From movie theater to pizza parlor, a unique venue has overcome difficulties to serve the community
By Marlene Cook
LANSING, Ill. (September 13, 2022) – It was in September 1945 that The Times first reported, “Plans and specifications have been completed for a $100,000 movie theater in Lansing. The land has been acquired and the project formed. Actual construction awaits only the availability of materials.”
Two years later, in 1947, during the heyday of the B-Westerns and before those little black-and-white television sets with the rabbit ears entered every living room, the Lans Theater became a reality. It held a pre-opening on January 28 and officially opened at 6 p.m. on January 29, 1947.
Modern and deluxe
The cost of the project had jumped to $170,000. According to Manager Thomas Pappas, it was the fifth of a chain of theaters operated by the Kalsfat Brothers, and the projection and sound equipment was of the latest design and best quality. Lans Theater was the most modern movie house in the region.
Designed by Chicago Theater Architect Erwin G. Fredrick, the 803-seat theater was constructed of Indiana limestone and granite with an art deco theme. A fancy box office and a marquee with distinctive lighting announced the Hollywood stars to be seen on the screen inside. The luxuriously upholstered seats were spaced to provide a comfortable experience. Using an underwater theme, the walls were painted in water waves and fish. Pop machines were located on the sides of the grand hall leading from the Ridge Road entrance. The concession stand provided popcorn and candy. There was a balcony, but it was usually closed on Saturdays when the kiddie shows were featured.
Lans Theater also became the annual Good Friday venue for the Lutheran churches of Lansing to hold services. Other organizations used the facility for a wide variety of fundraisers, including some for the fire and police departments.
Problems and attempted solutions
But by mid-1949, Ridge Road business had doubled, and parking was a real problem. There was no parking in front of the Lans Theater, as the front was used for drop-off and pick-up. Santori’s Liquors, across the street from the theater, put up a sign prohibiting parking in their lot, and they strictly enforced the policy. Today the ghost sign remains on the cement retaining wall between Santori’s and the former Baker’s Square Restaurant.
The owners had promised family films and Saturday matinees for kids, but within a few years, management claimed they were forced to compete against television by showing second-run movies. As a result, business was poor.
Under new management
New management, Alliance Theater Corp. of Chicago, took over in October 1950. Charles Kloepfer, former manager of the Roseland Theater, was placed in charge. Lans Theater temporarily closed in March of 1951, but ads resumed in the April 18, 1951, edition of The Times announcing the showing of the American Western film Sugarfoot, starring Randolph Scott. The “extra” film was The Kefauver Crime Investigation.
In June 1960, owner Roger Scherer named Ted Stevens as the new manager. The struggling theater returned to showing kiddie matinees, but now on Tuesdays during the summer. Tickets were not sold but were distributed at some retail stores free to kids younger than 12 years.
Lans Theater hung on for 35 years until financial problems forced it to close for good in March 1982. The owner at that time was Ernest Johnson, who bought it in October and also owned the Dolton Theater that he claimed had been paying Lansing’s bills. Johnson said, “Part of the financial trouble was its image as a theater that featured only G-rated family movies, and R-rated movies just don’t do well here.”
From movies to music
While sitting quietly boarded up at 3524 Ridge Road, the Lans Theater, a historical landmark in Lansing, caused little or no drama. Then it was put up for sale, and the prospective owners announced plans to turn it into a pizza parlor. Rumors of an arcade and the serving of alcohol caused controversy.
In 1983, Roger Triemstra, well-known WGN television and radio meteorologist for 33 years, bought the old theater with three of his cousins by marriage: Andrew Vogel, Archie Boomsma, and Chuck Zeilstra. They gutted it to transform it into a pizza parlor. But unlike any other pizza restaurant, the Pipes and Pizza establishment would provide professional entertainment on a huge 1,000-pipe Barton theater organ while silent movies flickered on the theater screen.
Fire, gravel, games, and liquor
Triemstra had hoped to be open by Labor Day, but a series of problems delayed those plans. First, the organ was in storage awaiting restoration work when a major fire damaged it to the point that it would require rebuilding rather than restoring. This was a huge setback because the historic organ was intended to be the big draw. It was built in 1927 and installed in the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee. The organ had several other homes that included a roller rink in Mokena, a Minneapolis pizza parlor, and a private residence.
Second, the gravel parking lot. Triemstra said he’d pave the lot, however it was at the foot of a hill and acted as drainage for surrounding properties. Triemstra said he was willing to provide for drainage of storm water from his property, but not for all businesses on Ridge Road. The Village of Lansing refused to help financially. Not wanting his patrons to park in a pothole-pocked lot, Triemstra said he’d abide by ordinances but would pave the lot before winter.
Third, design problems. Triemstra planned a separate room with video games and other special amusements. Because he planned on more than six games he was required to obtain a special use permit from the Lansing’s Planning and Zoning Board to operate a video arcade. Additional discussion before a vote included restricted hours, number of machines, and square footage for each one. The approval took longer than anticipated, but Village Trustees finally granted Triemstra’s special use request for a restaurant with live entertainment, old movies, rides for children, and electronic games. But it came with another caveat.
Fourth, because Triemstra planned to have 25 machines in the arcade room, which was a former barber shop and several other retail stores before that, the board required that he remove a wall that had separated the businesses from the theater in order to conform to Village codes on spacing. That caused another delay.
Fifth, Triemstra was denied a liquor license. He wanted to serve beer and wine with his pizza, and he wasn’t sure the business would be profitable without it. Mayor Louis LaMourie refused to allow any more liquor licenses in the village. “This is a nice town the way it is,” said LaMourie. “If you give a license to one, you have to give it to every one of the 25 on my list.”
Big celebrities, little profits
Pipes and Pizza finally opened in early December of 1983 without the availability of alcoholic beverages. Dave Wickerham became the staff organist on the 3-manual, 17-rank organ. The organ featured red LED lights on the external instruments that lit up for each note being played.
Through Triemstra’s relationships at WGN he was able to bring celebrities to the restaurant. In 1986 Bozo the Clown and his sidekick Cookie visited. Tickets for The Bozo Show had a seven-year wait, but Lansing children got to see Bozo and Cookie in person on a Saturday afternoon. Other colleagues of Triemstra visited from time to time for charity fundraisers.
Still, it just wasn’t enough to keep things afloat. Triemstra was right — without the beer and wine to go with the pizza, the business wasn’t very profitable. Pipes and Pizza was put on the market in 1990 for $350,000. The Triemstra group thought this was a reasonable price since they had invested more than $1 million in its renovation, but there were no buyers. The restaurant was closed and boarded up on May 16, 1990, and it remained vacant for five years.
No lease, no license, no deal
After months of negotiations with prospective buyers, the Village Board, which had previously refused to increase the number of liquor licenses but was now desperate to alleviate the eyesore the building had become, created a special license for Pipes and Pizza. The prospective owners wanted that license issued before they bought the building. In exchange, the Village wanted the new owners to lease their parking lot to the Village, who would then maintain it as a public lot. No lease, no license. This deal fell apart before the closing date, and the building was taken off the market.
Beggars Pizza takes over
In March 1995, Pipes and Pizza put the building and the parking lot on the auction block. Bidding would start at $125,000. An open house was held for interested bidders, and a steady stream of “lookers” came through. Five bids were submitted, and Beggars Pizza was the winner with a bid of $250,000. Bill Balmer, who had lived in Lansing for many years, was part of the Blue Island-headquartered franchise. He planned to name the business “Beggars Old-Time Music and Pizzeria.”
Delays continued to plague the business. Issuing a new liquor license, making sure the building was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, negotiating about the arcade room — all these processes added weeks to the timeline.
At last, a closing date was set for May 16, 1995, and final papers were signed by Bill and Mary Balmer and Larry and Peter Garetto, owners of the Blue Island-based Beggars Pizza Franchise Corp. They made improvements inside and out, including hiring Glenn Tallar to entertain on the pipe organ on Tuesdays and Fridays. For many years Tallar was a popular feature, particularly for large groups who were celebrating special events.
But now the Grand Barton sits in silence on a platform along the back wall. Tallar moved to Arizona in 2021 and has not yet been replaced.
Serving pizza and kindness, Lansing-style
To some, Beggars is more than a pizzeria. The owners have invested in the building to maintain its unique history as a small-town theater, and they’ve invested in the community by serving pizza and kindness during difficult times. When a staff member’s daughter sustained a brain injury, Beggars hosted a benefit for “Super Teci” and raised enough money for specialized medical equipment. And when a local family needed a special place for a funeral luncheon in memory of their Beggars-Pizza-loving nephew, the manager accommodated their large group and even made arrangements for table service, in spite of a labor shortage.
Like many restaurants in Lansing, Beggars Pizza has been forced to make adjustments since COVID. But the family-theater-turned-family-pizzeria is still serving families more than just pizza.
Beggars Pizza is located in the old Lans Theater building at 3524 Ridge Road. Current menu options, hours, and contact info are available at beggarspizza.com/locations/lansing.