The greatest impression any action bowler ever made on me was Kenny Barber. The first time I saw him bowl action was at Kings Lanes in Brooklyn against Bobby Smith in the early 60s. This skinny kid had an approach, ball, and game I never saw before, he totally floored me, His style would become what some of the greats of the future would try and duplicate, but who could truly duplicate the one and only, the original, Kenny Barber... AC butch, creator of ActionBowlers.com Kenny, if you see this tribute to you send me your phone number via email to [email protected], Your number I have on file isn't working...
By Gianmarc Manzione Bowling News Manager BOWL.com
The fat and soggy stump of a cigar between his fingers, Kenny Barber explodes out of his brand new, jet-black Hyundai to greet me with a sparkling smile and a glowing pair of jade-colored eyes.
“I bet you didn’t expect me to look this good!” he says.
A doo-wop station blasts from the car’s open windows as he tells me about the eight grand he just won at a poker tournament last weekend, one of many card games he travels to throughout the state in pursuit of the kind of dream any action bowling legend harbors: an appearance in the World Series of Poker. With his silvered mop of slicked-back hair, polyester jump suit, and the rope of gold chains glittering down the front of an exposed chest bushed with black hairs, he looks like an extra from last week’s Sopranos rerun.
I find him in the parking lot of a bowling center in South Florida, where, his life as an action bowling great long-ago terminated by a bad back, he moved from New York decades ago to escape a bitter nostalgia that aches more sorely with each passing year. A lot of things ache in Kenny Barber’s life these days: the cirrhotic liver which, according to the doctor paramedics delivered him to when he blacked out behind the wheel of his car and impaled the neighbor’s front door, “is about 90% dead.” The new knees he needs.The carpal tunnel in the right wrist of his bowling hand that, as anyone who knew Kenny all those years ago understands, is the ache that has some stories to tell.
“The number one guys back then were Ralph Engan, Johnny Petraglia, Ernie Schlegel, Kenny Barber, Mike Limongello, Mike Chuchillo,” PBA Hall of Famer Larry Lichstein recalls of his younger days in the action. “Now what happened was if you could beat any of these guys in their house, you could leave the place with your pockets stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. We had 900 bucks one night, my friends and I, and my friend said to Kenny Barber ‘Would you like to bowl Larry?’ Kenny asked ‘How much?’ My friend said ‘200 a game.’ Kenny laughed, then looked at my friend and said ‘I don’t pick up a ball for less than a grand a game.’ Now Max, a book maker, saw me beat someone else, and he put up the money for me to bowl Kenny. We bet $1,000 and we won, then $2,000 and we won, then $4,000 and we won that game-we kept winning, and Kenny and his guys quit. That night we left with six grand between us, I had $2,000 in my pocket, and I knew that that was how I would make my living for the rest of my life.”
If you think nearly 50 years is enough time for Kenny Barber to have gotten over that one, you don’t know Kenny Barber.
“He averaged 240 that night for five or six games, he shot lights out!” Kenny recalls in a fleeting burst of anger. “I was the guy to beat, and he did it. He was the only guy to beat me like that.”
That was then-a long-gone era when bowling centers in the Tri-State area were places where the carpet clung to the reek of a gangster’s cigar as gamblers penciled their debts into the score table, days when some cities enacted ordinances to ban anyone under the age of 16 from entering bowling allies and billiard halls.
Those were also days when Kenny Barber’s name made the cover of Bowlers Journal in April, 1963 for a three-page feature called “The Restless One” with an apt sub-title of “Kenny Barber hated everything until he found bowling.” While the personality of a guy who earned nicknames such as “The Joker” and “The Rego Park Flash” inevitably factors into the piece-the feature describes a teenage Barber who gets thrills by “hanging around street corners, racing around in hot-rods and having a good time at society’s expense”-Kenny Barber’s bowling was the real story.
The youngest player to bowl in the All-Star Tournament in 1963-arguably the most prestigious and grueling bowling tournament in the world, which became known as the U.S. Open in 1971-a 17-year-old Barber competed alongside names like Don Carter and Dick Weber, carrying a 204 average for 52 games. A month after bowling the All-Star at 17, he shot a nine-game total of 1940 at the ABC tournament (now the USBC Open), shooting 671, 615 and 654 and ultimately placed 9th in All-Events. Before busting his back while running out the final shot of a 299 game one day, Barber recorded a high series of 876 with a rubber ball, shooting scores of 300, 299 and 277 in an action match at Jamaica Arena-”where 50 Cent is from,” Kenny adds. Kenny averaged 258 for ten games that night.
“Kenny Barber was the Joe Frazier of my Ali. I always felt he was a hell of a bowler,” PBA Hall of Famer Ernie Schlegel recalls. “We used to bowl in Emil Lence’s Ridgewood Lanes. He would curl up into a little ball and explode at the foul line. So one night Kenny bowled me singles and the first game I beat him 300 to 279. That is first time I ever met him, and it was the first 300 I ever bowled-it was for a lot of money.”
But bowling is hardly the only game in Kenny Barber’s life, making his living over the years as the proprietor of pro shops from coast to coast, a stand-up comedian, a manufacturer of the “Strike K” bowling glove worn by touring pros such as Jim Pencak in the early 1990s, and, of course, a card player. His father Charlie, a great bowler in his own right as well as a brilliant musician who played bass and tuba with the likes of Arthur Godfrey, Tommy Dorsey and Fred Waring, also struggled to settle for any one life in particular. Every family has a way of doing things; the Barber family, however, has a way of doing everything.
Kenny turns the dial on the car stereo and stops on CCR’s “Fortunate Son.”
“This is all we listened to in ‘Nam,” he tells me before locating the piece of a hand grenade in the back of his skull to show me.
“I have escaped death so many times in my life,” he says.
Here in South Florida, though, where a seething sun blanches the storm-proofed roofs of Burger Kings and Citgos that banish the state to a crush of homogenized towns, the money, guns and glory that Kenny remembers dissolve into the banalities of the present. But that’s not to say that he isn’t still pulling tricks.
“I just gave a testimonial about it last week,” he begins. “It’s unbelievable! ‘Mona Vie,’ this juice that’s made from berries-this berry from the Amazon. The doctor told me my liver was 90% dead, I was in a coma for a day and a half. The doctor told me to get my papers in order, because I didn’t have much time left. Then I start drinking this juice, I go back to the doctor, and he tells me he can’t believe it-my liver’s fine! I’m telling you, this juice-it cures cancer, prevents heart attacks, everything” he declares with an emphatic wave of his hand.
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