Southport Lanes and Billiards, built by Schlitz Brewery in the 1920s, remains a popular hangout on the city's North Side, but did you know the bowling alley was once a front for a speakeasy and brothel?
At one time Schlitz was the largest producer of beer in the world, and early in the 20th Century, Schlitz built hundreds of taverns. Dozens were in Chicago, including what is now Southport Lanes. At the corner of Southport and Henderson, it still proudly displays its former owner's famous logo, just as it did when the tavern opened in 1922.
The massive wooden beams, stained glass windows and classic bar are all original. There is a huge billiards room, where legend has it a betting parlor once thrived. A mural over the bar features lovely, scantily-clad maidens and a hint of illicit activity, possibly because the second floor was once a brothel.
"In that cabinet right there, the shoe cabinet, there's actually, and we can't see it, a dumbwaiter. So when the guys were upstairs and the girls were upstairs, they would order their drinks by the dumbwaiter. That way they were able to serve drunks in the brothel," owner Steve Sobel said.
Legend has it Mayor Anton Cermak used to play cards in a secret room near the front of the bar back in the days of prohibition, when Southport Lanes was a speakeasy.
"When we took it over, it was very dark. There were no windows. It was really hard to get into. Couldn't find the front door actually," Sobel said.
What they did find was a window to the past, including bowling like it used to be and still is: with pin-boys. There are real, live humans who set the pins up after every roll. As the sign says, watch for legs; it can be dangerous duty.
There is no cosmic bowling there, just four tiny, creaky, ancient lanes. It's believed to be the last bowling alley in Chicagoland to use pin-boys and one of only a handful left in the country. To most, it’s a charming link to a bygone era.
"It's a funny because when you get online and look at Yelp, you'll see a couple comments like, ’You won't believe this place, they don't have automatic scoring.’ They miss the whole point," Sobel said.
One of the original table racks, where the pins go, had finally broken down, but luckily they discovered a similar version from the 1940s and installed it successfully. They also still serve Schlitz.