By Ben Joravsky
As Bob Kuhn tells the story, it was only a matter of time before Timber Lanes became a star.
"They say we've got a personality," says Kuhn of his eight-lane bowling alley at Irving Park and Wolcott. "I'm just telling you what people say."
Timber Lanes is perhaps the first bowling alley in which a play's been staged. Kuhn, who'd never shown much interest in theater, is a lifelong bowler (his average is in the low 200s) who has worked at various alleys since the 70s, when he was a teenager in Rolling Meadows.
He heard about Timber Lanes when a friend asked him to join a Sunday mixed league there. "The first time I walked in there was, I don't know, 1984," says Kuhn. It was love at first sight. Timber Lanes looked exactly the way he thought a neighborhood joint is supposed to look: dank, smoky, dark. Then as now, it's one long room--bar in front, eight lanes in back--that reeks of cigarettes and booze and reverberates with the rock 'n' roll blaring from the jukebox and the big beery guys bellowing, bickering, and laying down bets. "I felt right at home," says Kuhn.
In 1986 he bought a share of the business. By 1992 he owned it all. He brought in his younger brother, Mark, to tend bar and help manage the place. "I figured, no problem--I'll make it work," says Kuhn.
An engaging fast talker who can do instantaneous calculations in his head, Kuhn was ideal for the job. What's most important is that he's flexible. So much has changed in bowling since the glory days of the 1950s, when Timber Lanes opened. Back then it was a neighborhood activity. "You lived nearby, you walked to your alley, and you knew everyone who bowled there," says Kuhn.
But alleys lost their neighborhood roots as old owners retired or died. Pedestrian accessibility, once so important, became almost anachronistic. People didn't want to walk; they wanted to drive. Like other merchants, bowling operators needed parking, and there was little space.
To make a buck Kuhn had to hustle, which was fine with him. He became the Monty Hall of neighborhood bowling, willing to deal with anyone who came through his door. He set up men's leagues, women's leagues, men and women's leagues, gay leagues, lesbian leagues, blind leagues, and a Sunday morning group that's basically a league for men with hangovers.
All told, he says he's got over 500 bowlers in 14 regular leagues. "I own the building, I own the business, I control my own destiny. You wanna use the space? Let's talk. Over the years I've had every kind of party or fund-raiser you can imagine: bachelor parties, corporate parties, kiddie birthdays, fund-raisers for churches, schools, and cops. We had the nude bowlers. Next week we'll have some guys in here filming a low-budget made-for-TV movie."
"Yeah, they used to come in on Fridays right after the lesbian league. We'd lock the door and pull down the shades, and they'd take off their clothes. They gotta wear bowling shoes, though--don't want to ruin the floors. Hey, I don't care. It's none of my business. I don't ask questions. I treat people as people--everyone's the same. What difference does it make if you wanna bowl nude? OK, I'm not gonna do it. But everyone's not like me. I'd rather have them doing that than walking around the neighborhood in their raincoats and galoshes."
To Kuhn, it was much the same when the Ouijar theater company came in last August with an idea company member Pamela Chermansky had conceived several months before. "Pamela thought it would be great to do an interactive play in a bowling alley, where at one point the audience gets up and bowls," says Rachel Klem, producer, playwright, and actress. "Pamela loves bowling. She loves the drama of bowling. It's very dramatic. And there's the Americana kitsch aspect of it as well."
Klem, Chermansky, and Naomi Ashley spent about six months writing the script of The Bowling Show, which is partly based on a series of improvs with actor friends. They settled on Timber Lanes as a venue after scouting alleys all over the city. "We must have been to every bowling alley in Chicago, at least on the north side, but I always knew Timber Lanes was the place," says Klem. "It's so much different than most of the others. The whole place is just right there--you can see everything, the bar and the lanes, when you walk through the door. It's--oh, I don't know if cozy's the right word. But its personality is just so strong."
So they gave Kuhn their pitch. "They had done their homework--they knew who I was," he recalls. "They said they wanted to do an event. I said, 'A fund-raiser? How much money do you wanna raise?' They said, 'No, not really.' I said, 'You wanna talk privately? No problem.' I took them to the back room where I do all my business, you know, where we keep the bowling balls. That's when they told me--they wanna stage a play.
"I said, 'First, let me read the script. I want to make sure I approve of it.' I read it and I could tell right away, no problem. It's about this old woman who owns a little bowling alley, and she's got one of those big modern alleys next door and she's trying to survive and they're trying to run her out of business and, what the hell, you gotta go see it yourself."
It premiered last month and has been a success not only with critics but with the regular crowd at Timber Lanes. "We rehearsed Saturday morning from 9 to 11:30, just before the blind leagues came in," says Klem. "We also rehearsed Mondays at 11 after a regular men's league. A lot of the bowlers would be at the bar when we came in, and they were very supportive. They watched and they laughed and they asked where they could buy tickets."
Kuhn says the playwrights got it right. "They captured the types who bowl. They got your talkers and your kidders and the people I call the human rain delays. You know the type. They eye the pins forever, like they're getting ready to cut a diamond. Me, I get it over fast. I line up and boom, I let it rip. But like I say, everyone's different.
"For some of our bowlers, I think it's the first time they've ever seen a play and they really get into it. I can tell the difference at a performance between the bowlers and the play crowd. The bowlers act normal, the way they always are, because they don't know how you're supposed to act when you're watching a play. I mean, they're laughing and having a good time. The play people are a little more serious. They're looking at the quality of the acting, I guess. Nothing against the play people, it's just we're more familiar with the subject. We look at each character and put somebody's name into it. 'Oh, that's Keith,' or 'that's Charlie,' or 'that's Frank.'"
Unlike the play's central character, Kuhn doesn't feel threatened by bigger alleys. But the local real estate boom is a different story. He realizes that a developer looking to demolish the bowling alley and replace it with condos might make him an offer that's too good to refuse.
"I don't want it to happen and I'm not saying it will happen. But if I said it could never happen, I'd be lying," Kuhn explains. "A house behind us is going for $689,000! If you had told me that ten years ago I'd have said you were nuts.
"You can see signs of change in our clientele. Before it was all blue-collar workers, the hard-core bowlers. Now we're getting more of the younger people looking for something cool to do. The old guys studied the game. They took it serious. They wanted to know about the lane conditions so they could adjust their game. There's a lot more gambling--you know, the pot games and stuff like that--when they bowled. But the younger crowd, they just throw the ball down. They don't care about the conditions of the lane. They don't care about the score. Some of them can't even score. They come in. They drink. They're having fun. How can you not enjoy yourself? What the hell--it's bowling!"
For the last nine years Arnie Kamen's been giving money and support to the kids at Roosevelt High School. Late last month they gave him something back.
They filled the school's auditorium to show their appreciation with a "We Love Arnie" assembly.
Kamen's the retired commodities trader (profiled here in 1992) who graduated from Roosevelt in 1950, when the school and the surrounding Albany Park neighborhood largely consisted of working-class Jews. In the years since, he's moved to the suburbs, made his fortune and retired, and come back to Roosevelt.
He returned just to visit Manny Weincord, a fellow graduate who coaches the boys basketball team. But as he sat in the largely deserted stands and watched Manny's teams play, it occurred to him what was missing--school spirit. He decided he had to teach the kids they were part of something special. "They go to the world's greatest school," he says. "I want them to believe in themselves and never give up on their dreams."
He went to the principal (he's since retired) and asked him to play the school song over the loudspeaker at the start of each day. The principal was reluctant. Times have changed, he said. Kids are more jaded; they don't care about school songs anymore.
But Kamen, as is his nature, was relentless, and eventually the principal yielded. By now it was 1992, and Kamen was coming to school three or four times a week. He chaperoned field trips and attended plays, concerts, and athletic events. He started raising money for the school with various alumni schemes--a testimonial dinner for Weincord, an old-timers basketball game, a weekend reunion in Vegas--that have paid for things like uniforms, musical in-struments, field trips, and an athletic scholarship named for Weincord. "He's done so much and has never really been acknowledged," says Jerry Wolf, a fellow alum. "I wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted to see his face when he walked in the auditorium and saw the kids."
The day of the event, principal Miguel Trujillo called Kamen to his office on a pretext. While Trujillo kept him busy, the auditorium filled with students, Kamen's wife Kris, and a dozen or so of his classmates from 1950.
At two o'clock Trujillo and Kamen entered the auditorium. The kids cheered. The band played a rousing greeting. A banner hanging from the balcony proclaimed "We Love U Arnie." Students wearing Arnie Kamen buttons hugged him. His eyes watered. He walked about almost in a daze. "I didn't know," he kept saying. "I really didn't know."
He sat on the stage next to Weincord and Trujillo. "Roosevelt's a very lucky school," athletic director Joe Kail began. "I go to athletic department meetings and hear how it's a struggle [at other schools] to get things for the teams. I keep quiet 'cause I know over here if we need something there's always Arnie. We're lucky to have you. We hope you never leave."
Trujillo declared it "Arnie Kamen Day at Roosevelt High School," and then Weincord stepped to the podium. Normally he's quick to tease Kamen, as though time had stopped at 1948 and they both were still sophomores in the Roosevelt cafeteria.
But on this occasion he made no wisecracks. "I love you, Arnie," he said. "We all love you."
Wolf and Jerry Taylor, who's the girls basketball coach, gave Kamen a Roosevelt letterman's jacket, and then it was the guest of honor's turn to speak.
He had tears running down his cheeks. The kids were chanting "Arnie, Arnie, Arnie." He thanked his friends and his wife for their support, reaffirmed his commitment to Roosevelt, and made one request. "You know what it is."
He took the mike out of its holder and stepped to center stage. The kids rose. He led them in the school song.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.