Forward Lanes, a beloved East End venue occupied by recreationalists, social groups and professional bowlers, marked its final frame on Saturday, March 24 at the age of 94.
Its demise was due to an eviction for “nonpayment of rent and additional rent,” said David Tkacik of Equity Real Estate, the property manager.
Established in 1924, the 17-lane alley, which formerly occupied a second story Squirrel Hill structure, was originally home to two floors of duckpin lanes.
“Pittsburgh was a duckpin city. Cleveland and places west of Pittsburgh were always tenpin,” said Guy “Buddy” DeLuca Jr., of Forest Hills.
Although the 70-year-old’s father had operated Forward Lanes between 1959 and 1986, the family’s connections go back even earlier.
In 1924, DeLuca’s dad was a carpenter for the Watkins family, owners of both Forward Lanes and Watkins Real Estate. After pursuing an opportunity in New York with the Firestone Tire Company, he returned to Pittsburgh and headed up Forward Lanes, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 1984.
With alleys both upstairs and beneath, the space possessed a back entrance on Maeburn Road where mechanics could access the 12 lanes which were separated from another five lanes, explained the son.
The “spacing” was reminiscent of prior times.
“I don’t think you can find any odd lane center now,” DeLuca said before adding that it was around the “late 1940s when they went to 17 lanes,” and around 1959 when “they got the tenpin machines.”
Paperwork confirms such recollections. A 1947 City of Pittsburgh Certificate of Occupancy states that Combination Window Company occupied the ground level, while later records reveal subsequent tenants.
Although the first floor neighbors changed throughout the decades, Forward Lanes remained. Polished and preserved, the place was a familiar denizen for generations.
“The lanes were part of the community forever. We had people there who owned Giant Eagle to garbage men, to attorneys and doctors. Everyone mingled there and nobody was special, you were all just bowling there and having fun,” said DeLuca.
“Forward Lanes meant everything, that was the go to place,” echoed Bob Wissman, a former owner of the alley.
Between 1984 and 2004, the 65-year-old Forest Hills resident ran the space.
“There were only two places to go for families at that time: Forward Lanes and the Squirrel Hill Theater,” Wissman said.
“It was just part of the community,” agreed DeLuca.
Having such a shared space is what will be most missed, said former patrons.
“I’ve been going there for quite a few years,” noted Brian Cynamon, 70, of Squirrel Hill. Back then its dated decor “wasn’t all that different” from its recent adornment.
“It all looked the same. You go to the top of the steps, it had the year that it was established. There wasn’t much that was different except for the carpeting,” said Martin Huttner, 68.
There were “old fashioned vending machines” in the corner, and “soft drinks,” which were available for purchase.
“There wasn’t a bar back then, but the actual bowling alley looked exactly the same as far as I can remember,” agreed Ira Frank, 60.
The lanes were part of the community forever…Everyone mingled there and nobody was special, you were all just bowling there and having fun.
In 2003, Forward Lanes acquired a liquor license. One year later, when Andrea and Kevin Brewer took over for Wissman, the Forest Hills resident kept the license, but directed the new owners to attorney Linda Goldston, who helped the couple acquire a beer license. But even before mini Coronas were served in iced buckets or drafts were delivered in a plastic cups, Forward Lanes was a watering hole.
As a teenager, Huttner used to frequent the spot with his fellow Gateway AZA bowling buddies.
“Everyone in the league was Jewish. We had a lot of people in the league, around 45 to 50,” he recalled. “Sometimes we brought Mineo’s pizza, which was very nice and still is.”
Birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, B’nai B’rith meetings and other communal functions were routine. So too was league play.
“My dad used to have two leagues: 9 and 10:30 every morning. My dad would go to Poli’s for lunch, then leagues in the afternoon: 1 and 2:30, then leagues at night: 7 and 9:30, Monday through Friday,” said DeLuca.
Weekends were “always crowded,” he added. “My dad would open the bowling alley at noon and by 12:07 every lane was filled.”
But over the years, attendance waned.
“The league end of it started to dwindle and the leagues are what paid your bills, all your rent and utilities and payroll. The kids off the street were the profit,” said Wissman.
With The Waterfront opening in 1999, the businesses adjacent to Forward Lanes, such as the theater and Champs, a Wissman-owned bar, began to suffer.
“To see the street decline like that, it really hurt,” said the prior proprietor. “I was down there a couple of weeks ago and it’s very sad what I see there, the street there was so vibrant at one time. It was like Times Square sometimes on the weekend.”
Even so, the old haunt gives rise to great memories.
“We filmed a couple of movies in there: ‘Roommates’ (1995) with Peter Falk and D.B. Sweeney. And we gave lessons to Randy Quaid and Woody Harrelson in ‘Kingpin’ (1996), so we had Hollywood there as well,” said Wissman.
That was the heartbeat of the neighborhood. It’s definitely a death in the family for that town.
For DeLuca, lights out at the lanes signals a startling end.
“I was there all the time,” he said. “Mommy knew where I was at because I was always at the lanes.”
While his dad would manage, DeLuca would aid. “I worked for free and bowled a lot of games.”
Sometimes he would roll 50 games a day. Often, it would be 200 to 250 games per week.
“I happened to get pretty good there,” he said.
In the 1960s, at the age of 12, DeLuca bowled on television with Nick Perry. A decade later, he was captain of Team USA when the nine-member team competed against bowlers from 24 nations in the World Championship Games in Caracas, Venezuela. “The U.S. team finished second and DeLuca finished 15th in the world,” reported the Post-Gazette.
The accolades continued.
“I went to the military and won the Army Singles, Doubles, Teams, all events two years in a row, then I came home and went to Robert Morris [University]. We won four bowling championships there. I was most valuable player for four years, I’m in the Robert Morris Hall of Fame, I’m the youngest member of the Pittsburgh Bowling Hall of Fame,” he said.
“The whole career started from being at Forward Lanes. You don’t think about it then, but it changed my whole life…I feel horrible that the place is closed.”
“That was the heartbeat of the neighborhood. It’s definitely a death in the family for that town,” said Wissman.
The 5844 Forward Ave. space is available for an appointment or tour, noted marketing materials from Equity Real Estate.
“Asking rent is $8,500,” added Tkacik.
“Hopefully it will be rented again by someone,” said Wissman. “Hopefully somebody will get back into it and get her going again, hopefully somebody will.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.