Bowling With The Backiels

In 1917 John S. Backiel bought 7 acres of land on the dirt-filled Post Road, near Maple Avenue. He paid $5,000.

The Backiels farmed the property until 1954. That year his sons John and Stanley, and the young men’s brother-in-law, opened up Westport Golf Range. There was a driving range, and miniature golf course. (Today it’s the site of Regent’s Park condominiums.)

According to Jack Backiel, his grandfather — John S. — said that selling a bucket of golf balls was just like selling a basket of tomatoes. Except you got both the basket and the tomatoes back, to sell them again the next day.

Jack was just 7 years old in September 1954, but he remembers opening day. Trick shot artist Paul Hahn wrapped a club (actually a hose) around his body, then swung it and hit a ball off the mouth of his wife, as she lay on the ground.

The golf range “was my whole life as a kid,” Jack recalls.

In October 1958, the Backiels opened a bowling alley — only the 2nd 10-pin alley in the state. Economics favored recreation over farming.

John, Adolph and Stanley Backiel, inside Westport Lanes.

There were 8 owners: John S. Backiel’s children. Daily management was the responsibility of 3: John, Stanley and Adolf. The site is what is now Pier 1.

Business boomed. With lines out the door, the original 16 lanes soon expanded to 32. Soon, the Backiels added a pool room downstairs, and the Club 300 bar.

In the early years John Hersey — author of Hiroshima, and a former member of Westport’s Board of Education — bowled there several times a week.

Next door, when Mickey Rooney — acting at the Westport Country Playhouse — would hit buckets of balls at the golf range. Then he’d hang around for a couple of hours, talking to women and giving impromptu “golf lessons” to whoever listened.

Those recollections — and many more — come from Jack Backiel, John’s son and John S.’s grandson.

Jack says, “Our family was definitely on the cutting edge of bowling, as the new wave of family recreation began in the United States.” Bowling leagues thrived, from 1960 through the mid-’80s. Local businesses sponsored teams, advertising their names on the back of shirts.

The bowling alley stationery showed the building’s 1950’s-style facade.

In the fall of 1961, Westport Lanes was on “Candid Camera.” The last 2 lanes were rigged so that thin piano wires ran under the pins. When a couple came to bowl, they were assigned those lanes.

“The guy would bowl his regular score, but every time the woman got up, a mechanic in back would pull a lever. The piano wires moved just enough so all the pins fell down, no matter where she threw the ball.

“The poor guy out on a date would bowl his 125 game,” Jack continues. “His date would roll a 288. The hidden camera focused on his expression as she got strike after strike after strike.”

Paul Gambaccini — the “Professor of Pop,” and one of the most famous radio and TV music personalities in the UK — grew up not far from Westport Lanes. Earlier this year, in a Financial Times profile, he related the pinpoint accuracy of bowling to his precision cuing record.

And he recalled his earliest bowling days.

It was that period of the suburbanisation of America when an indispensible part of every new town was the bowling alley. It’s broken my heart to see bowling go downhill. Now it’s a sort of retro, kitsch thing. Nixon, for all his faults, was a bowler. He had a bowling alley in the basement of the White House.

One night in 1972, while the lanes were being refinished with a flammable coat of lacquer, they went up in flames. The cause was spontaneous combustion, Jack says, and the intense heat twisted steel.

A year later, the rebuilt Westport Lanes opened again.

Frances Lee at the Westport Golf Range, next door to Westport Lanes.

The bowling alley remained a kingpin of local recreation until 1984. Jack’s father — the youngest owner — was already in his 60s. The property was their nest egg. They sold the lanes and adjacent golf range for $6.8 million.

Two of the original owners are still alive. One aunt is 95; the other just turned 101.

“There wasn’t much entertainment in Westport back then, especially for kids,” Jack recalls. “We were it.”

That entertainment resonated with countless people. To this day, Jack says — even in retirement in Florida — when someone hears he’s from Westport, and that his family owned the bowling alley and golf range, they remember it.

And then they tell him stories about their favorite times there.

(Jack Backiel would love to hear more memories of the golf range and bowling alley. Click “Comments,” or email him:

19 responses to “Bowling With The Backiels

  1. Like so many westporters who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s the golf range, miniature golf and the bowling lanes were all part of the fabric of our childhood..I remember the clown hole at the end of miniature gold, if you got the ball in the center hole, which i think was the clowns nose, a red light bulb went off and you won a free round, at the time ti felt like you won something much more, and looking back on those days it appears I did win something much more, amazing and tender memories

  2. Well said, Marc, and I too had many enjoyable times at the bowling alley and miniature golf course. And my mom was on a team in a league there, and I know she also enjoyed it very much. (By the way, I love that recollection about the selling of a basket of tomatoes in contrast with the selling of a bucket of golf balls.)

  3. And … don’t forget the skating rink and the trampolines. Different family, perhaps, but all part of the same ‘recreational strip’ that ultimately ended up as condos.

  4. Eric Buchroeder

    Every time when I think you’ve outdone yourself with the buried treasure you unearth, you prove me wrong and do it again. My father took me there when I was three. One of our Sunday afternoons.

  5. Holly, the trampolines and the other golf range were a different business that opened after ours. I’m not sure of the exact date, but maybe it opened in 1961. It’s interesting to note that the land used for the other golf range was the town dump for decades. I remember the land in the early 1950s as the dump.

  6. My mom played in a league for years and I remember going to the babysitting room in the basement while she played. I was small, so my favorite part was the store with all the shiny different colored bowling balls. A few years later I remember going to many birthday parties at the miniature golf course. I was so sad when it all went away!

  7. I remember Paul Hahn at the golf range – he put on a good show!! I worked in the miniature golf booth for many summers and they were all memorable, fun times!! The guys like to poke fun at me because my Mom was always calling to check up on me!!! “Susan, your Mom’s on the phone”!!! Great times and memories!! Thank you Uncle Johnny and Aunt Bert………………..

  8. How many fond memories I have of the bowling alley and the miniature golf course!! Followed up by dinner across the street at Leong’s Palace, and it was a great evening. I cannot tell you how many birthday parties I went to that were held at the golf or bowling alley, but I can tell you with confidence, that it was probably EVERY party. For a number of years of my childhood and I wish we had it back. I’d trade every store in that complex just to have that piece of old westport back. Thanks for the memory!

  9. I never got that clown’s nose, BUT I CAN TELL YOU EXACTLY WHERE IT WAS on the course. The last hole. You stood facing towards downtown. I never got that clown. It was gold.

  10. Larry Perlstein

    I spent many Saturday mornings at the lanes bowling in junior leagues and I was devastated when they burned down. Bowling is undergoing a bit of a renaissance — witness the high end bowling party places like the new Bowlmor in Times Square. I wonder if it’s time for bowling in Westport again? As the dad of a 4 yr old, I’d welcome some other place for birthday parties aside from Little Gym and inflatable places!

  11. I Remember:

    1) The huge granite “balls” at the entrance to the bowling alley;

    2) Trying to win a free mini-golf game by getting a ball into the clown’s nose and ;

    3) Trying to “hit” the Jeep that drove around collecting the golf balls on the driving range. The guy driving it was lucky the Jeep had a cage around it because my friends and I were pretty good at hitting it!

  12. Amazing, the shared memories at this small stretch of the Post Road…ditto, my experience: I was put in day care downstairs while my mother bowled with some league she got into through New Neighbors org. (mid-sixties); miniature golf birthday parties (early seventies); after school bowling league, a Mr. Mahakian presiding on the Mic (mid seventies); having a beer (or two) while slowly working on a bucket and trying to nail the dude in the truck (high school); coming back from college and its gone.

    • Mr Mahakian was my 5th grade teacher and I remember we played some kind of league in elementary school at the westport lanes and he was the guy at the counter…he was old school

      • Yeah, Marc, Mahakian was old school! I was jealous of the Coleytown kids like Weisburger and Bieler who already knew him, it made them SO much cooler at the Lanes when he called out high scores and said their names with fond familiarity.

  13. A Long Time Ago

    Thinking about miniature golf – does anyone remember the driving range and miniature golf on Hillspoint Rd, across from the Penguin? Not sure when it started or ended, but remember waiting for the Good Humor man there on summer nights. We lived across the street.

  14. Nancy Powers Conklin

    I remember the miniature golf course on Hillspoint. That is going way, way back! I used to play in the woods behind the fence of the golf range next to Westport Lanes. We would find lots of balls there and take them home and unwrap them. There was something like a super ball at the core once you got the whole thing unwrapped. I also bowled in the Clam Box league on Saturday mornings starting in 5th or 6th grade. Such great memories…

  15. I remember seeing John Hersey at the lanes often, and Jim McKay, too.
    A good friend of mine was on the “Candid Camera “segment with his father (the kid was maybe 12) and it was about what you’d expect. The father was happy and semi-proud the first couple of times his son severely missed the pocket but got strikes anyway. By the third or fourth time, he was glaring. My friend actually tried to insist “I was doing really well that day anyway,” but who did he think he was kidding?

  16. Linda Gramatky Smith

    I was a cigarette smoker only in my junior year of Staples (ca February 1959) when I was going steady with Pete Kelley for a few months. Of course I didn’t tell my parents, but one day I was at the Westport Lanes bowling alley with friends, bowled a strike, floated back to where I’d left my cigarette, took a big drag … and looked up. There were my parents, Hardie and Doppy Gramatky, who had dropped by to see me bowl! Secret out. But they were cool about it and never mentioned it again, and by the summer of 1959 I had decided to stop smoking cigarettes. But I never stopped bowling at this wonderful alley until I went away to college. Happy memories.