Go bowling almost anywhere in the world, from California to Copenhagen, and it’s going to look pretty much the same. Weighty, nearly nine-inch balls being hurled down a lane toward 10 hefty, bottom-heavy white pins in the hopes of a resonant crack on impact.
But around here, bowling is often times a little more … quaint. Candlepin bowling, that version of the sport invented in Worcester – with a ball that fits in the palm of your hand and those slender, stately pins – remains a New England mainstay.
And while there are a few hundred places you can go to bowl candlepin – nearly all of them in New England and maritime Canada – there’s only one company left on earth that still makes candlepin bowling balls. And it’s in right here in Massachusetts.
When I sat down with Bob Parrella – who, along with his brothers, runs Paramount Industries and its manufacturing arm, EPCO, at the company's home in Medway – he was eager to talk about two things: candlepin bowling and his father.
The topics are related. Parrella’s father, Emilio, came to Massachusetts from Italy at age 14 and worked for years at a hard rubber factory in Newton Upper Falls. But his life changed when automatic pin setters and ball returners came to candlepin bowling in the 1940s, and an opportunity presented itself.
"Those machines, they’re all gears, nuts bolts, et cetera," explained Parrella. "[They] literally damaged the bowling balls. And my father came up with a process of repairing a bowling ball so that it came out like new."
Emilio started his own mom-and-pop operation repairing bowling balls. It was good timing. Candlepin bowling was about to hit a growth spurt, and so, too, was Parrella’s business.
"Every town had four, six lanes in the back, in the basement, et cetera," said Parrella. "Then in the end of the 50s, beginning of the 60s, they started to develop these new bowling centers. And Ebonite and Brunswick, there were six other companies manufacturing candlepin bowling balls at the time."
But the companies were struggling to make a truly durable candlepin bowling ball for the automated era, and Parrella’s father was not just a tinkerer – he was a motivated tinkerer.
"My father was like a mad scientist," said Parrella. "For many, many years he experimented with chemicals. He took night courses on chemistry, night courses on a lot of different things."
In 1963, Emilio broke through and began manufacturing his own, remarkably durable candlepin bowling ball: The Paramount.
"My father finally did it," he said. "As a matter of fact, he was inducted into the Candlepin Bowling Hall of Fame because of it."
It was a true family business, with Bob and his brothers pitching in from an early age. But in 1969, the Parrellas' small manufacturing facility burned down in a fire. Emilio, advanced in years by that point, offered Bob and his brothers a choice.
"My father was devastated," said Parrella. "My twin brother and I had just recently got out of college. Our brother John had graduated several years earlier. And my father said 'If you guys want it, I built it for you guys, you guys can take it.' And we did."
Crucially, the Parrella brothers decided that if they were going to rebuild, they’d do so with an eye to the future. And it turns out, when making precision orbs is your specialty, there’s a whole wide world out there beyond just four-and-a-half-inch bowling balls.
"We make billiard balls, bocce balls, track balls, different types of spheres and balls that architects [and] engineers use, shift knobs for the automobile industry," said Parrella.
Then there’s the crystal balls they make for fortune tellers and the work they’ve done for NASA – oh, and then there is that one job they took back in the 1970s.
"I got a call from a company wanting to know if we could make a specific ball," Parrella said. "I said 'sure, give me the specs,' and we did. And I said, 'well, what is this?' Ever hear of a company called Atari? The first order was for 100,000 balls. On all the video game consoles, we made the [track] balls."
It’s that diverse portfolio – all of it made right here in Massachusetts – that’s helped keep the Parrella brothers in business as every other bowling ball manufacturer abandoned the candlepin game. As Parrella explained, candlepin is too much of a niche – the profit margins too small – for large manufacturers in the 21st century global economy.
"Your major manufacturers do not want to see candlepin and duckpin around," he said.
Today, candlepin bowling accounts for about 40 percent of their overall business. And while they now offer whole lines of balls, in an array of colors and finishes, their best seller remains the original Paramount ball.
"And this blue and white," said Parrella. "We’ve changed every other color. We’ve never changed blue and white. It’s the all-time seller, always will be."
The other thing that’s never changed? The practice that got the whole thing started more than half a century ago.
"We’re still repairing bowling balls that were made back in the 50s and 60s," said Parrella. "And that’s not good for future business. But it’s been good for our reputation of quality and service."
As for the future of candlepin bowling? Parrella is bullish. Sure, lanes close every year, but more than a dozen new bowling centers have gone up in New England in just the past two years. Parrella says if he was younger he’d be investing in those bowling lanes because he believes in the game and – in his words – “people want to bowl.”
"I’m gonna be 72. I’m not going to retire because I’m not that type," said Parrella. "I have wonderful customers, I enjoy meeting people, I enjoy being out there. And my brothers love being in business. So, I don’t see us going anywhere for a while."
And that’s a good thing for you candlepin bowling fans out there – because if Parrella doesn’t keep things rolling, you might not have anything to roll.