The Future of This Riverwest Institution Is Uncertain

2022-07-02 04:09:45 By : Mr. Jacky Gu

Finality was rolling down the lanes at Falcon Bowl during the last league night of 2022. 

One evening, Vince Bushell was strolling down Clarke Street when the night erupted into sound. The bells of St. Casimir Church were tolling the evening hour; bowling balls were crashing into pins in the basement of Falcon Bowl; somewhere in between, a punk band was screeching out a rehearsal in an attic.  

Bushell, sometimes referred to as the “Mayor of Riverwest” for the number of community projects he’s helped foster, had an epiphany: He was hearing the “collective soul of Riverwest floating up and down the street between St. Casimir’s steeple and the lanes of Falcon Bowl.”  

Actual soul or not, Falcon Bowl has been a longtime melting pot of the neighborhood. It’s where blue-collar workers, punk rockers, neighborhood activists and elderly Polish folks all congregate to roll a game and enjoy cheap beer. The building’s event hall has been used for everything from dart leagues to quinceañeras and wedding receptions to avant-garde theater. 

The building housing Falcon Bowl started as a corner tavern in 1882, with the lanes and event hall added in 1898. The lanes were certified in 1913, making Falcon Bowl one of the oldest operating bowling alleys in the country. Nest 725 of the Polish Falcons of America, a fraternal organization, bought the building in 1945.

It’s the kind of place a neighborhood like Riverwest just can’t stomach losing. 

Bushell helped establish the Riverwest Co-Op Grocery & Cafe, across the street from Falcon Bowl, as a founding member in the early 2000s, and the two businesses formed a close relationship. The Falcon’s event hall hosted benefit pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners to help get the co-op going, and the co-op started its own bowling league, though Bushell admits scoring became optional as it was “impossible to figure out the scrawling of such anarchists.” The Falcon scores bowling the old-fashioned way, with a 10-frame score sheet and a stubby yellow pencil.

This community love for Falcon Bowl is why there was a minor panic in the neighborhood when the building was listed for sale in 2021.

“All of us Riverwesters cringe a bit in our hearts when we think about what may or may not happen to the old hall,” Bushell wrote in an editorial in the Riverwest Currents , a monthly community newspaper he’s published for 21 years, when the sale was announced. “We have national treasures, we should have neighborhood treasures, and this place should be one of them.” 

Speculation floated through the neighborhood that the Falcon could be bought and torn down for “God knows what,” as Bushell put it – perhaps condos like the ones that have popped up around the neighborhood, or some new gastropub or a hip food hall. Something soulless.

Fortunately, a unique investment group has stepped in to buy this neighborhood treasure to help ensure the building keeps its character. 

TOM STOCCO lived around the corner from Falcon Bowl on Bremen Street for about 11 years before moving to Shorewood. He remembers stopping in the bar for 50-cent tappers back in the day. Now he’s part of a community organization called the Riverwest Investment Cooperative (RIC), founded in 2003, which has a goal of improving the neighborhood by buying up properties and fixing them.   

“[The cooperative] pulls capital together to provide direct investment in our community. If the investments are successful, members and investors will receive a return, based on the length of their investment,” Stocco explains. RIC’s first property, bought in 2003, was a house on Holton Street that had been damaged by arson and was sitting vacant, close to being razed by the city. RIC took out a loan, repaired the property and sold it to a family of four in 2005. They did the same thing with a house on Weil Street, and an eight-unit apartment building on First Street.

When Falcon Bowl was listed for sale, “people in the neighborhood said, ‘Hey, why don’t you put something together?’” Stocco says. They did. With help from a silent partner, RIC purchased the building for $500,000. 

Their plan now is to fix up the property – a contractor has already given them a list of “must-dos, should-dos and might be nice if you did,” Stocco says. Among potential improvements: upgrading the event hall kitchen to add food service, as well as improving the stage area and the hall’s light and sound systems. There’s a little-known room with a speakeasy feel behind the stage, complete with its own bar and bathrooms that could be used as an additional space. 

RIC is hoping to rent the business out to the right person. According to an information sheet drafted by RIC for potential tenants, priorities for an operator of the business include making the space a “welcoming and inclusive venue for all residents of Riverwest, including residents of color, the LGBTQIA community, and bowlers who have made this their home lanes for decades,” as well as “preserving ability to host neighborhood events,” and keeping the business “financially sustainable.” 

After receiving a lot of inquiries before a spring deadline, Stocco says, RIC chose one of two formal proposals and, as of this writing, was negotiating terms. The bar was expected to maintain limited or sporadic hours during the transition. If all goes well, repairs can be made, and the new operator could open the doors for good by the end of the year.

ALTHOUGH IT LOOKS like RIC’s criteria for a new tenant will place Falcon Bowl in good hands, it’s still the end of the era. 

One thing the new business will lack is the irreplaceable smiling face of Lynn Okopinski behind the bar and bowling counter. Okopinski and her husband John began running Falcon Bowl in 1982, moving into the three-bedroom apartment above the bar. John passed away 11 years ago, and now, after exactly 40 years at the Falcon, Lynn is retiring. 

“I was scared to death,” Okopinski says, recalling the first time she set foot in the building and felt overwhelmed by the enormity of running the business. “It’s not gotten any easier, so I got to go.”

The clatter of balls striking pins punctuates her sentences as she talks from behind the counter. It’s the popular Wednesday open bowl night, and the six lanes are full, with more bowlers at the upstairs bar, waiting for lanes to open. Music by The Monkees and The Supremes plays on the sound system – the perfect soundtrack to this time capsule of a room, which looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 1960s. Orange and tan plastic seats, beer holders on the scoring tables, racks filled with bowling balls in purple, blue, mottled and standard black – it all feels as comfy as your uncle’s rec room.

As she hands a customer a pair of size 9½ bowling shoes, Okopinski says she’ll be moving to Sun Prairie, and she describes this move, like her first day at the Falcon, as “scary.”

“It’s going to be a lot different; I’ve never left the city,” she says, noting she was born and raised five blocks from Falcon Bowl, working for her parents and grandparents at the family grocery store. 

In her new home, she’ll still have one constant in her life: bowling. “Sun Prairie has wonderful bowling alleys, and they’re not too far from where I’m going to live. Me and John used to bowl tournaments there,” Okopinski says. She has a reputation for being a skilled championship bowler, but she waves her hand in dismissal when this is brought up. 

“I was, key word is was ,” she laughs as a woman approaches the counter and asks for help with math on the score sheet. 

A COUPLE OF WEEKS LATER, it’s the last night of league bowling, which started the first week of September and concludes in late April. There’s a taco bar set up, and tray after tray of shots are being carefully carried down the stairs from the bar. This is sort of the bonus round night of the league, where awards are handed out – best individual scores, most-improved bowler, winning teams. Then, three last rounds of bowling. 

Matt Kaup, a big, burly guy with a beard, is a member of The Boys Are Back team, who have rolled past the Queen B’s, Split Ends, Margarita Queens, Bada Babes and the house Falcon Bowl team to win the league championship – “for the second year in a row!” a teammate shouts triumphantly while picking up a ball. The Boys Are Back, whose members have participated in various Falcon Bowl leagues for the last 15-20 years, won a thousand-dollar cash purse as well as a set of golden hangers emblazoned with “we are the champions” – in a nod to blue-collar practicality, a prize that you can hang your bowling shirts on. But Kaup admits the victory is bittersweet. “It’s sad. This place is like home to me, and I’m going to miss it,” he says. 

“A lot of these people got married here. It’s kind of like a church,” says David Helm, who has been bowling here since the ’80s and has been a member of the Falcon house team the last couple of years. “Some of the people here tonight started bowling here when they were kids. Hopefully the new people keep it this way.” Helm is optimistic he’ll be back on the lanes soon. 

Then, at 10:39 p.m., the last ball rolls down lane 4, delivered by a bowler named Ricky. After hitting two strikes, he ends the night with two pins left standing. The crowd cheers and heads upstairs for another round at the bar. The lane lights are shut off. And that’s it … for now. 

Subscribe Feature Stories Archive Shop for Back Issues Current Issue

Advertise Careers Contact Internships Submission Guidelines Subscribe to our Newsletter

Restaurant Listings Top Docs Best of 2020 Wedding Venues Calendar