To the co-owner of Kelley's Hilltop Lanes, the hard and high-pitched collision of bowling pins and ball is music.
“I could sleep to pins falling,” said Scott Sedlak. “To me, there's no greater sound than the noise that bowling pins make.”
Soon, the 57-year run of Kelley's Hilltop will end and the music will stop. The doors will close and it will be so quiet that — yes, you can hear a pin drop.
The last pin will drop on Aug. 24, which also will mark the end of a seven-decade, four-generation family business.
During World War II, Scott's great-grandparents, Vince and Hazel Kelley, bought the downtown Ak-Sar-Ben alleys and changed the name to Kelley's Bowlatorium.
In the postwar years, bowling became so popular that they added lanes — for a total of 40 on two floors of the old Kresge building at 16th and Harney Streets. The alley even had a TV show, “I Go Bowling.”
In 1956, Kelley's Hilltop opened at 48th Avenue and Hamilton Street, just up the hill from the two-year-old Rose Bowl. There were plenty of bowlers for both, and Omaha was a bowling capital — at one point with more alleys per capita than any other city.
“There used to be not enough lanes,” Sedlak said. “They had to turn people away.”
The Rose Bowl, for years the site of TV's “Strike It Lucky,” closed in 1991.
Kelley's Hilltop kept going another two-plus decades, but Scott and his mother, Rosalyn, have sold the building and the 180-stall parking lot to Waypoint Church. The price was just under $500,000.
“Mom is getting to be retirement age,” Scott said, “and the church really wanted the building. So we decided it was a good time to sell.”
As word has begun to spread, longtime patrons have expressed sorrow, some even teary-eyed. “It's really tough to see customers coming in crying.”
The Bowling Proprietors Association of America says bowling remains the nation's top participation sport. But like many others businesses, things have changed, and there are fewer bowling centers.
In bowling's heyday, weekly leagues dominated. Once making up 70 percent of revenues, league bowling dropped to 40 percent, according an industry study.
“People's attention spans have lessened,” Scott said. “They used to sign up for leagues for 33 weeks. It's hard to get them to commit to leagues long-term anymore unless they are really diehard bowlers.”
A dozen or so alleys remain in the Omaha area, down from 30 or more in the old days.
The Kelley family entered the business in the era of pin boys, when pins had to be manually picked up and reset. The invention of the automatic pinsetter helped lead to the national boom in bowling in the 1950s and '60s.
Bowling had been so much a part of postwar America that it was used as a metaphor in the title of a 2000 book about the decline of social intercourse and active engagement in civic life.
In “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” author Robert Putnam asserted that the decrease in league bowling was an example of declining personal interaction and fewer civic discussions that otherwise occur when people regularly gather.
Most bowlers don't go to alleys to philosophize. Still, Scott Sedlak couldn't help being philosophical about the end of an era for his family.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“There's a lot of bowling history here,” he said. “We were the first center in Omaha to have underground ball returns.”
Starting in the 1980s, he said, “the entertainment dollar got thinned out, and there were a lot more options.”
One recent factor that hurt business, he said, was a ban on smoking in public places.
“We definitely took a hit from the smoking ban and never recovered,” he said. “A lot of bowlers smoke.”
An industry report in recent years said, though, that smoking bans have led to more women and youths bowling.
While blue-collar workers may have dominated the sport in the past, an increased percentage of bowlers today are said to hold white-collar jobs.
With more competition for people's time, bowling proprietors have had to be more creative, with such promotions as “glow in the dark nights” and “bumper rails” for children to keep balls out of gutters.
As with golf, equipment has changed over the years to make scoring easier. It's still very difficult to throw 12 straight strikes for a 300 game, but perfection isn't as rare as it was.
Scott said Kelley's Hilltop used to go years between 300 games. As at alleys elsewhere, when word spread that someone was close, other bowlers would stop and watch the last frames.
“The whole place would shut down and get quiet,” he said. “And if it happened, the place would erupt.”
Vince and Hazel Kelley, who founded the family business, had a daughter, also named Hazel, who married Stu Sedlak. They had a son in the business, David, who was Scott's father.
David Sedlak, also a bronze life master bridge player, died of a heart attack while jogging in 1994. He was 47.
Scott, 39, said he thinks of his dad as he and his mom prepare to close the family operation.
“I'm devastated,” he said. “This is the saddest I've been since my father died. The business was kind of a continuation of his life.”