Beauty to bowling

Thunderbird Lanes owner Elaine Brumberg, 79, is bringing smiles to special-needs individuals and sick children

Bringing smiles: Elaine Brumberg, 79, owner of the Warminster-based Thunderbird Lanes, hosts special-needs bowling every Saturday and regularly travels to local hospitals, dressed as a fairy godmother, to visit sick children. Source: Elaine Brumberg

As Elaine Brumberg prepares to celebrate her 80th birthday in May, she has a lot to be thankful for, including three children and seven beloved grandchildren. But there’s another thing the Mount Laurel, New Jersey resident considers precious – her good health – which allows her to bring smiles to individuals with special needs, illnesses and disabilities.

Brumberg is the proud owner of Thunderbird Lanes, located at 1475 Street Road, Warminster, where she hosts special-needs bowling every Saturday for a discounted cost.

Additionally, Brumberg regularly travels to local hospitals to visit sick children. Dressed in a bright pink fairy godmother costume, Brumberg brings with her a portable dinosaur bowling set, which allows them to enjoy the sport, despite not being able to leave the facility.

“I do it like they’re having a birthday party. I bring them hats and leis,” Brumberg said. “It has brought me so much joy because if you see the smiles on these children’s faces and the parents, these children forget that they may die, God forbid, or that they’re sick. It’s the most incredible feeling that one could possibly get.”

As for the special-needs bowlers, who come in each Saturday from 1 to 2:30 p.m., Brumberg has gotten to know many of them on a personal level.

“They have been bowling here for 20-something years, and the majority of them are not children. They look like children, but they’re adults, and they’re anywhere from special needs to Down syndrome to some austic children. They’re just amazing. They just hug me, especially the children that have Down syndrome. They’re huggers,” she said. “There are very few bowling centers around today, and there’s very few that will take these children.”

All are welcome: Many special-needs bowlers come to Thunderbird Lanes every Saturday, and owner Elaine Brumberg has gotten to know the majority on a personal level. Source: Debbie Goetz

At Thunderbird Lanes, the regular occurrence of special-needs bowling isn’t the only rare aspect. Possibly even rarer is its older, female owner – something that’s almost unheard of in the industry.

So how did Brumberg come to manage the bowling center? For years, her career was in the beauty industry, with her book Save Your Money, Save Your Face becoming a national bestseller and prompting the Washington Post to describe her as the “Ralph Nader of the beauty industry.”

However, when her husband Norman, who owned five area bowling centers, became ill with Parkinson’s and dementia, her path quickly changed.

“I went from beauty to bowling,” she said. “I went to bowling management school and learned the bowling business.”

After Norman passed away, his partner sold all of the centers, except for the one in Warminster. Brumberg refused to let his legacy die with him.

“I went ahead and bought the partner out. I’ve totally redone the center with new furniture, new glow bowling,” she said. “This is amazing because women don’t own bowling centers. They just don’t. It’s rare, and I’m very happy that I did what I did. When I bought out the business, my kids, they sent me a certified FedEx letter, ‘Dear Mom, we think you’re crazy. At your age, why are you doing this?’ I wanted to do something I’d always been active in. I just feel like I’ve reached my calling.”

According to Brumberg, she’d most likely still be in the beauty industry if her husband hadn’t become ill, though she understands that everything happened for a reason. His sickness prompted her to enter the bowling business and, after taking a portable bowling alley to Norman’s nursing home, she recognized the deep need at children’s hospitals.

Moving forward, Brumberg hopes to host fundraising events for special-needs and childhood illnesses at Thunderbird Lanes, with guests appearances by Philadelphia athletes. Current events raise funds for dog cancer research and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“People don’t realize how much money fundraisers can make for your organization,” she said. “The nice part about it is, it’s a family event. It’s not just an adult event. You can bring your children.”

She hopes these events will not only raise funds for a worthy cause, but introduce the art of bowling to the next generation.

“These kids that come in, they’re the future of bowling because the other people, we have tons of seniors, but they’re seniors. They’re in their 70s, their 80s. I have people in their 90s bowling here,” she said. “The numbers are going down because of the aging situation. So, having these children and special-needs children, to me, that is the future of our business. Period.”

And Brumberg intends to stick around to see that future.

“I’m just hoping to God that I stay healthy and that I can keep waving that magic wand and putting smiles on children’s faces until I’m 90, 95,” she said.

Visit phillybowl.com for more information.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com