Polish Hall ladies bowling league seeks new recruits
Every Friday night from autumn until springtime in the basement bar and lounge beneath Riverhead’s Polish Hall, one of the most colorful parties in town unfolds.
It’s the Friday night ladies’ bowling league, the last active league in a Polish Hall tradition that stretches back at least into the 1950s, when the lounge hosted league play five nights a week.
The women in the ladies’ league are not run-of-the-mill retirees. This is a tight-knit, lighthearted group of older women who gather at the end of the week to laugh, drink, gamble, gossip and dance — as the saying goes — like nobody’s watching.
They bowl, too, but it seems such an incidental part of the party that it feels like a cover story, though it’s not.
These are women who bowl well into their late 80s; who bowl through pregnancies and cancer and chemo, who replace aging teammates that pass away with daughters and neighbors — and keep the league alive simply because it’s so much fun. Yet each year it gets harder to find new members.
“I’m one of the newer ones,” said nine-year league veteran Marsha Mongiori of Calverton. “They recruited me from the neighborhood.”
She assured anyone interested in joining the league that no bowling skill is required.
“There’s no pressure. You don’t have to be a great bowler. You never feel like, ‘Oh I bowled crappy, so I let them down.’ We dance, we sing, we show pictures of our grandchildren. It’s great.
“Plus,” she confided with a sly side eye, “we do a little illegal gambling.”
Two lanes down, women in matching, embroidered purple shirts danced and shimmied to Elvis Presley’s ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ just one hit on a league-approved jukebox playlist that spans decades — from Little Richard, Ray Charles and Nancy Sinatra to Led Zeppelin, The Pointer Sisters and John Mellencamp.
“It’s a great night out,” said Karen Hartmann of Calverton. “We got the music, the drinks, the food, a great group of ladies — what more could you want on a Friday night?”
Like many of the dozen women interviewed, Tiffany Gibbons said she was lured into the league as a fill-in.
It was 2001 and “there was a woman on one of the teams who had to have knee surgery, so they needed a replacement.”
By the time the patient was back on her feet, Ms. Gibbons had her spot. “The captain of my team didn’t want to let me go!” The returning bowler was dispatched to another team.
“What I love most about this is that it’s private,” Ms. Gibbons said. “We can play our music, drink, snack, gamble. And it doesn’t feel like we’re bowling. It feels like we’re getting together to get together.”
Ms. Gibbons said that bowling is an intergenerational sport in her family.
Back in the early 1990s, when leagues lit up the bowling lanes five nights a week, her father John bowled for the Masons, a team with matching, embroidered jackets. Her mother Sharon has been bowling in the Friday night ladies’ league for nearly 40 years, the last 34 of them as league secretary.
Tiffany Gibson’s son, 13, and daughter, 7, each bowl in leagues of their own in Port Jefferson, she said.
“I’ve bowled through two pregnancies, and all these women came to my baby showers,” Tiffany Gibbons said. “I bowled right up to the day I gave birth. I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I bowled through that, through the chemo, and all the stuff. (Last week, she said, her mammogram results “came back clear.”)
“Any of these women I could call, and I know they’d be there for me. I feel like I’m the baby here, and they are all my moms.”
A FRIDAY NIGHT IN RIVERHEAD WITH THE POLISH HALL LADIES BOWLING LEAGUE. (CREDIT: CHRIS FRANCESCANI)
Patty Davidson of Calverton said the season runs from October through May.
“There’s no bowling for our league in the summer. It gets too hot down here for some of the ladies. We’ve tried, but nobody wants to commit.”
Laurie Vanschaick of Mattituck said she was “was only going to be a fill-in” when she joined the league.
“I came down here once, and all of the sudden they’re handing me papers and I’m signing things!
“When I started I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “Now they’re all my friends.”
Joanie Bokinz of Jamesport said she, too, started out in the league as a substitute. “Then one of the bowlers died and I became a full-time bowler.”
Bartender Dan Lachcik said he has been behind the bar — and maintaining the lanes — for nine years. When he started, he said, league bowling at the hall was down to two nights a week – a men’s league on Monday and the ladies’ league on Friday.
“We enjoy having them here,” he said. “When I’m not working [on] a Friday night? I miss them.”
Mr. Lachcik said he prefers the ladies’ league.
“When they’re done [bowling], the men would come and sit at the bar and shoot the breeze for an hour [or] an hour and a half, and keep me here. These ladies? When they’re done, it’s like a herd of turtles out of the door. They mean business.”
A few minutes passed, and soon the ladies were gathered around the bar. Mr. Lachcik lined up nine shot glasses and grabbed a bottle of Fireball cinnamon whiskey (slogan: ‘tastes like heaven, burns like hell’).
“Hot diggity!” one of the ladies declared. The gang threw back their whiskey shots and returned to the lanes, shuffling to the beat of the 1978 Foreigner hit ‘Hot Blooded.’
Like many women in the league, Tiffany Gibbons is always on the lookout for new recruits.
“The girls I talk to? I just tell them, ‘come down and check it out. Check out the people, the atmosphere.’
“I guarantee that if some of them did, they would want to be a part of this. You don’t have to be Polish, and you don’t even have to know how to bowl,” she said. “I don’t care if you score a 3.”
In recent years the ladies’ league, like the Polish Hall itself, has suffered the losses of cherished friends, including Gerry Hegner, a veteran bowler who passed away two years ago.
After she died, the league kept her favorite song, the Kenny Rogers classic ‘The Gambler,’ on the playlist, Ms. Gibbons said. “Every time we hear that song we think of her because she loved it so much,” she said. “She would just light up when it came on.”
Also lost in recent years was the hall’s longtime president Zbigniew “Ziggy” Wilinski — who passed in 2021 — and veteran bartender Ed Jeneski, who died in 2017.
“I loved him dearly,” Ms. Gibbons said of Mr. Jeneski. “His wife Alice was the captain of my team when I joined. She was almost 90 and she was still bowling.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, thinking for a moment, “I have her old bowling ball. My daughter bowls with it now.”
Anyone interested in joining the league can drop by Polish Hall on Friday nights between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. or call the hall at (631) 727 9200.