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A trip down memory lane for closing bar that once housed speakeasy, brothel

Last call at Southport Lanes is Sunday. “It’s been one of the strangest six months of our lives,” owner Steve Soble said.

Owner Steve Soble poses for a portrait at Southport Lanes at 3325 N. Southport Ave in Lake View. Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020.
Owner Steve Soble plans to close Southport Lanes on Sunday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In the Roaring Twenties, a mural behind the bar of frolicking garden nymphs quietly hinted at the illicit pleasures to be had just up the staircase.

The mural is still there at Southport Lanes in Lake View, albeit much dimmed from decades of tobacco smoke. The old hand-cranked dumbwaiter remains too — at one time used to shuttle cocktails to the prostitutes and their customers one floor above.

Linda Beitz learned to dance in the bar in the 1960s, when her parents, Leo and Ella, owned it. Her father would shove a quarter in the jukebox and then grab Ella or a customer for the jitterbug or the cha-cha.

“My dad was a fabulous dancer,” said Beitz this week.

There’s been a lot of reminiscing of late, now that Steve Soble, Southport Lanes’ owner since 1991, has decided to close.

“It’s been one of the strangest six months of our lives,” said Soble, 56, echoing the refrain of many a bar owner in the city. He’s had “virtually no one” inside the 6,250-square-foot bar during the pandemic. Even with 50 or so seats outside, he had to pray for good weather.

“When it rained, it was not even worth opening,” he said.

And so on Sunday the bartender will holler “last call!” one more time. The pins in the adjoining four-lane bowling alley clattered for the last time in mid-March after the statewide shutdown.

Soble, then 27, bought the bar from the Beitzes in the early 1990s. Today, posh boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops line the Southport corridor surrounding the bar. When Soble moved to the neighborhood, warring gang factions regularly exchanged gunfire across the thoroughfare. Soble said he once interrupted a murder attempt.

As he led a visitor on a recent tour of the place, Soble stopped to point out the honeycomb-like rack for bowling shoes that hides the first-floor door to the the dumbwaiter, as well as the fancy tin ceiling he had installed when he converted the old beer hall into the a billiards room. He pointed to where Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak would come in the 1930s to play poker in a tiny, secret room that no longer exists.

And he recalled the time in the early 1990s when a short, middle-aged guy came up to him to put his name on the waiting list to bowl.

“I said, ‘Hey, you look familiar.’ He said, ‘I’m Al Pacino.’ I said, ‘We don’t serve cappuccino here.’”

After an embarrassed Soble realized he’d misheard and not recognized one of his all-time favorite actors, who was in town filming “Glengarry Glen Ross,” he said: “Nice to meet you. What size shoes do you wear?”

The Cubs came here, too, in 2004, when pitcher Kerry Wood threw a surprise party for teammate Ryan Dempster. Families have gathered for baptism and wedding parties.

“Maybe someone will come in and do something great with it,” Soble said, sounding just a little wistful. Soble said he’s not yet had any serious offers for the place.

When he first met the previous owners of the bar almost 30 years ago, Soble drank a shot of peach schnapps or Crown Royal with the couple — he doesn’t recall which one now. So on Sunday, he’ll knock back a shot, maybe two.

“That would be the most appropriate way to make last call and shut the lights off,” he said.