Candlepin’s documentary focuses on our particular brand of bowling

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

For filmmaker Ricky Leighton, the seeds for his latest project were planted while growing up in Gardiner, Maine, near the state capital, Augusta.

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

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

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

Submitted by Ricky Leighton

Submitted by Ricky Leighton

Gardiner’s bowling alley is now closed, suffering the same fate as small town bowling alleys in New England and Canada’s east coast. The building now houses a car dealership and a local restaurant has reclaimed some of the wooden lanes to create dining tables.

Leighton went to school in Philadelphia, and it was there that he discovered that the sport he had grown up with was unknown in most countries of the world.

“When I was in Philadelphia, I couldn’t believe people hadn’t heard of candlelight bowling,” Leighton said.

He said Candlepin: the documentary tries to find a balance for the public, a little 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, a billiard hall and bowling alley owner, as an alternative to ten-pin bowling.

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

In the early 1900s, the game was 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, winning several Maine-Maritime provincial championships.

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

Carol Randall, a Fredericton author who wrote the book Spare parts and strikes: History of Candlepin Bowling in New Brunswickstated that the game reached its peak from the 1950s to the 1980s.

“In the papers, to read local sports, it was candlelight 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 when he was young in the 1960s. He said the Nashwaaksis Lane parties were filled with bowlers.

“It would be complete,” McGarrigle said. “They used to have two leagues a night, one starting at seven and the other at nine. And that would probably be four to five nights a week.

“And then on weekends, what you would call casual bowling, you would walk in and there was a waiting list. People would sit and wait for the lane to come up to bowl.”

Even Catholic churches had bowling alleys in their church halls.

Leighton said the town hall in Sanford, Maine has 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 in New England.

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

He said his aim was to recapture some of the feel of those glory days by focusing on “the visual beauty of the centers” and capturing the looks of concentration on bowlers’ faces.

While using modern digital cameras to shoot, Leighton made the decision to attach vintage Canon lenses to achieve this.

He also hoped it would bring back the experience of a trip down the back alley of the early days, to “capture their smell – 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 has caused delays and halted travel plans to Moncton to expand the story’s scope, 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 project I’m passionate about – it’s about bringing it to the public.”

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

Leighton said he was surprised at how the live audience reacted to the bowlers’ near-miss shots, similar to how they would react if they were sitting in the lane themselves.

After the screening, “the Q&A was popular – there was a lot of audience participation which felt very organic and natural,” he said.

He said he was delighted with the “number of people who said they wanted to go play by candlelight afterwards”.

More pickleball than candle

These days, that’s what candlelight bowling needs.

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

Carol Randall said young people aren’t coming to sports anymore like they used to, probably because there’s too much competition for their attention.

And even the elderly, who have maintained certain alleys over the years, are finding other ways to fill their time, even those who live in their own apartment complex.

“Before, many of them were in their final year. [leagues], especially the women’s leagues,” she said, “But now what do they do? They are playing pickleball. That’s the big thing they like.”

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