In the world of duckpin bowling, venues don't come much bigger than Fontana Bowlarama in Silver Spring.

With 48 lanes divided on two floors, it has been the largest duckpin house in the Washington area since 1958, big enough to play host several times to the National Duckpin Bowling Congress tournament.

But come tomorrow, the world of duckpin bowling will have one fewer outpost.

That's the day the Bowlarama is closing for business, ending a 36-year run as a landmark near Piney Branch Road and University Boulevard.

"I'm just in shock at the fact that the place is closing," said Diane Sicca, 33, the top-ranked female duckpin player in the United States for seven of the last eight years.

"It was there before I was born."

In the hard-times '90s, duckpin houses -- don't call them alleys -- have been falling off like gutter balls.

"Curley's in Waldorf just closed, and now Fontana's. You wonder who's next?," Sicca said. "It's always sad to see one of them go. Duckpin bowling is almost unheard of anymore."

After the Bowlarama closes, there will be just eight duckpin centers left in the Washington area.

The story of Fontana Bowlarama is the story of the rise and decline of duckpin bowling as a pastime.

A game home-grown in Maryland, duckpin bowling has a loyal, if shrinking, following that led an unsuccessful campaign two years ago to have duckpins declared the official state sport.

"We collected over 30,000 signatures on petitions, but unfortunately the legislature vetoed us {in favor of} jousting," said Stacy Karten, the editor and publisher of Duckpin News, who spearheaded the lobbying effort.

A revised version of the standard bowling game, duckpin bowling was invented in Baltimore at the turn of the century by a pair of Oriole ballplayers, John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, Karten said.

The two men owned a small standard bowling alley in the city and changed the equipment as a way to spice up the game and attract more business, he said.

Wooden pins were whittled into shorter, stouter editions, and the big three-hole bowling ball was exchanged for a five-inch ball that could be cupped in the hand rather than held through finger holes.

Back at the alley, the game took flight, so to speak.

"Robinson and McGraw were avid duck hunters, and when the pins were hit, they'd kind of fly around and look like ducks lifting from a pond, so they called them duckpins," Karten said.

"It got to be such a big thing that it pushed 10-pins out of Baltimore," he added.

Closer to the Capital Beltway, the game also flourished. In the heyday of the 1960s, there were more than 45 duckpin centers throughout the nation's capital, said Harrison Sanders, past president of the Greater Washington Duckpin Bowlers Association.

"In the mid-60s, when you went in any bowling establishment to get a lane, you had to take a number and wait in line," Sanders said.

At Fontana's Bowlarama, it was a duckpin bonanza.

"The first year it was just 24 lanes, and there was so much business that the second year, they opened up the second floor," said Pam Taylor, manager of the Bowlarama for the last 14 years.

There were more than two decades of big seasons, she said, when all 48 lanes were booked, upstairs and down, with women's leagues, youth leagues, senior leagues, church leagues and pro leagues.

The biggest names in the Duckpin Hall of Fame set and broke records at Fontana's: Sicca, Jeff Pyles, Shorty Divver, Hank Howard and Toots Barger.

"Fontana's was very nice. It was always clean," said the 80-year-old Barger. She has been bowling since 1939. "When you walk into a place and it looks good, you feel like you can bowl good. That's what it was like."

But lately, the Bowlarama has hit hard times. The area's recreation options have multiplied, drawing a potential new generation of bowlers and their dollars away from the game. Added to that, the Fontana family has complained in recent years that customers had been driven away by the large number of day laborers who congregate nearby.

Early Saturday afternoon, only two lanes were in use, and in the twilight days of Fontana's, Douglas Taylor and Jeff Dobson were playing a few last games.

"It's kind of an institution in this area," said Taylor, a Silver Spring lawyer, as the sound of the dense plastic ball smacking the pins cracked behind him. "It's one of those nice neighborhood places that you hate to see go."