Memory Lane: Down Under

The Illini Union rec center debuted Pinball machines in the early 1970s, followed by video arcade games. (Image courtesy of UI Alumni Association)
If the Illini Union’s first floor is the University’s living room where students meet and study, then its basement is the rec room where they eat and play

In the early 1980s, an intrepid Illio writer, accompanied by a friend, ventured into “the bowels, the darker recesses of the Illini Union,” hoping to find out what kind of cellar dwellers frequented the bowling alley and the billiards room. There, in the Union’s basement, Byron Geannopoulos, ’83 LAS—the Illio writer—discovered a subterranean realm far removed from the safe and cozy confines of the Union’s wood-paneled first floor.

“On our descent,” Geannopoulos wrote, “the scene changed: the light became punctuated with small, brilliant flashes; the air filled with horrible shrieks, chaotic beeps and electric voices.”

Geannopoulos and his friend had stumbled across what he called “the Gallery of Games”—an assemblage of iconic arcade games such as “Asteroids” and “Missile Command,” being patronized by joystick jockeys, who were rapidly feeding quarters into the noisy machines.

As it turned out, there was nothing spooky about the Illini Union’s basement. If the Illini Union’s first floor is the University’s living room—the place where students meet and study—the basement is the school’s rec room—the place where students eat and play.

The Illini Union Café circa 1940s. (Image courtesy of UI Alumni Association)

When the Illini Union opened in 1941, the rec center’s bowling alley wowed undergraduates, some of whom thought it was too nice to be used. (Image courtesy of UI Alumni Association)

Students have been flocking to the latter ever since the building opened in February 1941. The gleaming bowling alley especially seems to have wowed the 1940s-era undergraduates, many of whom were from rural areas and had never seen such a sight.

Top: Steve Cusick (Image by Liz Canty courtesy of Illio 1979; Bottom: Billiards room after 1960s remodel (Image courtesy of UI Alumni Association)

“The bowling alley really knocked students’ eyes out,” the Daily Illini reported on the Union’s first day. “Questions of ‘When will the alley open?’ and ‘How much will it cost?’ were fired at the alley attendants. Many students thought the alley was too nice to be used and should be saved for exhibition purposes.”

Don Franz, an engineering freshman, made history on Jan. 3, 1961, when he rolled the first perfect game at the University’s bowling alley. Twice before, Franz had bowled eight straight strikes, but this was the first time he had gotten to the magical number 12.

Another popular hang-out was the billiards room. During the 1970s, Steve Cusick, ’80 BUS, a wizard with the pool cue, was a familiar fixture there. Characterized by the Illio as “a demigod in the Illini Union pool room,” Cusick went undefeated for four years in the Illini Union billiards tourney and won the Big Ten championship in billiards.

“It’s ironic,” Cusick told the Illio. “The game that got me into trouble in high school is paying my tuition through college.”

As Geannopoulos discovered, the University’s rec room also offered fun in the form of arcade games. The Union installed pinball machines in the early-1970s, and they were instantly popular. A few years later, video arcade games were added.

“People attend the electronic games, moving in unison with the outputs on the screen,” Geannopoulos wrote, describing the Union arcade scene circa 1983. “Most played their few quarters and slunk off beaten, rejected. But a few stood out. They monopolized their particular machine—they were skilled. These students spent more time in front of their machines than in class.”

The lower level of the Illini Union is indeed, as Geannopoulos’ article put it, a “basement of a different kind.”