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Here: In Etna

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Photos by Annie O'Neill ~ Story by Bob Batz Jr.

Bradley Iannuzzi, left, and James Scialabba set duckpins by hand.

Click photo for larger image.

On the duckpin lanes in the basement of the DOH Club in Etna, Monday nights are for the ladies. But they can't -- nobody can -- bowl without the boys.

Minutes before 7 p.m., they show: One, three, four boys in their teens, in their baggy tops and low-riding and/or ripped pants, mopily entering the upstairs bar, not through the locked front members door, but via the back stairway. Each helps himself to a plastic pitcher of Coke. Two boys snag bags of snacks and look plaintively to their boss, Bunny Davis, who's sitting on a stool with a bubbling draft. He shrugs. He figures he can afford to give them $1.30 worth of chips.

What's the DOH stand for? Nobody seems to know, but one bulletin board gives another name in German and English: United Brotherhood. Bunny (he got the nickname he's known by because of his ears) jokes that DOH stands for "Dad's Other Home."

By the time Bunny heads downstairs, about a dozen women are yakking and putting on their bowling shoes. The boys are nowhere to be seen. Bunny saunters through the room, past the shoe rental counter, to the far end of the lanes and shouts to nobody apparent, "Hey Joey! You're working Number One tonight."

A high-pitched "OK" emanates from back behind the pins.

The pin boys of Etna are ready.

"Here" is a weekly feature produced by Post-Gazette photographers and writers who roam the region to capture close-up slices of life. Can you point us to a special person or place, experience or story? E-mail us at

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Pinsetters, typically boys, are the people who used to set up the pins before bowling became mechanized. That's how it was done for tenpins, the predominant type of bowling today, as well as duckpins, a fast-fading form that uses smaller, hole-less balls and, in this region, smaller, rubber-banded pins.

Even duckpins went mechanical, and most of the few places that offer the game today, such as the Etna Elks, have so-called "string machines" that reset the pins.

Lots of little neighborhood clubs like this couldn't afford to upgrade. But the DOH keeps rolling, a little place that the ball of time somehow seemed to miss.

"LET'S BOWL!" yells one of the women. They can't see the boys, but the boys can see them through slats in the cramped, closet-like space, where they sit behind and slightly above the pins. The only way in and out is to crawl or slide through the same opening as the balls, and here comes the first one, thundering down Lane 1.

THOCK! Gutterball.

"I'm first!" chirps Joey Netherland, the most hyper and youngest of this crew of four at "almost 13."

The second ball knocks over two pins and it's time to get to work. He jumps down onto the lane, grabs the two balls and shoves them down the wooden track that carries them, with gravity's help, back to the bowlers. Then he grabs the two pins and steps on a metal pedal, which raises metal tips through holes in the lane that mark the precise spots for him to set the pins. There's a CLANK as he steps off the pedal, and he jumps back up onto his wooden perch to wait for the next ball.

Salvos of balls roll in, pins crash, and the pin boys jump up and down, clearing and resetting. "STEE-RIKE!" Joey shouts after all 10 pins are felled, quietly adding, "I love sayin' that." The 14 cheering and clapping women are using only four of the six lanes and so the boys don't have to "hop" -- work two or even three lanes, hopping from one to the other.

"It's easy but it's tiring," the 14-year-old on Lane 4, Tim Zacharias, says as he nonchalantly pours another Coke from his pitcher between resets. He's fluid -- the fastest on tonight's crew, and fastest is good. Bowlers old enough to have worked as pin-setters themselves -- Bunny did, in the lyceum of St. Anthony's in his native Millvale -- say pin boys are faster than the machines. But machines don't decide to not show up or demand more money for staying late.

The lady leaguers here grouse if a pinsetter is too slow or goofing off (bored boys have waged ice fights). Recently, complaints forced a reluctant Bunny to fire his youngest pin boy. But the retired prison guard is proud of his gang of boys and a few girls and has an envelope full of names of others who are willing to work a few hours for what turns out to be about $7 an hour, plus all the Coke you can drink.

Joey: "Can you watch my lane for me while I go to the bathroom?"

"Go," says Sharpsburg's Bobby Matthews, the 16-year-old veteran working Lane 2 (and saving his money for a stereo or headphones). He says he's been hit in the head by flying pins.

One woman, whom the pin boys know as a particularly robust thrower, pops one to about crotch level on Lane 3, prompting James Scialabba, 14, to quip, "That could have been a killer!"

Like any specialized professionals, the pin boys have their hierarchy, but the good ones watch each other's, well, fronts. After a rare pause in the action, some women are yelling, "SET 'EM UP ON THREE!"

So James jumps down and sets up all 10 pins, only to have the women yell for him to put them back the way they were -- only a few had been downed. He yells out that he can't remember what pins were standing, and there's an awkward pause, but Bobby tells him to just set up the four pins down the triangle's one side. "My fault!" a woman yells, and the rumbling resumes.

As 9 p.m. nears, James slips out via the gutter on Lane 6 and walks down to look at the score sheets to see what frame the ladies are in. Pin boys, too, get impatient.

Lanes 4 and 3 finish, so those boys slide out to collect their $13 cash. Lanes 2 and 1 are still going and going, which causes the restless Joey to shout, "WE FINISHED?"

"NO!" roars the woman who was in the process of throwing a ball. "You SCREWED ME UP, thanks a lot! We're DONE now!"

A high-pitched "Sorry" emanates from behind the pins.

The pin boys of Etna are done for the night.

Joey Netherland, right, leans down to keep an eye on his lane at the DOH Club in Etna, while setting duckpins with James Scialabba.

Click photo for larger image.

Listen In

Joey Netherland, 12, has been setting pins for two years. A native of Arkansas, he now lives only a few blocks from the DOH Club. He learned of the job from an older brother, who also set pins. Tonight he's a little damp, because an errant pin knocked over his pitcher of Coke.

Joey explains how to set pins by hand.

Joey talks about the hazards of the job.

Annie O'Neill can be reached at Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930.

The audio was produced by Curt Chandler.

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