December 11, 1989 12:00 PM

The expedition to the local bowling alley was a disaster. Special-education teacher Zena Sheinberg and her then fiancé, Alex Wortman, had taken a class of mentally impaired children to the lanes, but their good intentions led only to disappointment. As ball after ball rolled into the gutters, the kids began to turn around as soon as they bowled, not even bothering to watch the inevitable result.

Neither Sheinberg, 40, nor Wortman, 52, a social worker, are serious bowlers, but they are sensitive observers. Their unhappy trip to a local Ann Arbor, Mich., bowling alley 12 years ago turned out to have a happy ending. It inspired the couple to devise an inflatable snakelike tube that serves as a bumper cushion, preventing balls from landing in the gutter. Explains Wortman: “What really got the ball rolling was when the bowling proprietor told us tales of kids going home crying from birthday parties. We realized that something to prevent gutter balls would be good for all children, not just the handicapped.”

Today DBA-Glancer Bowling Cushions are on a roll. Since their first appearance three years ago, they have been installed in more than a quarter of the 8,300 bowling alleys across the U.S. “These cushions are definitely expanding the bowling market,” says an industry insider. “They’re the hottest thing around.”

In the beginning Wortman and Sheinberg, who married in 1980, worked out of their garage. They scraped together $10,000 to finance the project. Over the years, they persevered, in spite of patent fights with copycat competitors (which they won), rejections from prospective investors and the initial skepticism of bowling-alley proprietors. The product itself has evolved from a crude version made of carpet tubing into a lightweight 56-foot tube of polyvinyl that runs the length of the alley. A pair of cushions costs $395; an inflator machine ($105) and a retrieval cart ($250) complete the package.

Over the last three years, DBA-Glancer sales have topped $3 million, but for Sheinberg and Wortman there are other, more lasting, rewards. Early on, before the system was state-of-the-art, Sheinberg took a Down syndrome child bumper bowling. “He rolled the ball,” recalls Sheinberg, “and the tube deflected it into some pins. His face was wonderful. He was so elated. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

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