By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in Bowlers Journal
The mind becomes a troublesome companion after your friend takes his own life. It pesters you with questions as unanswerable as they are cruel. What could you have done to make him want to live? What could you have said to turn him away from his pain? How did you not see it coming? How might you have helped had you seen it in time?
These questions are irrational, unfair, and painful. But they are questions I ponder every time I recall my friend and action bowling legend, Kenny Barber.
The likes of Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Famers Johnny Petraglia, Mike Limongello and Larry Lichstein remember Kenny as one of the greatest players to emerge from action bowling’s golden days in the 1960s, and one of that era’s most inimitable characters.
“He just wasn’t sane,” says Limongello, one of his toughest rivals before Kenny busted his back tripping over a ball return while running out the last shot of a 299 game. “He was the loudest nut in the world. I didn’t know what he was involved with, and I didn’t want to know.”
The Kenny I met was a walking variety show full of Rodney Dangerfield impressions and salty jokes unsuitable for print. But he also was a man many years removed from those golden days, hobbled by two busted knees, a back that felt like a stab wound, and a cirrhotic liver Kenny described as “90% dead.”
We met in a place where age has at least one tangible benefit—McDonald’s, where seniors get coffee on discount. Kenny greeted me with a sparkling smile and emerald eyes, a cigar between his fingers, telling me he bet I didn’t expect him to look so good. With his silvered mop of slicked-back hair, polyester jump suit, and tangle of gold chains glittering down the front of an exposed chest bushed with black hair, he looked like an extra in some Sopranos rerun.
Kenny lived in Cape Coral in southwest Florida, where he moved decades earlier to escape a past whose troubles he ultimately failed to outrun. It was a past speckled with stories of New York pro shops that went belly-up when their shady financiers left Kenny holding the bag, a failed start out in L.A. at a place called El Dorado Bowl, bad decisions and the things he would give to take them back.
Kenny said the L.A. riots put him out of business at El Dorado and sent him packing for Florida. There, he subsisted on poker winnings, disability checks, and the dream any action bowler harbors—an appearance at the World Series of Poker. Like so many dreams Kenny had of reclaiming the glory of long-gone days, that one never came true.
The past Kenny preferred was the one where bowlers too young to shave made more money in a night than their parents made in a year. Some came from states away to take on the kid known as “The Rego Park Flash,” a moniker fashioned after Kenny’s hometown of RegoPark in Queens, N.Y.
“Kenny was among the top guys back then,” says Larry Lichstein. “If you could beat him in his home alley, you could leave with your pockets stuffed with $100 bills.”
In a letter recommending Kenny for the New York City Bowling Hall of Fame, Johnny Petraglia remembers the showman in Kenny as vividly as he remembers the bowler.
“I had heard about Kenny from the time I was 12 or 13,” Petraglia writes. “His reputation as a great action bowler was well-known. If Kenny was in a match, everybody was there to watch, and he didn’t disappoint. Kenny had that quality of bowling great while also putting on a show.”
Johnny Campbell, who bowled action with him all those years ago, remembers another of Kenny’s many talents.
“Kenny had a tongue that was unhinged,” he says. “He could lick his own eyebrows!”
The tongue he stretched over his own face was just one of Kenny’s thousand tricks.
“One time, I lit fire crackers in the bowling alley!” Kenny told me once. “It was great! Everybody ducked like they were hearing gun shots. They thought it was Crazy Vito!”
Kenny belted peals of laughter that arose from some dark place deep within him. I asked him who Crazy Vito was.
Exactly what those “collection” activities involved, however, I knew not to ask.
But back at that McDonald’s in Cape Coral, the glory Kenny knew dissolved into the banality of the present. That’s the thing about the past. The good times cannot be relived; the bad times cannot be undone.
Kenny slammed a battered cardboard box onto the table that contained seemingly every mention of his name in local news, a litter of yellowing score sheets and clippings so old they were brittle telegrams from another world. He lifted a Styrofoam cup of coffee to his mouth that cloaked his sun-bronzed face with a flash of steam.
“I can’t believe I still have all this!” Kenny exclaimed in his gruff Queens accent, his jewel-green eyes widening over his treasure. “I haven’t looked at this stuff in years!”
Each paper he pulled from the box tugged him a little deeper into a time when he felt most fully alive. The names on the standings sheets of long-ago tournaments read like the names of hustlers chalking their cues in the corner of some Jackie Gleason movie. Sis Montovani, Doc Iandoli, Nunzio Morra, Vinnie Pantuso.
He studied the standings sheet of an April, 1966 tournament at someplace called Roosevelt Bowlerama in Garden City, N.Y. Kenny averaged 235 for the last four games, a remarkable feat back then, and won the title against a field dotted with future hall of famers.
He pointed to one of their names.
“See, he wasn’t any good then!” Kenny said. “He got started later than me.”
Kenny sounded like Terry Malloy insisting he could have been a contender. Kenny’s problem was not that he could have been somebody, but rather than he was somebody, and nonetheless fell to the bottom of a life he never asked for.
The jewel of the box was an April, 1963 Bowlers Journal profile that described Kenny as “hanging around street corners, racing around in hot-rods and having a good time at society’s expense,” a kid who “hated everything until he found bowling.”
The Kenny I knew was the one who hated everything—his pain-wracked body, the money he lost and the bill collectors who called looking for it, the irretrievable past.
But the most striking thing about Kenny’s box was not its contents; it was that Kenny never asked for it back. He hardly mentioned it again. How could I have known that he pushed his life across the table at McDonald’s that day because he already was planning to leave it behind? Two years later, in December, 2011, Kenny took his own life.
I still have Kenny’s box. I dig through it now and then. Here a 1973 letter from PBA executive Joe Antenora inviting Kenny to join the PBA, there a patch for winning a league in 1961.
Kenny moved through this world his own way. Maybe it makes sense he would have left it his own way, too. I know he will come to mind for years—some hilarious joke I’ll share with a friend, or some passing bit of wisdom that caught me off guard. Maybe that is eternal life.