Candlepin documentary focuses on our peculiar brand of bowling

A still from Candlepin: The Documentary, by Maine filmmaker Ricky Leighton. (Ricky Leighton/Candlepin:the Documentary - image credit)
A still from Candlepin: The Documentary, by Maine filmmaker Ricky Leighton. (Ricky Leighton/Candlepin:the Documentary - image credit)

For filmmaker Ricky Leighton, the seeds of his latest project were planted as a child growing up in Gardiner, Maine, near the state capital of Augusta.

It was the late-1990s, and Leighton fell in love with the sport of candlepin bowling down at the Lucky Strike Lanes in Gardiner.

"My claim to fame was, at 10 or 11, I placed second as a solo bowler in the state championships," Leighton said in a phone interview from his home.

He was also a member of a championship youth bowling team.

Submitted by Ricky Leighton
Submitted by Ricky Leighton

The bowling alley in Gardiner is closed now, suffering the same fate as small-town bowling alleys across New England and the East Coast of Canada. The building now houses a car dealership, and a local restaurant salvaged some of the wooden lanes to create dining tables.

Leighton went off to school in Philadelphia, and that's when he discovered that the sport he grew up with was unknown in most of the world.

"When I was in Philly, I couldn't believe people hadn't heard of candlepin bowling," Leighton said.

He said Candlepin: The Documentary tries to strike a balance for the audience, a bit of nostalgia for the fans of the game while introducing "newbies" to the sport.

Harold Climo/NB Museum, Lester Bridges Collection, 1966/1966.14.72
Harold Climo/NB Museum, Lester Bridges Collection, 1966/1966.14.72

The game is believed to have been invented in the 1880s in Worcester, Mass., by Justin White, the owner of a billiards hall and bowling alley, as an alternative to 10-pin bowling.

John J. Monsey, a billiards player is credited with standardizing the rules.

By the early 1900s, the game was being played in New Brunswick at Black's Alley on Main Street in Saint John.

In fact, a team from Black's Alley dominated the early tournaments, claiming several Maine-Maritime provinces championships.

It continued to spread throughout the Maritimes, but for some reason the game never caught on outside New England or the Maritimes.

Carol Randall, a Fredericton author who wrote the book Spares & Strikes: History of Candlepin Bowling in New Brunswick, said the game reached its peak from the 1950s to the 1980s.

"In the newspapers, to read local sports, it was candlepin bowling and harness racing," Randall said in a phone interview.

City of Fredericton Sports Wall of Fame
City of Fredericton Sports Wall of Fame

Her husband, Eldon McGarrigle, started bowling as a young man in the 1960s. He said evenings at the alley in Nashwaaksis were packed with bowlers.

"It would be full," McGarrigle said. "They used to have two leagues a night, one would start at seven and one would start at nine. And that would be probably through four to five nights of the week.

"And then on weekends, what you would call casual bowling, you would come in, and there would be a waiting list. People would sit and wait till the lane come up to bowl."

Even Catholic churches had bowling lanes in their church halls.

Leighton said the town hall in Sanford, Maine, had two lanes in the basement of the building.

Candlepin: the Documentary
Candlepin: the Documentary

But those days are long gone, both in the Maritimes and New England.

Leighton said there are just 22 bowling centres in Maine, about half what there were just 30 years ago.

He said his goal was to recapture a bit of the feel of those glory days by focusing on "the visual beauty of the centres" and capturing the looks of concentration on the faces of the bowlers.

While he used modern digital cameras to shoot, Leighton made the decision to attach vintage Canon lenses to help achieve that.

He also hoped it would bring back the experience of a trip to the alley in earlier days, to "capture the smell of them — the stale cigarettes and fried food."

Candlepin: the Documentary
Candlepin: the Documentary

Leighton started the project with a small grant from the Maine Arts Commission in 2019.

The COVID-19 lockdown caused some delays, and put an end to plans to travel to Moncton to expand the scope of the story, but he's happy with the results.

Leighton said his goal has always been to make the project available to people for free.

"It's a passion project for me — it's all about getting it out to the public."

The documentary went up on YouTube on Thursday, a week after Leighton held its theatrical premiere at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport, Maine.

Leighton said he was surprised at how the live audience reacted to shots of bowlers' near misses, similar to how they would react if they were sitting in the alley themselves.

After the screening, "the Q&A was popular — there was a lot of participation from the audience that felt very organic and natural," he said.

He said he was pleased by "the amount of people who said they wanted to go candlepin bowling afterwards."

More pickleball than candlepin

These days, that's what candlepin bowling needs.

Saint John, which once had as many as six candlepin bowling alleys, now has only two.

Carol Randall said young people just aren't coming to the sport like they used to, likely because there's too much competition for their attention.

And even seniors, who have kept some alleys going over the years, are finding other ways to fill their time, even those who live in her own apartment complex.

"Before, a lot of them would be in the senior [leagues], especially the women's leagues," she said, "But now, what are they doing? They're playing pickleball. That's the big thing that they're into."