By Larry Teren
While taking a longer exercise walk than usual, I happened to trek on Lincoln Avenue in Lincolnwood right past where Sy’s Bowling Lanes was. Except it wasn’t there anymore. The parcel of land had been flattened and paved over next to the bank that shared the same street for many years. I believe that Sy was a nickname for Seymour who was the gentleman who had the majority ownership in the bank as well.
There was a storied history to the bowling alley as it had for many years been owned by the legendary Chicago Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett. In the days when drinking, smoking and loudly having a good time were popular, the establishment did well. However, in more recent years, before smoking in public places was banned, the joint had a quirky policy of allowing smoking anywhere in the playing area except for one small six-lane room on the north end of the building. The management also catered to their best customers- the repeat ones who belonged to bowling leagues. If you came in for a fun evening of recreational sport, you were treated like a nuisance who was begrudgingly tended to.
I’m guessing this attitude turns off many people who grew up refraining from smoking. You get in the car after a bowling excursion and immediately realize that your jacket has been poisoned from second hand smoke. Worse, you worry that others will think you are a secret smoker.
Of course, this was not a problem limited to bowling alleys before the days of public officials worrying about second hand smoke. It was always a problem at other famous places until very recently, such as when watching the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field.
In fact, until the late 1960’s, it was common for the ballplayers themselves to engage in cigarette smoking during the game but not in public view. They were told to find a spot in the dugout that the cameras could not catch and enjoy themselves. I will never forget Billy Williams lighting up while sitting in the dugout after his third home run in a double header at Wrigley Field. The camera panned on him to try to catch a joyous expression on his face. It did but only between drags and I don’t think any of his teammates worried about second hand smoke.
If this were a screenplay, there would be harp music playing as the scene did a fadeout and then back in to establish that I was now reminiscing about earlier experiences in bowling. You’d see me as an eight or ten year old watching a black and white television set on a Sunday afternoon (although you wouldn’t necessarily know it was a weekend) enjoying seeing a master such as Dick Weber or Don Carter tiptoe down the lane and get a strike more times than not. The voice-over announcer would describe the action in hushed tones, very much like a golf telecast.
Living in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago at that time, there was the Cinderella supermarket on the north side of the street just west of the intersection of Madison and Central. Ma rarely shopped there and but one time I went in with her and immediately heard a large racket, like it was thundering. Except it wasn’t raining, cloudy or overcast outside. Ma quickly explained that there was a bowling alley upstairs on the second floor over the high store ceiling.
I knew from other kids that their dads belonged to a Sunday morning bowling league and played at a place called Cinderella but it did not dawn on me that it was located on top of a store. Years later, after having moved to the north side of the city, I discovered that a similar type of arrangement existed on the south side of Devon between Western and California. It, too, is long gone.
By my mid-teens, I finally went up the stairs to the Cinderella Lanes on a Sunday afternoon with three buddies to try my hand at bowling. I have two memories from that occasion. One was that we were constantly running back and forth to catch a glimpse of the football game being shown on the color tv in the bar lounge. The other was that my so-called friends decided to make me the butt of a joke. When I took off my shoes to replace them with the mandatory ill-fitting bowling shoes, all three looked at each other on cue and fell to the ground. At the time, there was a popular television commercial where people fell down to the ground from smelling other people’s foot odor. The thing was, I didn’t know about the commercial and thought the guys were being serious.
With that type of selective recall, it should pretty much explain that I find bowling to be an afterthought. It must be so with the rest of Chicago area sports enthusiasts. Several other bowling facilities have gone the way of the wrecking ball. Sunset Bowl on Western between Pratt and Touhy- gone. Oakton Bowl in downtown Skokie- history. Old Orchard Bowl, also in Skokie- in the rear view mirror. I cannot speak for the rest of the north shore, although I came across a small bowling facility in Highwood that has six lanes. It is a quaint setup geared more for private parties than for bowling leagues.
Maybe all the foreigners who have taken over this country in the past thirty years don’t care for bowling. I know they don’t care for baseball but prefer soccer. And, I’m not even so sure about the rest of us. Recently, I saw an advertisement for a business networking event at a bowling alley. I checked out the details and noticed that the scheduled sport for the evening would not be bowling but something called bocce ball which I hear is popular in Italy. Do you think somewhere in Rome a bunch of business people are arranging to have a night of playing softball?
Three strikes is bad in baseball. Three strikes is good in bowling. I’m not sure what the connection is but I can’t wait for football season to begin.