Tag Archives: Westport Lanes

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: jjbackiel@aol.com.)

Where’s The Fire?!

No matter how many references to the past I toss out on “06880,” alert readers always offer more. They dredge up memories buried deeper than the old town dump upon which the Westport Library now sits.

The other day, for example, I mentioned the former Vigilant Firehouse. It’s that slender structure on Wilton Road, in the parking lot behind the Inn at National Hall.

The Vigilant Firehouse, circa 1977. (Photo/Norwalk Hour, Bramac Studios)

The story was about 2 new restaurants moving to the area, but Doug Bond pounced on the building. Though he now lives in San Francisco, the story brought him back to his 1970s childhood on Edge Hill Road.

That’s the street that runs between Wilton Road and North Kings Highway. (It’s a fantastic little shortcut, though folks who live there always fume when I mention it publicly. So I won’t.)

A firehouse siren, Doug reminded me, blared every day at 5 p.m. It also sounded for every big fire, summoning volunteers to help fight the blaze.

How did they know where to go? A series of short and long blasts indicated exactly where in town it was. The number of times the signal was repeated indicated the seriousness of each fire.

The code, Doug says, was also published in the phone book. (I never knew that.) (If you don’t know what a “phone book” is, ask your parents.)

He remembers the terror he felt when 4 consecutive blasts — the signal for his part of town — rang out.

That code was also used by other firehouses in town. One night, home from college, I was awakened by a series of blasts. Things were ominous. I forget how I knew out the code, but I got up and drove a short distance from High Point to the Post Road.

Sure enough, the bowling alley — now Pier 1, near V Restaurant — was ablaze. You haven’t seen a real fire until you’ve seen bowling pins — sparked by the lacquered lanes — fly out through what used to be a roof.

I guess if you grew up in Westport, listening to fire sirens was a ritual we all shared.

Today, Doug notes, we find out where the fire is by checking our tweets.