By Danny Schrafel
Say Andy Varipapa’s name at Finnegan’s in Huntington village and heads still turn.
It’s for good reason. Varipapa was a fixture at the former Century Lanes on Wall Street in Huntington village, and is one of bowling’s most recognizable figures to this day.
Well into his 90s, Varipapa bowled there several days a week until the center closed in June 1983, said his grandson, Andy Varipapa Jr., of Maryland.
During those visits, he’d practice, do trick shots, and lend a helping hand to anyone who asked.
“They just let him do whatever he wanted, more or less,” Finnegan’s manager Tommy Forte, who worked next door at the Sportman’s Lounge, said.
And he’d bowl – a lot. When Varipapa Jr. was 15, in 1971, he and his grandfather, then 80, went bowling. After three hours, the younger Varipapa had enough.
“And he said, ‘That’s OK, son. Go sit down.’ And he proceeded to bowl for another hour,” Varipapa Jr., now 58, said.
Nearly 31 years after he passed away in August 1984, Varipapa added another feather to his cap when he became Wheaties’ newest pitchman late last month.
The ad campaign, featuring film footage of Varipapa’s dazzling trick shots, is the result of a deal between General Mills and the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA).
Wheaties executives found Varipapa like many do in 2015 – on YouTube. Quickly, they knew they had their star. Now, he’s on ESPN every Sunday during PBA telecasts.
“We got the call out of the blue,” Varipapa Jr. said. “It’s just wild.”
Iron Man Of The Lanes
While his trick-shot repertoire is legendary, Varipapa is perhaps less known as one of the sport’s all-time competitive greats.
He was the first man to win the Bowling Proprietors Association of America’s (BPAA) All-Star tournament, a grueling weeklong 100-game championship, in consecutive years.
To be the first back-to-back winner is one thing. But Varipapa, who was born in Italy in 1891, won his titles in 1946 and 1947 at the ages of 55 and 56. He followed that with a second-place finish in 1948. When others were eyeing retirement, Varipapa was at his competitive peak.
Part of his motivation, Varipapa Jr. said, was to prove to the world he was more than an entertainer.
“It kind of bothered Andy that he was more known for his showmanship,” he said. “So that’s when he went out and won the All-Star.”
He Taught An All-Time Great
PBA hall of famer Johnny Petraglia said he’ll never forget the first time he met Andy Varipapa.
After he watched an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, featuring some of the sport’s biggest stars, Petraglia said he “knew he wanted to be a pro bowler.”
So, Petraglia’s father called Andy Varipapa, booked five 30-minute lessons, and soon, they were on the train, headed to Huntington.
The first lesson was aimed at improving young Petraglia’s stiff-legged slide. Varipapa told his new pupil to bend his right knee so low that his left knee touched the ground. Pretend you’re in church, he was told.
Petraglia started, and Varipapa walked away.
When he returned 20 minutes later, Petraglia’s leg was so sore that he was bent over so far that he could bend his knee just 3 inches to roll the ball.
“Good. Now you have knee bend,” was Varipapa’s reply.
Varipapa was on to something. During his pro career, Petraglia won 14 PBA titles, including the tour’s “triple crown” of major championships. In 1978, at the Long Island Open, Petraglia threw a nearly perfect 298 during the TV finals at Garden City Lanes. Varipapa sat and watched with his hands on his knees.
The missed opportunity for perfection was a bitter disappointment – “I choked in front of my coach,” Petraglia said. Sixteen years later, Petraglia did bowl 300 on TV – during the finals of the PBA National Championship in 1994.
The $100,000 windfall put his children through college. But there was still one regret.
His coach wasn’t there to see it.
Century’s Closure Led To Decline
While nothing ever stopped Andy Varipapa on the lanes or off, losing his home away from home may have been too much to bear.
Varipapa had been bowling at Century Lanes for decades. Later in life, Varipapa would take the back roads through Huntington Bay, where he lived with his daughter, Constance Cornacchia, from 1976 until his death.
Rumblings that the lanes were being sold to Waldbaum’s surfaced in early 1983. Varipapa was one of many who lobbied to save the center.
Lawmakers agreed. Town officials admitted they made a mistake in giving Waldbaum’s a building permit, according to a June 9, 1983 Long-Islander report. However, this was one battle on the lanes that Varipapa did not win. The center closed June 5, 1983. He died less than a year later on Aug. 25, 1984, at the age of 93.
“That’s what killed him,” Petraglia said. “He just got tired and died when he didn’t have any place to go.”
The Varipapa Legacy
Unmatched self-assurance was a Varipapa trademark. A natural athlete, he was supremely confident in his abilities and not shy to say he was the world’s greatest bowler.
Then again, it’s only bragging if it isn’t true. By 1947, he had bowled 68 perfect 300 games, according to a Time magazine report that year.
“Andy was the most confident person I ever met,” Petraglia said.
And of course, there are his dazzling trick shots that earned him invitations to the White House to bowl with President Truman and opportunities to perform for 34,000 spectators before a Cardinals-Reds baseball game in 1955 and to embark on a 14-country tour of Europe in 1965.
“It was unbelievable how popular he was,” Varipapa Jr. said.
How many bowlers do you know that were nominated for an Oscar? Varipapa was – for 1934’s “Strikes and Spares,” one of the approximately two dozen film shorts he made during his life.
“Andy was a pioneer – like the Walter Hagen of golf,” Forte said.