Times Lounge owner: Downtown not the same

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11430553138893.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jeff Helberg’, ‘Downtown mainstay the Times Lounge will shut its doors for good March 25.’);

Sam Salamone discusses March 24-25 ‘Grand Closing Party,’ demise of downtown Rockford

Try talking to Sam Salamone, 79, about the closing of his downtown mainstay, the Times Lounge, and all he wants to talk about are the changing times. He remembers a time many of us can’t even imagine—a time when downtown Rockford was actually bustling.

“Everybody moved out,” Salamone said. “We had Weise’s downtown, which is Bergner’s now. Owen’s, Stuckey’s, Ward’s, Block & Kuhl, Penney’s, Rockford Dry Goods, Robert Hall, and then they put in the MetroCentre, and they got that one empty block there, and they just don’t do nothing with it. They really need to get somebody to build. The river is the best thing, and they don’t do nothing. They should’ve put the ballpark down there at Davis Park. Get people downtown, but they didn’t and moved it out to the east side. A lot of people are going to be getting off the interstate to see the RiverHawks play, huh? They think they’re the Cubs. There’s nothing on this side. All we have on this side is three jails.

“They don’t want to do nothing on this (west) side,” Salamone continued. “I have no idea [why]. Now they’re talking about spending a couple million dollars to put a roundabout on North Main, and they’re going to take down half the businesses to put it up. That doesn’t make sense. If they want a roundabout, put it on East State and Perryville. They just don’t plan nothing. To me, I just don’t think they have any idea what the hell they’re doing.”

After 58 years, Salamone said he has decided he’s had enough of fighting it out in downtown Rockford, and is closing the doors for good. Sam and Judy, his wife of 17 years (whom he met at the Times while she worked at Colorcraft), and Judy’s son Ricke Neuschwander, are planning a “Grand Closing Party” for Friday and Saturday, March 24-25, from 10 a.m. to close. All the regulars (there have been many) and all the never-been-there-befores (if there is one, there is one too many) are invited. Drink specials include $1 drafts of Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft and Icehouse, until they run out.

Sam said he’ll spend a good part of his retirement golfing and mowing the lawn, his two favorite pastimes.

“I’ll probably do that, and maybe golf one or two times a week, and see what I want to do,” Sam said. “If I can’t stand retirement, then I’ll get a part-time job someplace. I’m not going to open another bar. The federal, the state and the city want to run it, but don’t want to work. They keep raising the fees all the time. Unless you’ve got a big place on the east side, you aren’t going to make it.

“The city planner here has no idea what is going on—has no idea what is going on on the west side of the river,” Sam continued. “And then every time they talk about the River District, it’s the east side. So you got too many empty stores down here. There’s no place you can go down and shop.”

The Times was first established in 1938, and was originally in the Times Theater building. The Times has been in Sam’s family since his father, Charles, bought the bar in 1948 from Bill and Jay Fiorenza. Charles, along with Samuel Salamone, helped start the Salamone & Sons meat market on North Main in the 1920s, and the North Main Tavern in 1934, which is now run by Sam Salamone’s cousin Bob Salamone. The meat market has since closed and is now Rockford Billiard Café.

Like the Times, all of those businesses are likely to soon be put out of business when the city tears down the buildings that house them to put in a roundabout at the corner of Main and Auburn streets.

Sam co-owned the Times with his brothers Carl and Buddy. Carl left in 1958 to start his own bar, and Buddy semi-retired in 1985 to move to Chandler, Ariz., and then to the Branson, Mo., area. Both of Sam’s brothers have since passed away.

Sam carried on the family tradition until 1988, when the building was sold and the new owner closed for remodeling. The Times then moved to its current location across the street at 327 W. Jefferson St.—the former Jacks or Better Supper Club.

In the beginning, the Times was a piano bar that featured such local legends as The Val Eddy Duo, Lee Pizzuto and Laverne Ott. In 1962, the entertainment changed, and go-go dancers became the main attraction. This kept the place lively until 1968, when the owners established more of a lunch and lounge atmosphere.

To the regulars, the Times will be remembered for its unique personality and its legendary Halloween parties. Sam began to list some of the regulars, and quickly realized there were too many to name.

“I’ve had some beauties,” Sam said. “I guess there were about 10 or 12 of us that used to hang around together. They were all guys that worked here or I played golf with; go to football games with down at Illinois. There was a bunch of them. They were all good, nice guys. A lot of fun. Every day, every night, they’d be here. My whole four guys I used to play golf with all passed away. Nobody wants to play golf with me anymore. I’ve played for 67 years, and I’m getting worse,” he laughed.

The spacious bar under the signature black, white, red and green “Times Lounge: Lunches and cocktails” marquee-like sign on West Jefferson is a step back in time. Sitting on the black, leather-coated swivel lounge chairs at the old, dark, glossy wooden bar, one can almost hear the echoes of the past—the bustling downtown Sam reminisces about.

Staring back at patrons at the bar—besides their own faces in the mirror—is an assortment of personality: The Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Stan Laurel cutout clocks; the “Who give’s a s—” clock with numbers only going up to 4; the “Whatever!” clock with all the numbers jumbled up in a pile at the bottom; a large bronze golfing trophy with a golfer swinging a bull; the “Little Nut Hut” nut-warming container; a mirrored Old Style picture of Wrigley Field; pictures of Sam, his family and friends, and an old late 1970s/early 1980s car; a Washington Redskins 1998 schedule banner; a drawing of a sad clown, next to a TV in the corner; two old-fashioned cash registers; a list of “Deadbeat Dads”; and a sign proclaiming, “PRICES Subject to change according to customer’s attitude!”

As the name on the marquee-like sign suggests, the Times is about more than just cocktails. Although only a small part of the business, lunch is served until about 1:30 p.m. Items on the menu include classics such as hamburgers, porkchop sandwiches and brats, and signature items such as lasagna, the “Maid Wrong” and the “Sammy Burger.” My personal lunch favorites are the brat and the Sammy Burger (if available) with grilled onions and spicy English mustard, and Mrs. Fisher’s Potato Chips, a pickle and pepperincini on the side. All food is hand-prepared and cooked to order by Sam at a small grill under a copper overhang near the middle-back of the lounge (if you visit after lunch, the grill is hidden behind a shade).

In the middle of the lounge sits a large dance floor with a jukebox, dart boards, tables and chairs, and on the walls are old photos of celebrities. One of the walls is made of shelves, which are home to an assortment of old paperback and hardcover books. There’s also a pool table and some video games near the grill. Otherwise, the rest of the lounge is mainly a sea of tables and chairs aligned along the outer walls.

Although he said he regrets closing, Sam said he has been left with no choice. He said the city of Rockford has failed to do much to bring people downtown. In particular, he said the Main Street Pedestrian Mall has been the Grim Reaper of downtown since it was installed in the 1970s.

“Ever since they put in that mall, it went to hell,” Sam said. “The last few mayors, they were supposed to take it out, and they never did. Get rid of the mall; get traffic going through. I see how people are trying to fix the houses up around Church Street and Court Street. But I think it’s too late. I don’t think in my lifetime I’ll ever see downtown come back. I mean the west side. Not unless they get somebody to p

ut up some buildings. They’ve let it go so bad now. And I think one of the biggest messes is the MetroCentre. I don’t get nothing from it.

“There was a lot of people down here working,” Sam continued. “But now I don’t know where they go. They said there’s no parking down here during the day, and at 5 o’clock you can shoot a cannon through downtown, and you wouldn’t hit anybody. At quarter to 5 when I was across the street, the place would be packed. And you wouldn’t believe it. The people at the Pioneer used to come over here. There were a lot of people down here then, right around this area.

“I had a lot of nice people coming in,” Sam said. “There used to be couples that would come downtown and go to the show (movies). There’s no shows down here. There used to be the Coronado, the Times, the State, the Palace—used to all be downtown. You can’t go shopping anymore. So why are they going to come downtown anymore, except go to a show, the basketball games, IceHogs games or drink?”

Sam also said the city has been so obsessed with buying up downtown properties, tearing them down and replacing them with parking lots that he’s taken to calling the city “Parking Lot City.”

“When the phone company was down here, they had like 250 girls working down there, plus all the guys working there,” Sam said. “And then the whole company went automated and moved everybody out. Now there’s nobody working there. Bishop’s Cafeteria used to be down there next to the telephone company. That used to be good. People used to go down there to eat. I used to go down there about 7 o’clock at night and have a piece of pie and some ice cream. Then they left. And everybody left. They just tear down a building, and they never put nothing up—another parking lot. I think we ought to secede from the City of Rockford and become East Winnebago. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve messed up the west side.

“My cousins had a meat market at the 400 block of West State, and people would get off work at the courthouse and pick up stuff at night and during the day,” Sam continued. “I mean, downtown was bustling then. Now, there’s no buildings. We used to have a Montgomery Ward’s up here and a Sears up where the Discovery Center is. They’ve taken everything down.”

After the departure of the Times, the 300 block of West Jefferson will be nearly empty. In just the past couple of years, Minglewood and an assortment of other establishments have tried, and failed, to generate enough traffic to stay in business.

“Between me and the guy across the street, we’re the only two on Jefferson,” Sam said. “And then the old Elks Building, they oughta rip that thing down. It may be historical, but I call it hysterical. Because I don’t think they’ll ever fix it up—they can’t afford it. They oughta tear it down and make another darn parking lot like they do everything else. They tore down the Lincoln Hotel, and made a parking lot and put a sign up, ‘No parking.’”

The Times, after 58 years, will join the graveyard of now-defunct Jefferson Street businesses when its doors close March 25. With it will go yet another Rockford institution—one that actually gave a s— and one that was full of plenty of attitude.

For information about the “Grand Closing Party,” contact Sam or Judy at the Times Lounge at 962-6232.

Machesney Park resident Carl Thompson contributed to this article.

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

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