The exterior of The Big 20 Bowling Center in Scarborough, as seen in the new documentary film "Candlepin." Credit: Courtesy of Ricky Leighton

As players of the sport will likely tell you, candlepin bowling, the style specific to New England and the Canadian Maritimes, is much more difficult than ten-pin bowling.

Ten-pin has big, 10-pound, 8.5-inch balls that are able to more easily strike more pins. Candlepin, with its 2.5-pound, 4.5-inch balls, requires precision, dexterity and a high tolerance for failure. In other words: 10-pin is just too easy for Mainers.

The difficulty, the devotion of its players to the sport and its underappreciated status as a piece of cultural heritage in Maine are all reasons why Hancock County filmmaker Ricky Leighton wanted to make a documentary about candlepin bowling.

“Candlepin,” a 26-minute film directed by Leighton, will premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday with a free screening at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport. It’s an affectionate portrait of the Mainers and New Englanders who have kept the regionally specific sport alive over the decades, showcasing bowling centers from York to Aroostook counties.

Leighton, 35, also has a personal reason for choosing candlepin as the subject for his film: Growing up, he and his father were avid candlepin bowlers in their hometown of Gardiner, at Lucky Strike Lanes.

“He drove me to tournaments all over the state. I was never an athletic kid, so it was a sport that was accessible to me. I have a lot of really fond memories of it,” Leighton said. “When I went to film school in Philadelphia, nobody had any idea what candlepin bowling was, and that’s when I realized how unique and special a thing it is.”

Candlepin was invented in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the 1880s, and though it quickly spread to the rest of New England and New Brunswick, it never made it out of those regions. In its heyday in the 1960s through the 1980s, candlepin bowling was so popular across New England that in Maine alone there were more than 40 bowling alleys, and tournaments were regularly broadcast on local TV.

Leighton worked with Northeast Historic Film, the film archive located at the Alamo Theatre, to digitize clips from the organization’s extensive archive of footage from the Boston TV station WCVB from the 1970s and ’80s. WCVB for years broadcast “Candlepin Bowling with Don Gillis,” showcasing tournaments held all over New England, and Maine had its own show on WABI, “Maine Candlepin Action.” Ultra-retro clips from both shows are featured throughout the film.

“It is really so cool to see this footage of everyday people, with regular jobs, on TV playing a sport they love,” Leighton said. “It’s incredibly old school in the best possible way.”

Charles Milan III (center) of Bangor took first place honors with a score of 1285 in the candlepin rolloff held Saturday, Nov. 24, 1962 at the Bangor-Brewer Bowling Lanes in Brewer. Herb McBride (right) of Westbrook was second with 1254, while Wayne Soule (left) of Waldoboro was third at 1252. The event was sponsored by the Maine State Bowling Association. Credit: Carroll Hall / BDN File Photo

In addition to bowling centers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and candlepin bowling ball manufacturers, Leighton highlights several candlepin bowling centers in Maine, including Bowl-A-Rama in Sanford, Big 20 Bowling Center in Scarborough, Newport Entertainment Center and Bangor Brewer Bowling Lanes in Brewer, as well as a number of Maine champion bowlers.

Leighton said that while the sport experienced a decline in the 2000s, in which about half of Maine’s candlepin bowling centers closed, the 20 remaining centers are thriving, thanks in large part to their business owners diversifying their offerings to include food, drinks and other arcade-style entertainment.

“The places that succeed understand that they have to adapt to the times, and also have a really strong family dynamic,” Leighton said. “It’s a tough business because you have to wear a lot of hats.”

While ten-pin bowling also remains popular, candlepin is unique not only because of its regional specificity but because of what Leighton says it shows about Mainers and New Englanders.

“The fact that it’s all organized by local people, run by local people, is such a New England thing. We are hard workers and we like to do things ourselves,” he said. “And I think with candlepin there’s an element of self-torture, because it is so hard. You want to conquer this thing, and I think that speaks a lot to our nature.”

After its premiere at the Alamo, “Candlepin” will premiere on YouTube on Nov. 3.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.