Kadner: A ‘last blast’ for Bleekers Bowl
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org August 6, 2013 9:28PM
Updated: September 8, 2013 6:14AM
They’re closing Bleekers Bowl and Tavern in Evergreen Park.
When news broke of a demolition sale of stuff from the bar and bowling alley over the weekend, word quickly spread on Facebook.
“The sale is off,” said Tim Sterk, who owns the bowling alley, tavern and package liquor store at 3447 W. 95th St. “I just rushed into this too quick because I was so emotional about the closing.”
Sterk said he decided not to renew his lease and closed the bowling alley about three weeks ago “because people just don’t bowl like they used to.”
A Binny’s Beverage Depot apparently will be moving in, and Sterk said he believes it will remodel the building, not demolish it.
The good news for longtime Evergreen Park residents is that Sterk has decided to reopen the bowling alley, which has been closed, for two important dates.
“On Thursday, we’ve got a group of 90 kids coming in here from a day camp program in Evergreen Park,” he said. “They end the day camp every year by marching up St. Louis to our bowling alley, and I decided I owed it to the community to do that one last time.”
And from 9 a.m. Saturday to 3 a.m. Sunday, the bowling alley and tavern will be open to the public for one “Last Blast.”
“We need to say a proper goodbye,” Sterk said.
Sterk said it was his daughter who telephoned to say he needed to rethink selling off all the furniture and equipment this week.
“She said, ‘Do you want people coming in there and pulling the bar stools out from underneath the people drinking beers at the bar? What are you thinking?’ Only she may have used a little stronger language than that.”
At Bleekers Tavern, a few sad customers were drinking beers Tuesday afternoon. One of them was Richard Kjeldsen, 76, a longtime Evergreen Park resident who was visiting from his new home in California on his annual pilgrimage to Bleekers.
“It’s just really, really sad,” Kjeldsen said of the closing. “Evergreen Park is Bleekers. I think of my father when I come here. He used to come here for a beer maybe 80 years ago. This place is sort of a legacy to me from my father.
“This place was a bar before it was a bowling alley. Most people don’t remember that. For me, Evergreen Park will always mean Bleekers and Rainbow Cone.”
Facebook Nation was abuzz with recollections of businesses that have vanished from the village over the years — the Coral Theater, Beverly Theater, Martinique Restaurant and Evergreen Golf Course, just to mention a few.
“‘MASH’ produced its last episode,” Sterk said. “‘Cheers’ came to an end. On Aug. 10, Bleekers will produce its last episode.”
Fritz Bleeker opened the bar in the 1940s, I’m told, and the bowling alley in the mid-1950s.
“It was a gathering place for the Knights of Columbus, American Legion Post, church groups,” recalled Evergreen Park Mayor Jim Sexton. “It used to be home to the Dog House Follies, a group of guys who got together and put on a show, dancing for the people to raise money. That’s when there was more of a sense of community spirit.
“But things change. Places change. A Wal-Mart replaced the Martinique, and it’s doing very well for the village. It wasn’t my idea to close the Martinique, but once that decision was made you have to move on.”
A Mariano’s Fresh Market will soon be moving into the old Webb Ford dealership on 95th Street, Sexton said, and business is booming at the new shopping plaza that used to be a golf course.
“It’s ironic that 95th Street is undergoing a rebirth, and I’m going out of business,” Sterk said. “You can’t find a better community than Evergreen Park or a better mayor than Jim Sexton.”
During his 14 years as owner, Sterk said he saw kids holding graduation parties in his bowling alley, people getting married and “even some funerals.”
He said his brother, Mark, recently asked him that if he could save one thing from the alley what would it be.
“I knew right away,” Sterk said. “It would be a photograph of Joe Dwyer, a customer who died in a car accident on his way to work.”
Sterk said the photograph of Dwyer was hung after his death in 2005 and has been there ever since.
Bill Bard, owner of Arena Lanes, recalled that his father opened that bowling alley, 4700 W. 103rd St., in 1954, a year or so before Bleekers opened its doors.
“Fritz and my dad were competitive at first but soon they learned to cooperate and became friends,” Bard said. “It’s hard, really impossible now, to make a living off league bowling.
“Once, that was maybe 90 percent of your business. You had 9 p.m. leagues that were packed. Now, I doubt you can find a 9 p.m. league. People have to get up at 4 a.m. to go to work.
“So now you have to attract parties — graduation parties, wedding parties, birthday parties, that’s where the business is at. I think Bleekers may have been the last to have hardwood lanes. The rest of us have gone to synthetics.
“You can still make a living in this business. But it’s tough.”
At some point, Sterk said, he will probably put the stuff from Bleekers back on the auction block.
“But now’s not the time,” he said. “Now is the time to let the community say goodbye to Bleekers and for us to say thank you to the community.
“I’m a fortunate person. I’ve made a lot of fantastic friendships and enough money doing this to put two daughters through Mother McAuley and the University of Illinois. I could tell you 1,000 stories about this place, and 999 would be happy ones.
“Closing is just economics. Nothing can go on forever. But I’m not going to sell the bar stool out from under a patron having a beer.”