The Eleventh Frame

Roger retires: The BLB's crotchety kingpin strikes a new pose
Tony Nelson

By the time you read this, Roger will have left the lanes. At press time, on the evening of Tuesday, October 31, Bryant-Lake Bowl was set for a swinging celebration of longtime lane supervisor, alley mechanic, and resident curmudgeon Roger Engmark, who's turning in his bowling shoes as he goes off in search of a less hectic schedule, a little leisure travel--and maybe a new companion.

"After 25 years it's time I get a life," says the 53-year-old. Two years ago, he explains, his girlfriend of two decades died of cancer. "We did everything together. She was one in a million," says Engmark, swiftly brushing away a tear. "I don't make a very good bachelor. With the hours I work down here, it's not conducive to having a relationship."

So the curtain comes down on the Engmark era--which began a quarter-century ago, long before the BLB became a hipster hangout. And the lanes will never be the same.

"He's kind of been an institution there," says Sheila Burke, who has bowled regularly at the BLB for nine years, along with her husband and some other friends. "He's been a quirky [presence] as the place has renewed itself. You've always got to watch what you're doing around Roger."

If you've ever opted for an evening of beer and bowling at the BLB, located in Minneapolis just west of Lyndale Avenue on Lake Street, you've probably encountered Engmark. And if you've ever taken a beverage into the bowling area or walked toward the lanes in street shoes or--God help you--stepped onto the lanes themselves to urge along a hesitant ball, you have probably been on the receiving end of the trademark Roger scolding.

"I watch and make sure everyone behaves," Engmark explains. "Kind of a mean old man."

Weekend nights at the BLB are usually noisy, crowded affairs, and a recent Friday shortly before Engmark's last day is no exception. The intercom crackles to life and, for a brief, crystalline moment, the clatter of plates and glasses and chatter and laughter subsides. Everyone in the dining area hushes, hoping that this is the call they've been waiting for. "Smith, party of two, lane four," Engmark's sandpaper growl fills the room. There's a mad dash as the chosen ones rush up to his gatekeeper's stand.

Engmark doles out a score sheet--and a lecture. "Do you have socks?" he interrogates. He gets an assenting nod. "Smart girl," he continues, gruffly. The would-be bowlers head off to select shoes from the cubbyholes at the side of the lanes; they rummage through shelves of banged-up balls to find the one with that special fit.

Back at the podium, Engmark is a wee bit peeved. After a client complained that his party had managed to get four balls stuck behind the pins, Engmark darted past the lanes, disappearing through a doorway that leads to the pin-setting machines out back. But by the time Engmark arrived there, the balls had already come unstuck. "The problem was, the light balls they were using didn't hit the backboard hard enough," he grumbles. "These people. Instead of letting us know when one ball is stuck, they just keep throwing more. They're just compounding the problem."

He returns to his stance at the front of the lanes, picking up emptied beer glasses, sweeping up the inevitable broken bottle, surveying the patrons with the militaristic glare of a general reviewing his unruly troops.

Over the years, Engmark has watched the alley's clients shift. Back before 1993, when the lanes were owned by Hall of Fame bowler Bill Drouches, it catered to avid league bowlers. Engmark stumbled into his BLB career by chance. He came in to bowl a few games, and he got to know Drouches, who took Engmark under his wing. Soon enough, the protégé was working for the alley, tending bar, keeping score at tournaments, fixing the machinery, even breaking up occasional brawls.

Since 1993, when Kim Bartmann and Liz Dailey bought and renovated the joint, the clientele has shifted to a yuppier as-long-as-I-hit-one-pin-I'm-happy set. A 30-year lover of the game (Engmark himself averages a respectable 180), it's clear that the lack of true sportsmen in today's BLB provokes a level of mild disdain in the white-haired gentleman. "I had one person in lane eight hit the door to the storage closet," he says, pointing at the distant portal. "We don't really have anybody who comes in here who knows what they're doing. A lot of people come in here who've never been in a bowling alley before. People here high-five each other if they keep it on the lane."

Despite the dearth of talented bowlers, Engmark has cared for the blond wood and retro machinery with the same tender respect he'd show if the locale were frequented by tournament bowlers. The Engmark who inhabits the BLB in the mornings is a far cry from the cranky man who snaps and snarls at the evening crowds. As a handful of patrons get a start on the day with scrambled eggs and potatoes, Engmark quietly caresses the lanes.

In blue jeans and bulky black boots (yes, he wears them outside, but he thoroughly cleans them before walking into the bowling area), he picks up a broom and starts sweeping the approaches. His slim legs and muscular arms move fluidly through the maneuvers as he goes about his meticulous routine. For perhaps the 5,000th time, he takes a cloth soaked in oils and conditioners, folds it carefully into a small rectangle, places it at the end of the lane, and sets a mop on top of it. An expression of quiet concentration rests on his face as he sweeps back and forth, back and forth, before gracefully stretching forward to catch a spot he missed.

And who will take up the care and comfort of these lanes? As of press time, the job was still open, according to BLB co-owner Bartmann, who can scarcely imagine finding a replacement for Engmark. "He loves these lanes," she says. "God only knows what's going to happen when he's not around. We haven't found a person to enforce the bowling rule of law. That's no mediocre responsibility.

"I'm sure a negligent few will be overjoyed and think they can come in here and get away with something," she adds. "But that's not going to work."

Longtime BLB patron Matt Allen hypothesizes that there could be a little strike at the alley after Engmark leaves--and not the ten-pin knockout variety. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if the complicated gears and pulleys and motors that operate those eight trusty lanes refuse to set pins and return bowling balls the day after he leaves," says Allen, who, along with his brothers, has bowled under Engmark's supervision for 18 years.

Engmark promises he'll come around from time to time, for a drink, or maybe to explore the BLB's drama scene. "I've worked here as long as the theater's been here, and I've never seen a show," he says. Maybe, if you're lucky, he'll even yell a little. For old times' sake.

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