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Erwin S. Korzen, who owned one of nation’s largest bowling alleys, dies at 83

Erwin Korzen liked to say “Bowling is my life,” and if anything proves it, it’s that his Town and Country Bowl in Northlake never shut its doors in 37 years.

“They never closed, all day, all night,” said his business partner, Henry Barber. “I don’t think they even had a key to the front door.”

It finally did close in 1991, when it was demolished to make way for Northlake Commons shopping center at North Avenue and Wolf Road.

But when he died last month at his home in Beverly Hills, California, Mr. Korzen was still co-owner of three bowling alleys. One, Addison’s 84-lane Stardust Bowl, is tied for No. 2 in the nation for most lanes, according to the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America. He had liver cancer, said his wife of 58 years, Carolyn.

Mr. Korzen, 83, co-owned two more bowling alleys: Hillside Bowl and Classic Bowl in Morton Grove. Previously, he owned the now-shuttered Super Bowl in Melrose Park and Tri-City Bowl in Gary, said Barber, his business partner since 1993.

He grew up in the Austin neighborhood, where he attended Emmet grade school and played football at Austin High School. His athletic skill earned him a scholarship to Purdue University, his wife said.

But “it wasn’t really for him. He didn’t like college,” she said. “He couldn’t sit at a desk.”

They met when he wandered into a wedding reception at the Drake Hotel. He had been to another wedding at the hotel that same night, but none of the women caught his eye. So, his wife said, Mr. Korzen sailed into the banquet she was attending.

“He was the original wedding crasher, before Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson,” she said. “He came in, he saw me and he asked me to dance, and I guess the rest was history. I was 18 and he was 23.”

They married at the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue in 1956. Her father owned bowling alleys, and the gregarious Mr. Korzen had a hands-on approach that was a natural fit for the business. He enjoyed befriending bowlers and working with the leagues.

In 1987, when visitors said they saw the image of Jesus on a rusting chimney at the Town and Country, Mr. Korzen gave interviews. After the movie “Saturday Night Fever,” he spliced bowling with a dance craze. He illuminated lanes with disco balls and strobe lights and played disco music, his wife said. Patrons got boogie fever and danced in the bar.

“Erwin was very good at being with the people, and they liked him a lot,” his wife said.

“He had friends who were 83, and friends who were in their late 40s, almost 30 years younger,” said his daughter, Brooke Spalding.

In striking up conversations with strangers, he often made longtime friends. One turned out to be screenwriter Joel Cohen, who worked on the movie “Toy Story.”

“I would take all my friends to the bowling alley and go bowling,” said another daughter, Kim Neistat. “My friends thought it was the greatest profession a dad could have —everybody [else’s] father was in business, or just working in an office. . . . He always accepted all my friends.”

He was also popular among his peers. “Erwin Korzen was a no-nonsense, proactive bowling center operator who sincerely valued the patronage and loyalty of his customers and continually reinvested back into his businesses,” said Bill Duff, executive director of the Illinois State and Chicagoland Bowling Proprietors’ Associations.

Mr. Korzen used his bowling alleys and golf tournaments to raise more than $1.3 million for charity, mainly for cancer and Alzheimer’s causes, Barber said. He also organized a fund drive for the Manhattan firehouse hardest hit by the 9/11 attacks. It lost 15 men. He delivered a check of “many thousands” to the firehouse, his business partner said.

Mr. Korzen enjoyed watching police TV shows and the “Godfather” movies. “In our office, every day at lunch, he watched ‘Law and Order,’ ” Barber said.

The Korzens raised their children mainly in Melrose Park, River Forest and Northbrook. In recent years, the couple moved to California.

The family took memorable vacations to Mexico, Japan, France and Italy, among other places. Once, Mr. Korzen took his son, Brad, then 13, to Las Vegas. Through a contact at a casino, Mr. Korzen arranged for them to have lunch with legendary Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio. They also met NFL Hall of Famer Jim Taylor, a Green Bay Packer.

Looking back at that time, “I wish I had a GoPro,” his son said. Later in life, Mr. Korzen discussed real estate investment with his son, whose hotels have been decked out by his wife, celebrity decorator Kelly Wearstler.

Services have been held. Mr. Korzen was buried with a blanket with a design created by one of his five grandchildren. Wearstler had it made, Carolyn Korzen said. “He always had it on his bed.”