Once 'the place to go,' Wheaton Bowl to be sold to gas station developer

Wheaton Bowl remained in a league of its own for generations.

The business survived a huge fire that destroyed the original bowling alley the day before the Fourth of July in 1975.

The owners, a group of local residents, banded together to rebuild from the rubble, lane by polished lane.

One of the last of a vanishing breed, the old-school bowling alley kept a city pastime alive for another four decades until it could no longer survive declining interest in league play and the arrival of boutique bowling bars. The last pins fell, and Wheaton Bowl closed in 2019. Owners now have a contract to sell the site, which would be used to build a gas station and car wash.

Three years may seem like a long time to mourn the demise of a suburban landmark, but the pending sale of the property and the planned demolition of the cavernous building is still digging up memories of a bygone era when large bowling alleys were social centers, through every stage of life.

“There's a lot of memories, but it's just the reality ... people just don't bowl as often, and it wasn't profitable,” said Sal Falbo, one of nearly 30 Wheaton Bowl shareholders.

Falbo and the other owners have a contract to sell the site to a developer that wants to replace the shuttered bowling alley with a Thorntons gas station and car wash. There's already a gas station at the same intersection of Gary Avenue and Geneva Road.

But Falbo still thinks it's a good use for the property. There are “not a lot of buyers out there” for 4 acres of land, he said.

“There have been several things that have come along, and it just didn't work out. From our standpoint, we just pretty much want to sell the land,” Falbo said. “It's not doing anything for us keeping it.”

After opening in the early 1950s, Wheaton Bowl became more than a place to record bowling scores.

“There was probably a dozen different investors that got together and all put up some money and put the bowling alley up,” said Falbo, whose father, Frank, was one of them. “That was a big thing at that time for the area.”

At that time, “pin boys” set pins by hand before machines did. Fathers bowled with their daughters. High schoolers had their first dates and first kisses at Wheaton Bowl. Couples would celebrate their wedding receptions — some even exchanged wedding vows — in the banquet hall.

And when the workweek was over, families gathered for Friday night fish frys in the “11th Frame” restaurant, and then league teams competed on Saturday mornings.

Simply put, you could “bowl your cares away” at Wheaton Bowl, or so noted one of its vintage matchbook covers.

“That was the thing to do and the place to go,” Falbo said.

The folks who ran the 36-lane bowling alley took pride in the throwback feel and their independence from corporate chains. But as bowling leagues — a 35-week commitment — waned in popularity, so did the business.

“It just didn't have the volume,” Falbo said. “The expenses stayed pretty much the same whether you're busy or not busy. You still need to have someone in a restaurant. You still need to have a mechanic on duty.”

The owners are now scheduled to close on the sale of the property the end of May. Northbrook-based GMX Real Estate Group is seeking special-use permits from the city to redevelop the site into a gas station and a 5,243-square-foot car wash.

The city's planning and zoning board is set to hold a public hearing on the project March 22, Wheaton staff planner Tracy Jones said. Assuming the city grants the zoning request, the bowling alley could conceivably be torn down in the summer, Jones said.

Falbo understands the business realities of mom-and-pop bowling alleys. Lombard Lanes, Hoffman Lanes in Hoffman Estates and Sim's Bowl & Lounge in Des Plaines have all shared the same fate.

“You would like to think that then these bowlers go somewhere else, but they really don't,” Falbo said.

He also doesn't bowl anymore.

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