“You just dream about something, that’s all it’s ever gonna be. Just a dream.”
So says Harold Nuttingham in the 1979 film Dreamer, a post-Watergate, feel-good movie with a down-to-Earth vibe.
Nuttingham dreams of being a bowling champion—hence, his nickname “Dreamer”. But, he can’t even get a PBA membership until he storms an executive meeting, proves his credentials, and demands inclusion in bowling’s upper echelon. His statement about dreams targets father figure Harry White, a former PBA bowler who never quite reached the level of excellence that Dreamer envisions—and is capable of achieving. Dreamer’s words nudge Harry towards buying an option for them on an 18-lane establishment with a coffee shop and a bar in Peoria.
Dreamer’s car broke down in Alton, Illinois two years before, creating an opportunity for him to work at the Bowl Haven, where he practices his game while Harry runs the pro shop. Repairing the bowling racks is among Dreamer’s duties. Tragically, Harry dies of a heart attack late at night, while bowling. He had a heart condition, so the news is not surprising to Dreamer.
Tim Matheson played Dreamer, Jack Warden played Harry, and Susan Blakely played Dreamer’s girlfriend—Karen Lee, who also works at the bowling alley, as a cashier. “Debra Winger rocked her audition, but the studio decided on Susan,” explains Matheson.
Bowling icon Dick Weber played Johnny Watkin, Dreamer’s opponent in the film’s climactic match. “Dick Weber was instrumental in helping me with my bowling. He showed me ways to patch up my thumb until my calluses healed. We also worked on creating a style that was interesting visually and looked real.
“I was in a bowling league in Burbank. At the Grand Central Bowl in Glendale, I kept score for bowlers. You could make 10 bucks a night, which was a decent amount of money. So, I was very comfortable in that world. For the movie, we bowled in an old alley in St. Louis. I averaged around 165-170. My highest was 199. One day, we’re shooting a sequence and I’m keeping score consecutively with the takes. My score was 224.
“Dick told us about the tricks that bowlers used. They soaked balls in solvent that would soften the ball, so when you went to the tournament, it would react with more torque. If you threw a ball with spin, it spun more. Now, there are rules preventing this from happening.
“Jack Warden was one of the great storytellers of all time. He told us that he auditioned for John Houseman, who was directing King Lear. He was just beginning acting, but he had a blue-collar job during the day. He didn’t have time to change for the audition, so he went in his coveralls. Houseman said, ‘What part do you think you’ll audition for?’ Jack responded, ‘How about this Lear guy?’
“He was full of bravado and always gave advice if you asked about a scene. He was a great acting coach, just gold. He was a gem. Susan was such a pro. So wonderful to work with. Sexy and intense and all the good things you’ll hope for in a partner that you play so many scenes with.”
It is convenient to compare Dreamer to Rocky, which premiered during the Christmas season of 1976. The elements are there—underdog taking on the champion, mentor tutoring the underdog, love interest. This would, however, overlook the density of emotional resonance that Rocky evoked. Where Rocky Balboa wanted to go the distance with Apollo Creed because no fighter had accomplished that seemingly impossible task, Dreamer has unwavering confidence that he belongs in the pantheon of bowling champions, if only he gets the opportunity to prove it.
Typical for Hollywood, Dreamer concludes with the upstart winning in dramatic fashion, dethroning Watkin by one pin in the 10th frame for a final score of 245-244. Dreamer may not have had the edge of The Hustler, Rocky, or The Sporting Life, but it follows the template for Hollywood’s sports films. We want the underdog to win because they remind us of ourselves. Who wouldn’t rather play for the Miami Sharks than the Dallas Knights in Any Given Sunday? Who wouldn’t rather play with Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, Jake Taylor, and Roger Dorn on the Cleveland Indians than the New York Yankees in Major League? These types of films fulfill the need to hope. They allow us to live vicariously, whether the hero is a bowler, a rugby player, or a major league pitcher.
To the extent that Dreamer has a villain, it’s the PBA, which looks askance, at least initially, at Dreamer’s qualifications. Though not explored in depth, the confrontation between Dreamer and the PBA’s powers that be, including Watkin, represents a frustration at bureaucracy that was felt 100 years before Dreamer hit movie theaters and will be evident 100 years hence, in whatever medium audiences use to consume visual entertainment.
After the climactic game between Dreamer and Watkin, the last shot of the film shows Dreamer and Karen Lee packing up their car and listing their itinerary of bowling tournaments. As they pull away, we see that the building behind them is the Harry White Memorial Bowl.
Taking Matheson’s portrayal of Eric “Otter” Stratton of Animal House as the archetype of a slightly arrogant character brimming with confidence, one can find levels of that personality in several of his subsequent roles, including:
Larry Sizemore, Burn Notice.
Al Donnelly, Black Sheep.
John Hoynes, The West Wing.
Harry Stadlin, Just in Time.
Alan Stanwyk Fletch
Alan Stanwyk is devious when he sets up Fletch to be the dead body in a burning car, thereby allowing him to escape to South America undetected. John Hoynes is a political manipulator along the lines of LBJ—a Senate Majority Leader from Texas who lost the Democratic nomination to an underdog from New England and settled, uncomfortably, for being Vice President.
And yet, there is an underlying likability to these characters—they do not, in any way, exude nastiness. Dreamer, neither. Though his single-mindedness about pursuing a professional bowling career excludes Karen Lee, whom he considers to be a distraction during competitions. This, of course, is reconciled after Harry’s death, which prompts Dreamer to realize that Karen Lee is not an appendage to his career, but a necessity to his life.
The Bowl Haven still stands today, a 24-lane escape for Altonians looking to knock down some pins. Those of a certain age may remember the summer of 1978, when the Bowl Haven closed down for shooting. Once owned by the Netzhammer family and built in the late 1950s, the Bowl Haven enjoys continuity to the past with Bill Netzhammer, the original owners’ son, managing the lanes that Dreamer once practiced upon.