates most of its revenue through leagues, which compete most days of the week. Thursday through Saturday will be inviting more of an adult crowd to the venue for pompadours and pitchers, though rowdiness is not a desired effect.
“[Szilagyi] didn't want a lot of hip-hop or loud abrasive stuff because he wants to cater to his clientele, which are predominantly families and bowling leagues,” Cale says. “He wants to do something conducive to the happiness of the kids and younger crowd too.”
As Community Chest and Plaza Bowl work together for the future, more ideas have been spawned, including hosting an indoor mural contest, a biker crew night and a Richmond Roller Derby night.
Bands, DJs and lighting customization will all be adding to the niche style Plaza Bowl hopes to create. Whether or not the mixing of duckpin and rockabilly will prove to be a success remains to be seen. But Community Chest has cut its teeth promoting shows at the Triple, a billiards parlor on Broad Street, so Cale and Ingram come to the duckpin lanes with a background of booking music for less-conventional venues. But Community Chest recognizes that it came on the scene after those crucial lanes had already been torn up.
“Jim honestly deserves all the credit,” Ingram says. “It's his hard work that's making this happen.” S
The Plaza Bowl is having its first Rock & Roll @ Plaza Bowl on Saturday, Oct. 25, at 9 p.m. and will feature live music by Cha Cha's Cadillac. Hamburger James will headline the Nov. 1 show. COST?? 233-8799.