'There's a lot of nostalgia here': Elk Grove Bowl rolls its last frame this week
It was the place where blue-collar workers took off their hard hats and picked up their bowling balls when their factory shift was over in the industrial park. And where their wives arrived later in the evening to bowl in leagues of their own, after the kids went to sleep.
There were a few 300 games along the way, when chatter fell to a hush and onlookers migrated to that lucky lane in anticipation of perfection.
And -- until the statewide smoking ban 14 years ago -- that haze of smoke that would linger above all 40 lanes.
After nearly six decades anchoring the southeast corner of Arlington Heights and Higgins roads -- kitty corner from the iconic elk pasture right off the tollway -- Elk Grove Bowl is set to join the growing roster of shuttered suburban bowling alleys when the local landmark enters its final frame at the end of this week.
It'll be knocked down by a different kind of ball, to make way for apartments and retail uses.
"There's a lot of nostalgia here. There's a lot of history here," said Bill Piscitello, who's been bowling at Elk Grove since the early 1970s and is secretary/treasurer of the weekly senior men's league.
Though the 60 or so bowlers in Piscitello's Wednesday afternoon league are age 55 and older, they'll tell you the closure of Elk Grove Bowl and other bowling centers in recent years doesn't have to do with any type of waning interest among younger people. Many have passed the love of the sport onto their kids and grandkids, who are on high school teams.
And, visit Elk Grove Bowl on a given day and you'll see not only the senior men's and women's leagues, but also a robust schedule of bowling for adults and children of all ages and abilities, from the Northwest Special Recreation Association league to the couples and church leagues from nearby Queen of the Rosary.
On weekends, open bowling, pizza and pitchers of beer are common for adults in their 20s and 30s.
But Debbie Handler, the third-generation owner of Elk Grove Bowl, said she's been meaning to retire for the past three years, and the next generation in her family isn't interested in taking over the business. She had potential deals to sell to two separate groups who were interested in maintaining the bowling alley, but that was in February 2020.
The next month, the pandemic took hold. And when the bowling alley finally reopened, those potential buyers weren't interested anymore.
Handler got a new broker, who brought by someone who wanted to keep the bowling alley open but change the concept.
"I don't think it would've been a family-type place," she said.
Then a developer proposed tearing the building down to put up a used car lot.
"I kept saying that wasn't gonna fly here," Handler said of Elk Grove Village officials down the road at village hall.
Indeed, that's when the municipality got involved, offering Handler $2 million for her building and offering owners of the shopping center -- who also wanted to sell -- $10.7 million. There was a long-standing shared parking agreement between the two property owners that essentially prevented any redevelopment on the corner, as long as Elk Grove Bowl still stood.
"We had the full intention of it staying a bowling alley," said Handler, adding that timing with the interested bowling center investors didn't work out. But, at least, "we got a couple more years of bowling," she said.
Bill Duff, executive director of the Illinois State Bowling Proprietors Association, said most mom-and-pop bowling alleys made it through the pandemic thanks to federal PPP loans and state business interruption grants. The Melrose Park-based association, which represents bowling center owners and operators across Illinois, also sued the state in the summer of 2020 to allow higher capacities at bowling centers, from a 50-person limit to 50% of a building's capacity.
The one or two bowling alley closures statewide that are common every year isn't because the sport of bowling is any less popular these days, said Duff, a Des Plaines resident who has considered Elk Grove Bowl to be his home set of lanes for the last three decades.
At least in Chicago and the suburbs, the land on which the massive bowling houses sit becomes valuable, he said.
"In the Chicagoland market, the property values are worth so much," Duff said. "If they don't have children that want to continue the business -- which is labor-intensive on nights and weekends -- it becomes, really, when a developer says, 'Hey, we'd love your property, you and your family can rest comfortably for generations.'"
Elk Grove Bowl is hosting a "Final Fling" party Saturday night, before the village eventually plans to tear down the building and solicit proposals from developers. Early plans call for a 250-unit apartment building of three to five stories on the bowling alley site closer to Arlington Heights Road, and a retail building along Higgins.
The last frame at Elk Grove will join the planned closure of Orland Bowl in the South suburbs, which is proposed to make way for a Tesla dealer, Duff said.
The number of bowling alleys in Illinois has declined from 640 in the late 1980s to 260 today, he said.
Duff said he has mixed emotions over Elk Grove's closure; he's happy for Handler but sad to be losing the place where he and his family have made so many memories, from the leagues he and his wife bowled in to his daughter's birthday parties, and where she bowled as a student at Elk Grove High School.
Many of the leagues at Elk Grove -- including the Wednesday senior men's league -- will start up again in the fall at Arlington Lanes, about eight miles north in Arlington Heights.
But they'll knock the pins down for the final time this week in Elk Grove.
Irv Sacheck, 91, has been bowling there since the late 1980s.
"Sometimes I'm not happy with the result. But I look at it this way: how many guys my age are still bowling?" Sacheck said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't enjoy it."