The End of an Icon in Rochester
Chili's Olympic Lanes is where good
Center was paradise for bowling pros and amateurs
Kevin Oklobzija • Staff writer • July 23, 2008
Taped to an inside lobby window at Olympic Lanes in Chili has been a tip for everyone who entered the bowling center.
"The secret to becoming a better bowler is knowing where to put your feet."
For 50 years, the Rochester bowling community — from bumper-bowl beginners to 300-game strike-masters — put their feet on the wooden lanes at Olympic.
School kids learned to bowl at Olympic, housewives were bused to the center for their daytime leagues, and the greats of the Professional Bowlers Association won tour events there.
But the pins will never fall at Olympic again. The last games have been rolled at the storied 80-lane center, the largest bowling complex in New York state.
Today, plywood covers the windows and doors of Olympic Lanes after AMF Bowling Inc. of Richmond, Va., closed the center last week due to underperformance.
"It's a landmark and it's going to be missed," said Marcie Rawls of Rochester, a league bowler at Olympic for more than a decade. "It's going to be a loss for the community."
Especially for those whose leagues have called the center home.
"Everyone's talking about where we're going to bowl now," said Shanita Barclay of Rochester. "The PBA was there. That was the spot."
The former Scottsville Road entertainment icon now is merely a boarded-up spot of memories for many.
"When I was a kid, that was the big, modern bowling center," said Michael Tucci of Henrietta. "Growing up in a small town (LeRoy) where there were eight lanes, that place was phenomenal. It's a bit of sadness."
Such is life, says Marcel Fournier, who managed Olympic for founder Joseph Schuler from 1961 to 1973, then was the owner from 1983 to 1998.
"Olympic is a casualty of the changing economic and social times," says Fournier, who now lives in Port Orange, Fla. "People are less willing to join (leagues) and do anything on a repeat basis."
Ah, but that's not how Olympic rocked and rolled in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
"Everyone bowled back then," said Kevin Riley of Brighton, whose first job was at the center in 1980 when he was 15. "Those were the days. We had a blast there.
"On Friday and Saturday night, leagues started at 6 at night, and at nine another league started. You couldn't get a lane to bowl until 11 o'clock."
Which is why Fournier opened the doors 24 hours a day on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the mid-1980s.
"Olympic was a community fixture," Fournier said.
Even in the wee hours with moonlight bowling.
"We started at midnight and it was a good, cheap thing," said Pete MacCracken, who began working at Olympic in 1967 and now is general manager of AMF's Empire Lanes in Webster. "We had probably 200 to 250 people.
"They bowled and ate. We had chopped up hot dogs, macaroni salad, baked beans. It was the garbage plate before the garbage plate."
Olympic literally rocked on Friday nights in 1986 with Rock & Bowl. Riley was the disc jockey for a time.
MacCracken remembers riding the Olympic bus to the center, for bowling and work.
"The bus traveled around the neighborhoods of the 19th Ward and picked up kids to bring them bowling. I bowled every Saturday morning, and I'd fill the pop machines for Marcel."
Fournier says transporting patrons to Olympic was common practice 40 years ago.
"We were busing 300 grade-school kids a week during the day. And this was the one-car-per-family era, so we provided transportation for housewives to bowl in daytime leagues."
The beginning of Olympic's end may have started when other Rochester fixtures began to downsize.
"The league bowler was a huge part of the bowling business in Rochester," Fournier said. "When Delco, Kodak, Rochester Products and Xerox cut back, the employees who were bowling two, three, four times a week began to cut back."
Said Bill Fortino, owner of the independent Bowl-A-Roll Lanes in Henrietta: "Unfortunately this closing is symptomatic of the times, because bowling has always been perceived as a blue-collar sport. Bowling was always supported by industry. When industry was vibrant in town, there were all kinds of leagues."
Many area bowling centers are still thriving. A Scarborough Research study showed 21 percent of residents in the Rochester area went bowling between February 2007 and January 2008. Two years earlier, the number was 20 percent.
But AMF apparently deemed Olympic a liability, not an asset.
"It's a shame — it was the first major, ultra-modern center in this whole area, from Buffalo to Syracuse," said Spencerport resident Frank Formicola, who laid the marble flooring during construction, worked the night desk starting in 1957, and later became Fournier's partner.
Formicola and Fournier brought the PBA Tour to Olympic 14 times and the ladies pro tour five times.
"We were the only city that had both tours at the same time in the same center," Formicola said.
Only memories remain.
"It's sad," he said. "The place is my blood, my family."