Every generation of East Siders, it seems, has been inclined to claim Landmark Lanes as its own. I first went there with a friend addicted to arcade games in the early ‘80s. Within no time, I was there nearly every Tuesday for import night -- a habit that lasted for more years than I remember.
And during those years, there was absolutely no equivalent to Tuesdays at Landmark. The place was packed to the gills. The back bar, the main bar, the arcade, the bowling alleys … every inch was stuffed with people. Descending the steps with a thirst for a beer, you knew that cold one would have to wait because you’d run into at least a dozen people or groups of people you knew before you could belly up.
Older folks tell similar stories and certainly the scene didn’t die when I stopped going. Landmark Lanes turns 80 this week and it deserves a celebration.
There will be a private one for media and VIP types on Monday, April 23, says Jason Lusk, who is helping New Land -- which bought Landmark from the Pritchett family in 2002 -- promote the anniversary.
“The April 23rd event is for media and neighborhood leaders,” says Lusk. “We expect 50-75 people, many of whom will be neighborhood business owners. Ald. D'Amato and East Side Association executive director Jim Plaisted will both be there."
Mayor Tom Barrett has also committed to attending and will be invited to speak.
But, he adds, the bar -- or more accurately, the complex of bars -- will allow the public to join in the celebration, too.
“Instead of doing an ‘event,’ the bar is doing a week of 80th anniversary specials and promotions, will run a radio spot next week on WLUM in partnership with Miller Brands, and will likely do an announcement on the ‘official’ anniversary day, April 27.”
And that’s a good thing, because the public is what has made Landmark such a unique hotspot on the East Side. Some feared that when the Pritchetts, who had owned Landmark since buying it from United Artists in 1972, left, the place just wouldn’t be the same.
But majority owner Slava Tuzhilkov understood that he was buying more than just a bar.
“I owned other businesses on the East Side for eight years, so I was familiar with the area,” Tuzhilkov says. “Everyone is welcome and feels comfortable. We have a universal atmosphere (that) I hope never changes.”
That’s why if you’re a Landmark regular, you know that not a lot has changed. In fact, Bill Ryan has been the manager of the place since the early ‘70s.
Landmark Lanes is in the Oriental Theater complex that was built in 1927 on the site of the former Farwell Station horse, mule and streetcar barn. Despite the stock market crash two years later and the arrival of Prohibition, Bensinger’s -- as the bar was originally called -- survived. New ownership changed the name to Oriental Lanes in the ‘50s and the Prichetts dubbed it Oriental Landmark Lanes when they purchased the property.
The place has such a reputation as a place to meet and greet that politicians like John Edwards, Frank Zeidler, Lee Dreyfus and Gloria Steinem have gone there to press the flesh and celebrities like Brewers Lyle Overbay and George “Boomer” Scott have been there, as have been former Bucks star Ray Allen and Mark Tauscher of the Packers.
And in the musical world, everyone from David Byrne to Ringo Starr to Gloria Estefan to Everclear to Ted Nugent to Norah Jones to The Dixie Chicks have popped in, too.
Outside, everything looks the same. Head downstairs and the arcade still flickers off to the right, the sound of pins toppling is still heard from beyond the bowling shoe rental counter. The side bar -- formerly the locker room for the league bowlers -- is still the place to be and still has the East Side’s only bumper pool table.
The back bar -- formerly jazz guitarist George Pritchett’s domain -- also once had bowling lanes, but for years has been darts central. The main bar is still the best place to keep a watchful eye over almost the entire complex.
“We have spent the first several years doing some overdue maintenance,” says Tuzhilkov. “Painting, carpet replacement and a lot of other small things to bring it up to what I feel the area expects in a business. I know what people on the East Side look for in a business and my plan was and is to meet their needs.”
Wisely, Tuzhilkov was aware that what makes Landmark Lanes so special is the fact that it is so special. Each bar has its own vibe and spending an evening there is like bar hopping without every having to go outside.
“(It has) unique atmosphere,” Tuzhilkov says. “I heard many times people call Landmark (a) second home, were many customers spent a lot of time and meet with friends. We are like an underground entertainment center with a home recreation room atmosphere. And what seems to keep people coming back is the number of things you can do here. We have bowling, pool, darts, an arcade; just a lot of stuff to do.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.