She hobbled up to the edge of the lane and is told by fellow bowler what pins remain standing.
“I can’t see the pins, I can’t even see the marks on the floor,” said 96-year-old Teri Bonato, of Studio City, California. “It’s macular degeneration, but it won’t keep me off the lanes.”
Bonato is part of a group of senior citizens at this hip Pinz bowling alley in the suburbs of Los Angeles that meets on Thursday mornings every week to bowl, and often at the amazement of onlookers who come to be inspired.
One of their members just had both hips replaced, another had back surgery and wears a brace, another is suffering from Alzheimer’s. They all are inspirations.
“I have no cartilage in my knees, makes it hard to walk,” said Bonato. “My fellow bowling team helps me a lot. They point me the right direction, tell me what remains standing, and I go for it.”
And if you think she needs the bumpers up to prevent a gutter ball—think again. She nabs the spare easily. She gets her fair share of strikes, too.
Teri has had a recent 181 bowling average and participates in regional leagues. Her average suffered a little bit, and she now uses a lighter 10-pound ball, but she’s still on top of her game. She learned from the best. Her husband was a pro bowler.
“I learned a lot from him,” Teri said. “But my husband left me with two kids to raise so he could become a pro bowler.”
Pinz was always a hot spot for celebrities, even when it first opened as the Kirkwood Lanes more than half a century ago when
James Dean, Joan Crawford and William Holden stopped by. More recently locals like Zac Efron, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Cannon and other stars come by for some quiet bowling time. Justin Timberlake used to bring his girlfriend Cameron Diaz here regularly, Justin Bieber brought Selena Gomez, and the senior league never had any idea who they were.
“They are nice to us, sometimes they stop to watch us, but I don’t know who they are,” said Gary Olsen, 78. “Any of those stars today could just pass right by us and we wouldn’t know it. I look at the wall up there of all the bowling pins in the glass cases in the lobby signed by the hot stars of the day, and I have no idea who they are or if they’re musicians or TV stars or movie stars.”
Don Thorner, 93, bowled at the lanes since 1946, and is still doing it despite some recent tough medical problems. He averages about 150 as a bowler, which he notes is “not bad for an old guy.” He said, “I remember when there were kids in the back setting up the pins. I remember when it was the Kirkwood Lanes.”
Actor and golfer Joe Kirkwood was known as the “Ideal American Boy” hero of the Joe Palooka movies, and built the bowling alley. In 2003, it went through extensive remodeling, to 32 lanes with 3D graphics on the automatic scoring board and a 200-foot mural of Los Angeles landmarks on the back wall. They have disco lights when they need it, and video arcade room. The bowling shop—where they drilled holes to your finger specifications—is long gone and there’s a martial arts studio there now.
Bowling coach and league organizer Barbara Lee knows many of these seniors for the past 30 years. She is also involved with the youth and adult leagues at the bowling alley.
“It’s amazing to watch these seniors,” Barbara said. “They’re good. And they are more resilient than the kids. If the kids get a little injury you don’t see them back for a month.”
Barbara points at her senior league and said, “This group of bowlers have been through cancer, hip replacements, broken bones, surgeries, you name it, but they keep coming back. Sam over there bowls three times a week, and he’s 97 years old, they just don’t stop.”
Jerry Rabinowitz, 88, and his wife of more than 60 years, Joyce, have been bowling for three decades at PINZ—since he retired as a businessman. In his “spare time” he volunteers at the Kaiser Permanente Hospital medical library, the Braille Institute and the North Hollywood Food Pantry. They find time to bowl a few times a week.
“It keeps you mentally and physically active,” Jerry says. “Your average goes down a little bit, and you use a lighter ball.”
His wife took a little tumble at the lanes at a recent game, and Jerry quickly came to her side. Joyce was fine, but sat down with her friends.
“Everything is automated now—I don’t like it so much,” Joyce joked. “Back then you could go out of turn, you can’t now.”
Neither age nor injury will keep these seniors away from their favorite pastime. Joel Margolis hurt his back and had surgery on it a month ago. It was his first day back, and he was getting back in the swing of things.
“I’ve been bowling for 35 years,” says Joel, a former driver safety instructor. He comes out three or four times a week. “It’s my exercise.”
Meanwhile, coach Barbara Lee is there mostly for support for the seniors, rather than to tell them how to improve their game.
“They don’t need any advice from me, they know what they’re doing,” Barbara said. “Watch Teri, she’s got great form, but if she misses, she gets really mad. They’re here to win, not talk about their great-grandkids.”