Wheaton Bowl closing stirs memories for generations of families
For many years, the social scene in Wheaton revolved around Wheaton Bowl, the place to be for date night, a Friday fish fry and arcade games.
For the Gieseke clan, the bowling alley at Gary Avenue and Geneva Road was often even more -- it was the center of family life.
Other couples had their wedding receptions in the banquet hall. Tim Gieseke and his bride, Ann, actually exchanged vows there in front of a justice of the peace in 2001.
On Monday night, Gieseke will play with his men's league one last time as the city landmark prepares to close after more than 60 years as an independently owned bowling center.
"I've celebrated the birth of my kids there," said Gieseke, 64. "We've done baby showers there. We've done funeral receptions there."
The closing is stirring memories of a long-gone lifestyle, a time when you had to wait in long lines to get a lane at the smoke-filled bowling alley. Over the years, Wheaton Bowl would embrace some changes. Automated pinsetters replaced the "pin boys" who set pins by hand.
But in other ways, it stayed frozen in time -- and that's the way Gieseke and other loyal regulars liked it. A beer still costs $3.25.
"The friendliness of the place has never changed, either," said Gieseke, who lives in Winfield. "It's never turned into one of those corporate, faceless, you're-just-a-number places."
Gieseke's grandfather, Hank, was one of the original investors in Wheaton Bowl. So was Sal Falbo's father, Frank.
"It was a real source of pride for the people who put it together," said Falbo, one of the present-day owners.
A group of Wheaton movers and shakers banded together in the early 1950s to open the center. Back then, bowling as a sport and recreational outlet had come into its heyday. Wheaton Bowl opened as a 12-lane alley and eventually grew to 36.
It also became a symbol of resilience when it was rebuilt after a 1975 fire that destroyed the original building.
"It was a state-of-the-art bowling center," Gieseke said. "It was once the best and the biggest."
Competitive leagues used to be the backbone of the business. At one point, Wheaton Bowl employed a full-time baby sitter during the day so moms could bowl together. At night, the whole house would fill up.
"People don't get together like they used to," Gieseke said.
Declining interest in league bowling has contributed to the demise of throwback centers around the country.
"People have changed to other things. They want boutique bowling," co-owner Jim Scheffler said.
Wheaton Bowl will host a few events scheduled in June, and after that, it will join the likes of Lombard Lanes and Hoffman Estates Lanes, two suburban institutions that closed in 2007 and 2015, respectively.
The Wheaton Bowl property has drawn some interest from developers of age-restricted housing and gas stations, but the 4-acre parcel is still for sale, Falbo said. The brokerage firm marketing the property, CBRE, is representing four shuttered Chicago-area bowling centers that are up for sale, Falbo said.
"It's been a long time coming," said Falbo, who lives near Glen Ellyn. "The business has just been slowly diminishing, and it just isn't profitable anymore."
Still, Gieseke is optimistic about the future of bowling. His family business, Wheaton Laundry & Cleaners, has sponsored his league since 1931. It's now called Monday Knight Men, and it has a roster of 100 bowlers, including some in their 30s, who sign up for a 35-week commitment.
They are looking for another venue, but it won't be the same.
"It's a difficult loss for us and for the league," he said.
He started bowling in a summer league the year Wheaton Bowl burned down. He's not exactly sure of the best score he ever recorded there -- it might have been 279 -- but Gieseke vividly remembers the friendships and a sense of community that can't be replicated.
One of his fondest memories takes him back to a Saturday afternoon in the 1990s when the league and management helped raise more than $10,000 for the medical bills of a teenager who needed a heart transplant. That teen is now a high school teacher with kids of his own, Gieseke said.
When he laces up his shoes and approaches the lane Monday night, he'll be thinking of his late grandfather and father.
And then he will compete for the league championship, a fitting end to a family tradition.