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Southport Lanes & Billiards Celebrates 95th Anniversary With 1920s Prices

By Jessica Cabe | November 1, 2017 6:08am
 Southport Lanes & Billiards still features its four original bowling lanes, built in 1922.
Southport Lanes & Billiards still features its four original bowling lanes, built in 1922.
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DNAinfo/Jessica Cabe

LAKEVIEW — On the Southport Corridor — amid the Gap, Amazon Books and a cafe operated by a bank — stands Southport Lanes & Billiards, a neighborhood bar and bowling alley whose walls, if they could talk, would tell a quintessential old Chicago tale of Prohibition-era debauchery, a younger and faster Lakeview and the Southport Corridor culture of today.

The team at Southport Lanes feels that kind of history housed in one space is worth celebrating.

Southport Lanes & Billiards, 3325 N. Southport Ave., will throw a 95th anniversary party from 6 p.m. Friday to 2 a.m. Saturday. The evening will have a 1920s theme in reference to the bowling alley's opening in 1922, and it will feature games priced at 5 cents per person, $1 pints, $5 cocktails and more.

"It should be a good time," said Amy Jones, marketing manager for the restaurant group Spare Time Incorporated. "Southport Lanes is a great neighborhood hang, so we hope a lot of regulars come out and have a good time, in addition to people who may have never been there before."

Southport Lanes opened in 1922 in place of a tavern called The Nook, which was built by the Schlitz Brewery sometime around 1900 as one of several branded brew houses throughout the city.

After Prohibition began in 1920, four lanes were built as a means of providing the bar some kind of legitimacy, and Southport Lanes was born as a speakeasy with a brothel upstairs in 1922. Legend has it Mayor Anton Cermak held weekly poker games in one of the secret rooms.

"There is a dumbwaiter in the kitchen that doesn't function anymore that went from the kitchen up to the girls upstairs," Jones said. "They didn't even have to come down. So you could easily go into Southport Lanes; if you didn't already know, it's not like you would totally know that things were going on there."

The billiards room at Southport Lanes once housed an illegal off-track betting parlor with direct lines to horse tracks around the country. [DNAinfo/Jessica Cabe]

After Prohibition ended in 1933, what is currently the billiards room was constructed and used to host an illegal off-track betting parlor with direct lines to horse tracks around the country.

But Southport Lanes transformed from a seedy operation to a much more legitimate neighborhood bar and bowling alley in the mid-1940s, when it was bought by a family that ran it until 1991. At that time, it was taken over by current owner Steve Sobel.

When Sobel took over, he hired the current general manager, Phil Carneol, who has been with the business off and on ever since — including for its 75th anniversary celebration.

"I remember it being absolutely nuts in here," Carneol said of that party. "I know we ended up doing retro pricing, the same kind of thing we're doing this time. It was fun! It was just a bastion of young Chicago. That's what this place represented in the '90s."

The bar at Southport Lanes & Billiards [DNAinfo/Jessica Cabe]

As much fun as it is to research the early history of Southport Lanes, Carneol said the bar and bowling alley has also seen more recent shifts and changes in the landscape of Lakeview and the Southport Corridor in particular.

He said with a laugh that he remembers watching Harley Davidsons line up on the street through the bowling alley's window, and now he sees a line of strollers.

"I remember having to buy our first high chair, or being asked to see a kids menu for the first time," he said. "Now none of that is foreign to me. It's part of the fabric of where we are. It's just the natural evolution of how a city happens, and we're basically on that ride. In terms of how it is now, it's still great. The people are awesome. But it's just nothing like what it was 20 years ago."

Carneol said he still meets people in their 70s and 80s who come in and say they used to set pins at the bowling alley (hand-setting still happens on the four lanes, which are still the originals from 1922). To him, Southport Lanes is more than just a still-living story of Southport and Lakeview.

"I really believe this is a major part of Chicago right here."