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Ralph J. Lomma; revamped miniature golf courses; 87

Ralph Lomma posed with his company’s “Mr. Golf’’ in Scranton, Pa., in 1984. Ralph Lomma posed with his company’s “Mr. Golf’’ in Scranton, Pa., in 1984. (Peter Morgan/Associated Press)
By Margalit Fox
New York Times / September 19, 2011

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NEW YORK - Ralph J. Lomma, who at midcentury helped set the static pastime of miniature golf in motion, letting players tilt at windmills, shoot across rising drawbridges, and, at game’s end, watch the ball vanish forever into the maw of a voracious clown, died Sept. 12 in Scranton, Pa. He was 87.

The cause was complications of a fall he had several months ago, said his son, Jonathan.

Mr. Lomma did not invent miniature golf: the game, originally genteelly landscaped, has its roots in 19th-century Britain. Nor was he the first to seed the courses with whimsical figures such as castles and gnomes.

But Mr. Lomma and his brother Alphonse are widely credited with having shaped the game’s familiar postwar incarnation by giving those figures moving parts, a distinguishing feature of the first miniature golf course they opened, in Scranton in the mid-1950s.

They also were among the first people to mass-produce and sell its components (including artificial greens and obstacles like revolving wagon wheels and flashing traffic lights) that let operators install the courses relatively cheaply.

As a result, the Lomma brothers - responsible for thousands of miniature golf courses around the world - helped make the game a mass entertainment for the entire family on a par with bowling or drive-in movies. Miniature golf’s sheer ubiquity, enduring popularity and satisfyingly campy appearance are largely owed to them, historians of the game said.

Among the miniature golf innovations his father claimed with greatest pride, Jonathan Lomma said Friday, was the insatiable clown at the end of the course.

During much of the early 20th century, miniature golf in the United States was simply a scaled-down version of the real thing. Early courses could be lavish, in their small way, with sand traps, water hazards, and gracious shrubbery.

In the 1920s, when the game was intensely in vogue, its reach broadened, with simple courses found in suburban parks, on urban rooftops and in empty lots across America.

By the late ’20s, some courses began to be adorned with sculptural figures like horses and whales. But for the most part, the figures just sat there, meant more to divert the eye than to challenge the players.

Ralph John Lomma was born in Scranton. In World War II, he served in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps and afterward studied architecture at the University of Scranton.

The Lomma brothers opened their first miniature golf course after taking shrewd note of the fixed quality of existing courses. Ralph conceived many of the obstacles - his whale spouted water when a ball was hit through - and Alphonse did the mechanical engineering.

The moving figures were intended to catch the eye of passing motorists. They also made the game more involving, forcing players to time their swings, for instance, so that the ball might sail cleanly between a windmill’s passing blades.

The brothers’ company, Lomma Miniature Golf, has sold more than 5,000 indoor and outdoor courses in countries around the world, including in Kenya, Vietnam and China.

Over the years, their work influenced that of other miniature golf course designers; the tens of thousands of courses in the world today, with their lavish designs and huge moving figures, are in a sense the Lomma brothers’ cultural heirs.

Ralph Lomma’s other ventures included developing residential communities in Pennsylvania and Florida, and the Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Union Dale, Pa.

His first marriage ended in divorce. He leaves his second wife, the former Joyce Jean Hydeck of Union Dale; their son, Jonathan, of New York; and a grandchild.