Talking with Dan and Marge Venor about their favorite sport is a little like walking down the memory lane of bowling alleys.
For years, they had scattered pins at Wheaton Plaza, Congressional Plaza and at places with names like Pla-Mor and Scor-Mor. But where they best liked to step out for a few frames, the place with the smooth oil-slicked lanes that echoed with the rumble-hum of speeding bowling balls, was in a little corner of Bethesda, Brunswick River Bowl.
Those days went the way of a gutter ball Thursday night. River Bowl, an alley that opened with the bloom of the baby boom and once had the likes of Bruce Springsteen rolling a few down its lanes, is gone, closing its doors in a town that managers there said just got too pricey for them to stay.
"This was the best house in the area," said Dan Venor, a retired Army captain who pulled his bowling ball from his bag for one last night of league play. "I've been bowling here 23 years and now they have to close it 'cause they're not getting enough business."
Ron Tilley, district manager of Brunswick Recreation Centers, which bought the alley in 1965, six years after it opened, linked the closing of Montgomery County's largest bowling center to changing times and a change in the economy of Bethesda, a once-sleepy suburb that has made itself a city center of high-rises and parking lots.
The cost of liability insurance and the price of rent increased prohibitively in the last couple of years, he said. Combine that with the status factor of bowling -- "It's still seen as a blue-collar sport" -- and River Bowl was striking out with the young newcomers to Bethesda, he said.
"People who are moving into affluent areas just feel bowling is beneath them," Tilley said. "It's not like playing tennis or a sport like that."
National Bowling Council figures show the bowler of the 1980s is 33.3 years old, has a household income of $25,556 and is married with children. Montgomery County's median household income tops $41,000; in Bethesda, that level rises to $55,000. In areas all around Washington, household sizes are shrinking with more single-parent families and more one-person households, according to county planning figures.
"We're still the fourth largest bowling association in the country," said Robert Hennessey, secretary-treasurer of the Nation's Capital Area Bowling Association. "But where people used to bowl two or three times a week, now they're only going out once."
Whatever reason for River Bowl's demise, it wasn't evident Thursday night. Quick hellos were muffled by the clatter of strikes; conversation became shouts of encouragement.
Some could remember River Bowl when it didn't have the fancy computer boards that automatically blinked scores over the lanes. Others recalled when the multicolored backboards near the pins were less flashy. No one could guess what it will look like in a few months when it reopens as a Hechinger store.
"It's something that they've been here so long," said Mary Jo Schlegel, a 27-year-old office manager who for four years has been driving from her home in Falls Church for a night at River Bowl. "To think it's closing just stinks."
"We were here when it opened," said Marge Venor, whose husband has been secretary-treasurer of his league for 17 years. "This closing . . . it's sad. It's like home."