Ah yes, the Riviera Lanes in Fairlawn, Ohio, just a few shopping malls west of Akron. Plastic tulips and daffodils gaily blooming at the edge of the parking lot. On the wall overlooking lane one a huge photograph of Richard Nixon about to roll a strike. Yes, the one and only Riviera, home of the Firestone Tournament of Champions, last and most lucrative stop on the winter pro bowling tour. Such a tourist attraction—the Grauman's Chinese of eastern Ohio—that the proprietor now passes out souvenir ashtrays to folks who stop by to bowl or merely gaze at the alleys used once a year by the stars.
Last week it was time again for the Firestone, the eighth annual, with a pot enriched by 25%—to $125,000—and Akron got itself into the kind of twit it reserves for the Soapbox Derby, one of its two major golf tournaments or any sharp increases in tire sales. The Akron Beacon Journal became the Akron Bowling Journal, running 35 stories and columns on the event in less than a week, plus a front-page article on a local woman bowler whose leg was impaled by a long splinter when she slipped at the foul line. Ooh.
Akronites flocked to the Riviera, devouring cheeseburgers and sausage sandwiches, cheering the strikes and groaning at the splits. When it came time for the nationally televised finals Saturday afternoon—Hoosier Chris Schenkel at the mike adding to the Midwestern sincerity—it seemed only right that the winner should be Mike Durbin, house pro of a bowling establishment in nearby Chagrin Falls and such a dedicated, stay-at-home family man that he refuses to return full time to the Professional Bowlers Association tour. Durbin started off the last day in third place, but he went out under the hot, glaring TV lights, averaged 258 and beat three fading opponents to walk off with the $25,000 first prize, which was $2,000 more than he won in his best previous season.
One reason for the victory was Durbin's strong, steady right arm (there is not a man on the PBA tour who can put him down arm wrestling). Then there was his style. He uses an unusually short, three-step approach and seems to just nudge his plastic ball down the lane, as if he wanted to cuddle it up against the pins for a snapshot. Instead, his rolls generate a lot of pin action and off hits, bowling's equivalent of the broken-bat single. Candid Camera once did a bit on a rigged bowling lane wherein women duffers startled their husbands by getting strikes no matter where they rolled, even in the gutters. On quite a few of Durbin's shots, when one or two pins would sway drunkenly and finally topple, he seemed to have Allen Funt on his side. Durbin gave the credit elsewhere. "The Lord was with me," he repeated. "Jesus said, "Without Me, you can do nothing,' so obviously He played a part."
Admittedly once "a rounder, a drinker, a carouser," Durbin is now a sincere convert and is convincingly straight-arrow about everything else, too. Carmen Salvino, one of the PBA's characters and crowd-pleasers, was once delayed for hours by Venezuelan officials when he tried to get through customs with an undrilled bowling ball. They thought it might be a bomb and argued that everyone knows a teal bowling ball has finger holes. Reformed Mike Durbin radiates such an aura of goodness that, had it been he, the officers would have assumed it was just a giant jawbreaker.
The Akron tournament started inauspiciously, with Fairlawn Mayor Joseph Hartlaub rolling out the first ball and putting it in the gutter. The mayor had greeted the pros at their pretoumament banquet the night before by presenting each of them with a city of Fairlawn income-tax statement—a move that stimulated some good-natured grousing among the bowlers. And little Tim Harahan of Canoga Park, Calif., who was to be the leader going into the final day, confessed he had a bit too much "extracurricular activity" Monday night and didn't make Tuesday's practice.
After that, it was mostly high-quality bowling and high scores. Terry Booth, Mike Lemongello and Larry Laub had 300 games. Durbin simply sizzled in the first 24 lines, averaging 255-plus, a PBA record. One reason was that the Riviera had resurfaced its maple and pine lanes only last August but, more important, the PBA is now dressing the lanes for all its tournaments, spreading oil (sometimes mixed with STP, the bowlers' edge) on the lanes each morning to prevent tracks from developing and to give righthanders an even break with lefties. The STP supposedly changes the viscosity of the oil, making it hold up longer. The American Bowling Congress is suspicious of this unctuous practice and refused to sanction 23 PBA 300 games.
"We do not create an artificial aid to scoring," said one PBA official. "It would just help the marginal player."
The spectators did not particularly care about such things as long as the pins kept falling. Most notably, they fell for Durbin and Harahan. Mike was the leader through four rounds, dropped to second, then on Friday night in the last game before the finals, he slipped to third with an embarrassing 147. Harahan, a consistent winner of money but not, since 1968, of tournaments, led from the end of the fifth round on, winning 19 and losing five in match play. Thrice before he had been the top dog on Saturday and thrice he had lost. Still, the worst he could do at Akron was second-place money of $14,000.
The TV show started off with fifth-place George Pappas beating fourth-place Teata Semiz. Pappas weighs only 130 pounds, and a lot of people hoped he would keep clawing upward until ABC-TV would have a battle of the jockeys with Harahan vs. Pappas at the end. But Pappas made a mistake against Durbin, a disastrous 4-6-7-10 split in the sixth frame, and he lost by 22 pins. Then Durbin threw a 269 at Larry Laub and charged into the last game.
Throughout, Akronitcs who paid up to $5 for their bleacher seats—the finals had been sold out since last January and Firestone officials were besieged all week by long-lost pals seeking admission—were lucky if they could see the tenpins on the TV lanes. If they couldn't, they had to content themselves watching the TV monitors or idly evaluating the President's form in the blowup. These are probably the same fans who go out to Derby Downs on the hottest day of the year, and they are Akron originals. After Durbin disposed of Laub, they settled in for what they hoped would be a tight, climactic match.
But Harahan was not in it for long. He missed a 5-7 split, then he left three pins in the seventh, picking up only two. Durbin beat him by enough lumber to build a new Levittown.
There was no doubt that Durbin would mosey over from Chagrin Falls for the next Firestone (he can watch the Beacon Journal for time and channel), but, gee, now that he had $25,000 in the bank, wasn't he tempted even a little bit to get back on the road?
"No," he said. "I'm where He wants me to be. Bowling doesn't enthrall me anymore, it really doesn't."
Akron, for one dizzy week, anyway, could not agree.