Stars Jon Heder and Jim O’Heir spend two weeks in Lansing, Illinois
by Carrie Steinweg
LANSING, Ill. (August 2017) – The bowling business isn’t quite what it used to be when Lansing’s Lan-Oak Lanes first opened its doors in 1953. The building was built by Mike and Mary Genovese as an eight-lane bowling alley, and in 1959 it was expanded to 16 lanes. Mike and Mary’s sons, Don and Wayne, joined the business full time in 1960. Wayne moved to Arizona in 1979, but Don is still at the lanes regularly, though his sons Dale and Tom run most of the day-to-day operations. Both sons have worked at the bowling alley since they were teenagers. “It’s been a family operation since day one,” said Don Genovese, whose wife, Natalie, also does the bookkeeping.
According to Don, it was “the retro feel” that drew filmmakers to the bowling alley to film a movie in August. The indie film “When Jeff Tried to Save the World” stars Jon Heder, best known for his role as Napoleon Dynamite. Playing a supporting role is Jim O’Heir, of the television series Parks and Recreation. Director Kendall Goldberg is a Munster native.
In the movie, Jeff is manager of a small-town bowling alley called Winky’s World. He is trying to save it from being sold and torn down.
“Kendall always wanted to shoot a film in a bowling alley and wrote the story about something that looks exactly like this,” said co-producer Jimmy Seargeant on one of the final days of filming. “She lives in L.A. and looked at about 40 different bowling alleys and in the end came home to visit her parents and happened to stumble across this bowling alley which was absolutely perfect looks-wise.”
Producer Shane Simmons was pleased with how hospitable the Genovese family was.
“Immediately upon walking in here Kendall said the fact that it felt so much like home is what sold it—and not only the building itself but the people who run it,” said Simmons. “The family who runs it being so warm and friendly and accommodating and enthusiastic really made a huge difference because it would have been a much different shoot without that.”
Seargeant said that shooting in a small town means you get a lot of interest and support from residents. “We did a scene one day where we had almost 80 extras from all over town come and give up their day and hang out with us,” he said.
The crew spent nearly three weeks filming in the Chicago area—almost two weeks in Lansing, one week in Chicago’s Logan Square area, and a day in Oak Park. Simmons said he expects a theatrical run, video on-demand, and Blu-ray release in the spring of 2018.
True to life
Dale Genovese can relate to the premise of the movie. He knows the business has seen ups and downs, and he recalls a time when there was a waiting list to get into one of leagues. “League bowling is almost fading off the face of the earth,” he said. “Young people don’t want to make a commitment for 35 weeks. It’s rough trying to find league bowlers anymore. Everyone in this area is losing bowlers for youth bowling.”
But Dale said he has seen a slight increase in recent years of families coming in to bowl casually. “It was down for a long time in the early 2000s. When phones took over people stopped doing anything,” he said. “It’s coming back a little. We’ll see young people start to get into it, but they’re here for a bit and then don’t come back.”
What keeps Lan-Oak Lanes going these days is a combination of private parties and fundraisers. And they do still have loyal customers who have been coming in for decades. “Sometimes people come in and say they used to work here for my grandfather when they were kids, and they would set the pins by hand before they had machines,” said Dale.
Holidays are some of the busiest times of the year for Lan-Oak Lanes. On Thanksgiving the place is filled with families. “We have regulars who come in every Thanksgiving, and I see the same families every year,” said Dale. “They come in and keep that tradition going to pass on to their kids.” In contrast, summers can be a struggle as people tend to spend time outdoors.
But this summer anyway, Lan-Oak Lanes was busier than ever as they transformed from traditional small-town bowling alley to Hollywood movie set.