Here, a Pin Drops

The faithful flock to bowling's Shangri-La.

Sans Souci 24 Public Square, in the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, daily 5:30 to 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday


Ann Allen, in a rare spare moment. - WALTER  NOVAK
Ann Allen, in a rare spare moment.
The earth constantly spins on its axis, in the meantime orbiting around the sun. Now, that's multitasking.

Drill three finger-holes in that round world, and you've got plans for Saturday night.

"The pink balls are eight pounds, the purple balls are six pounds, and the orange balls are ten pounds," says Ann Allen, fairy god-owner of Ambassador Lanes, the Kodachrome universe occupying the penthouse of a Superior Avenue parking garage.

A bundle of raw nerves who moves when she's standing still, Allen combines elements that normally collide. Like bowling and weddings, or laser light shows and live gospel choirs. If thunder is just God bowling, then 50 Christian teens giving testimonials upstairs -- to the accompaniment of 36 lanes' worth of pins crashing downstairs -- is a religious experience.

On weekdays, senior citizens polish their spin, while Cleveland public school students subtract.

"They do math problems while they're bowling," says Allen. "There's 10 pins, and they knock down 5. Ten minus 5 is what?"

A human calculator. "I'll see the kids counting in their heads, then you see them counting on their fingers, and the next thing, they've moved to the next lane and they're counting on their toes."

Perhaps a lesson in exponents is in order, or a lab report on how many gutter balls make up a googol. High scorers get to hug a stuffed gorilla. "I've got to get him cleaned," sighs Allen. "He's so spitty."

Michelle Gilmer's Collinwood High School class counts the hours before their bimonthly Ambassador trips. Not for the stuffed gorilla, but for the real-world experience. On bowling days, they practice catching a bus, making change, and ordering lunch, as well as recognizing numbers and counting. They're all autistic or autistic-like, ranging in age from 16 to 22.

Like a proud parent, Gilmer relates each student's singular talents. Jamie can put together a 500-piece puzzle in 90 minutes. William's the gentleman of the group, helping his teachers with their coats. He brings Gilmer her shoes, then tries to tie them for her, but she stops him.

Sometimes, he gets a little carried away. "But he's progressed the most," she says. "When he first came to me, he didn't know his address."

Now he knows his address, his bowling average, and how to tie a bow tie, since Gilmer took her class to the Homecoming Dance. "We got all dressed up," she says. "William and I had a picture together. It's on top of the TV at his house. For Christmas, he's getting me a copy of the picture. He's already told me."

Allen's dreading the holidays. Her dad died last Christmas. "He dropped dead while he was laughing. He was 76 years old, and he'd just started bowling last year."

Thirty years ago, when the family gathered around the TV to watch the pro bowlers tour, a teenage Ann was inspired to get off the couch and into a cursive-lettered shirt.

"I said, 'Let's go bowling.' And I walked into the bowling alley and saw my husband for the first time. I said to my friend, 'Girl, that's a handsome man.'" Tall, with wavy hair and dreamy, gold-flecked eyes, he averaged 300 on her scorecard.

Three years later, providence had her entering the alley just as Mr. Right was leaving. "He winked at me. I came back that next week, and girl, I wore pants so tight, I couldn't even bowl!"

When he asked for her phone number, she wrote down the number to the fish market. But eventually, she let him give her a few lessons. Rod's now her husband of "twenty-some" years. They had two kids, and she made it into the Women Bowlers' Hall of Fame.

About 15 years ago, Ann started managing the Ambassador. She did so well, the owner sold her the place. Once the Allens took over, they remodeled the outdated decor. Enamored of lavender, Ann gave the alley dividers and the rickety elevator a fresh coat of that powder-room shade. When she went home and realized she'd already done her hallways in that hue, it became her favorite color.

The clientele admired the changes, except for one contingent -- the blind bowlers, who'd carefully counted the number of paces from the elevator to the alley. The number had changed, but they adjusted.

Feeling their way down the lane with a handrail, the blind bowlers are the rowdiest, says Allen. "There's two teams, and they cuss and drink like sailors. One of the guys got so drunk, he said, 'You have a choice. Either gimme your keys, or call me a cab.'"

If you've got rowdies bowling downstairs and holy bowlers from Cleveland church choirs singing in the balcony (where red twinkling lights bathe aqua paneling), coordination is key.

"If I'm playing gospel something up here, I make sure I'm playing gospel something down there," says Allen, calling the combination of praying and partying "Gospel Cosmic Bowling Night," with glow-in-the-dark pins. "You don't want to be singing about the Lord with somebody yelling a bunch of MF's down there."

She recently hosted her first bowling-alley wedding reception. The bride was lovely, and the groom was "the CD Man. He's the guy that comes and sells CDs to us," says Allen. "As a matter of fact, when I booked the wedding, I wrote 'the CD Man' in my book."

The CD Man's real name is James Skinner. Besides selling CDs, he sells homemade soups. He started out selling fish sandwiches, but people preferred his soups.

In honor of the happy occasion, Allen is garbed in gold. There's candlelight, a three-tier cake ascended by a white-lace ladder, and heart-shaped favors spelling "James and Marci" in gilt scroll.

The bowling-ball thunder rises and mingles with the clinking of silverware on china. If this were a movie, the newlyweds would kiss every time someone got a strike. And then they'd take the moon from the sky and sail it down stardusted lanes.

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