I am sitting across from Trevor Stride. We are hours away from Plaza Bowling’s opening time. Other than us, the alley is empty.
But, I don’t see that in my mind’s eye. I imagine men, hair slicked back with Brylcreem, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, rolling balls down the lane and then dashing back to the wooden benches for gulps of beer. I imagine children drawing on the blackboards of the nursery, now used as a storeroom, while their mothers bowl on weekday afternoons.
Announcements are posted on a changeable letter board at the entrance. At the bottom is an announcement that the only perfect game bowled in Plaza’s history came in 1963, by Jerry Stephenson. There’s a photo in the archive of Stephenson receiving a custom-made suit, from a tailor shop upstairs from the bowling alley — his prize for rolling a 450.
In a time when we’re flocking back to vinyl records, embracing craft fairs and going for straight-razor shaves, Plaza Bowling is so perfectly, wonderfully, retro. Opened in 1959, it’s a place that revels in its lack of modernization. The lanes — maple in front, pine near the pins — have never been replaced. The pin-setting machine dates back to 1967. The scoreboards in each lane are the most new-fangled gizmos you’ll find in the place, and they date back to the 1990s.
And, in 2021, there are wait lists for the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night leagues. Forty-eight teams are already placed. Why is five-pin bowling, arguably the most uniquely Canadian sport there is, enjoying a resurgence?
Let’s go back to the beginning. The story doesn’t begin with Trevor Stride. We have to rewind a couple of generations, to Trevor’s grandfather, Lawrence “Laurie” Stride. He was a pilot during the Second World War, came home, and began working in the forestry business on Vancouver Island. But, by the late 1950s, a leg injury forced him to rethink his career. He moved to Edmonton, and noticed that a new craze had overtaken the country — five-pin bowling.
In 1959, Plaza Bowling opened. Pins were set by hand. It wasn’t till 1960 that an electric, automated pin setter was installed. It was replaced in 1967, and that’s the machine that still operates in Plaza Bowling today.
“It’s just magnets and strings and motors, but it was built to last,” says Trevor. Obviously, a pin-setter from the 1960s is a pretty darn specific machine. Getting replacement parts for it is not like going out and finding bits and pieces for your newish dishwasher. He says that when a part is damaged, it’s sent in to be refurbished, and in its place, Plaza gets another refurbished part that came from a similar pin-setter from another bowling alley, somewhere in Canada. Basically, the parts are sent to a central repair spot, refurbished, and re-used — it’s a constant flow of recycled pin-setter parts moving across the country.
“It’s a cycle of refurbishment. Parts that we have were probably in some other alley at one time,” says Trevor. “Probably, many other alleys.”
And, with it being five-pin bowling, it’s not like anyone will find pin-setters for this game anywhere else.
Through the 1960s, five-pin bowling boomed. There were leagues for the men — women bowled in the afternoons — and there was a child-care area where moms could drop off the kids before they rolled. The chalkboards are still there.
Near the foul lines, the lanes are maple, the hardwood able to withstand the impact of the ball.
Halfway down the lane, the surface switches to soft pine, which helps the ball travel to its goal.
In 1977, Terry Stride, Trevor’s dad, took over the alley, beginning a four-decade run as the proprietor and caretaker.
When Trevor was a teen, he went to work, starting as a pin chaser, fixing tangles in the strings attached to the pins. He cleaned.
“When I was 14 years old, my dad got me a SIN number and told me I had to go to work.”
In 2017, Trevor and his wife, Correna, were in Vancouver. He was the director of B.C. operations and national beverage director for the Edmonton-born pizza chain, Famoso. At one time, he’d been the general manager for the original Famoso spot on Jasper Avenue.
But his dad was set to retire, and the call of a ball crashing into the pins was too strong to ignore. Trevor took some of his know-how from the hospitality industry, took over the alley, and made some subtle changes. The history is there, but a move was made to improve the atmosphere, food and drink. When I was there for evening bowling, Joy Division played as I rolled, with Peter Hook’s famous high-pitched bass lines offering a soundtrack to the game. There are local brews available, and Bent Stick has created a Low Roller lager especially for Plaza Bowling. Drift Food Truck coordinates the food.
And it’s resonated.
“It’s an old, kitschy Canadian game — and it’s easy for anyone to play,” Trevor says.
The Low Rollers league that plays on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings is fully subscribed. That’s 48 teams over three nights. There’s a waitlist to get into the league. And it’s not sixty-somethings — they’re young.
Edmontonians who enjoy the mix of nostalgia and, well, just a tad of hipster-ness
And, as mentioned earlier, five-pin bowling truly is uniquely Canadian. The ball, about the size of a grapefruit, can be held in one hand. It’s not as taxing as 10-pin bowling. The game traces back to 1909 — a bowling alley owner named Thomas F. Ryan noted that some of his patrons complained that the 10-pin game was too difficult as a casual pastime. The ball was too heavy. So, he came up with a solution: a five-pin game with a smaller, easier-to-roll ball. The game took off in Canada — and literally nowhere else. Five-pin bowling is more Canadian than hockey, lacrosse, maple syrup and accessorizing a pick-up truck. Combined.
Trevor recalls when the Suffers, a band from Houston, played Interstellar Rodeo back in 2017. The band’s love of bowling is well known, and two of the members came down the stairs to Plaza to check it out. They couldn’t believe what they saw — they’d never seen five-pin bowling before. The entire band came and bowled the next day, leaving behind autographed records as tokens of their appreciation.
Plaza Bowling is in its third generation — no, fourth, if you consider that Trevor and Correna’s daughter, Georgia, is already ready to take over.
“She likes to play manager when she’s down here. It’s hard for me to get her to bowl here. She’s fully aware of the family history of this place,” says Trevor. And his dad still has lots of say in what goes on.
“My dad is still teaching me. There is so much to learn about the machines. Even if I think I’ve come up with a solution to a problem, I’ll run it by him first.”
Trevor understands that an alley with lanes and machinery older than he is makes him, well, more than an alley proprietor. He’s protecting history.
“No one is going to open a new five-pin bowling alley, now. The alleys we have are the ones that will remain.”
Oh, and he bowls in the Low Roller league, too. The name of his team? Come on, take a guess.