EIU Memories: Chubby’s Pizza

As a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, there was only one place to go after coming home from the bar at 2 am. You wanted something cheap and greasy, and Chubby’s had just what the doctor ordered. Though I wasn’t much for the bar scene, I ate my fair share of Chubby’s over the years. It was the largest pizza in Charleston for the best price, and just a short walk from campus.

Leon and Lisa Hall opened a Topper’s Pizza in the Midtown Plaza strip mall at 215 Lincoln Avenue in 1995. Topper’s is a restaurant chain founded by Scott Gittrich in Champaign, Illinois in 1991, but Leon and Lisa found themselves alone after the original location closed. After three years, the couple felt they weren’t benefiting from the franchise, so they decided to go their own way and rebranded as Chubby’s Pizza.

They kept the same menu but were able to lower prices because they were no longer paying franchise fees. “The Topper”, a 20-inch pizza with 12 toppings, became “The Big Chubby.” Why the name Chubby’s? Leon told the Daily Eastern News, “I’ve put on a few pounds since I’ve owned the place.”

Ad for Topper’s in the Daily Eastern News, c. 1998. Topper’s became Chubby’s that year.
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EIU Memories: Stix and Panther Paw

Welcome to the fourth installment of my series reminiscing about my time at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I attended EIU from 2000 to 2008, eventually earning a Master’s in History. Both the college and the town have changed a lot since then. I wasn’t much for the bar scene in Charleston, but these local watering holes are a staple of college life.

Panther Paw Bar & Grill, at 1412 4th Street, is one of the closer bars to campus. It’s a short walk up 4th Street from Pemberton Hall, across Lincoln Avenue. It was originally owned by Don and Louise Yost and John Budslick and known as Stix, built during the summer of 1990 over a former residential site. Yost and Budlick had previously operated a billiard hall in Carbondale, Illinois by the same name, and thought it would be successful in Charleston.

Stix ad, Sept. 1990.

Stix opened in early September 1990 and was originally a full restaurant and billiard hall, employing up to 60 people as waitresses, cooks, bartenders, disc jockeys, and doormen. It featured 15 Top Flyte pool tables and served breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ten years later, when I first stepped onto campus as a freshman, local tastes had changed. That summer, Stix rebranded itself as a dance club. They built a stage, refinished the floor with wood, and tore down several walls to open up a dance floor. Patrons ordered food through a window, rather than from a waitress.

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EIU Memories: The Blair Hall Fire of ’04

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On Wednesday, April 28, 2004 at a little after 3pm, the temperature was 72 degrees and rising, the sky was fair, and wind gusted south-southwest up to 32 mph. Humidity was low. By all accounts, it was a beautiful spring day, and Eastern Illinois University’s Spring Semester was quickly coming to a close. Students crammed for final exams, which would begin the following Monday.

I don’t remember what I was doing on campus (probably hanging out in the food court), but as I walked toward the north quad, I noticed a crowd gathering. At 3:14 pm, someone had called 911 from inside Blair Hall, an ivy-covered Gothic Revival building directly southeast of Old Main. Smoke billowed from the third floor windows.

Blair Hall is the third oldest building on campus. It was constructed in 1913 and originally called the Model School, then renamed after football coach Francis G. Blair in 1958. It completed the triad of buildings that made up the old campus, including Old Main and the fabled Pemberton Hall. Blair Hall was home to the anthropology and sociology departments, so I only ever took a handful of elective classes there.

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EIU Memories: Carman Hall

Welcome to the second part in a series reminiscing about my time at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I spent eight years there, from 2000 to 2008, graduating with a Master’s in History. I got accepted to EIU out of high school and moved into a room on the 7th floor of Ruth Carman Hall on August 17, 2000. Although I love EIU and my college years, living in Carman Hall is not something I’d want to repeat. It’s a blessing the building has been closed for several years.

When I first came to EIU, freshman couldn’t park on campus and had to live in a dorm. Carman Hall, at the southeast end of campus, was considered the “freshman dorm.” It was built in 1971 to accommodate the glut of Baby Boomers entering college.

It looked like a Soviet tenement, with twin featureless beige towers, segregated for male and female, connected by a corridor with a shared dining hall. There was a computer lab and laundry room in the basement. Males had to be escorted to the female wing, and every floor had a resident assistant to look after things and make sure everyone was following the rules. That worked much better on the female side than on the male.

Our tower was disgusting. The vomit-encrusted elevator was rarely functional, trash littered the hallways, wires were pulled down from the ceiling, and fire extinguishers went missing. Someone even stole the drinking fountain on our floor! It got so bad the spring semester of my freshman year the college newspaper, Daily Eastern News, ran an article about the vandalism.

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EIU Memories: Friends & Co.

This is the first in a new series reminiscing about my college years at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. I spent eight years there, from 2000 to 2008, graduating with a Master’s in History. Both my dad and my great-uncle John Kleen graduated from EIU, so you could say it was a family tradition.

When I attended, there were around 11,000 students at any given time. Attendance has since fallen to 7,500 (a 7.1% increase from the previous year). Carman Hall, where I lived my freshman year, was closed due to budget cuts and falling enrollment. This has been devastating to the local community, which was already struggling when I was there. On return trips to Charleston, I’m saddened to see all the abandoned buildings and empty storefronts.

So this series is meant to not only share some of my own history, but preserve these memories of a rapidly vanishing past. Hopefully there are readers out there who have their own memories of these places and events. Feel free to leave a comment with your own stories. Why start with Friends & Co.? It seems as good a place as any.

Friends & Co. used to be located at 509 Van Buren Avenue, a few blocks south of the Charleston town square. It was attached to a music venue called The Cellar. It opened in the early 1980s (I think), and the owner was a schoolteacher named David Gherardini. My impression was Friends & Co. attracted an intellectual crowd. It was a bar for English and Philosophy majors, and this review on Yelp from Sean R. confirms my impressions:

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Leave Your Engine at Home

Winter has me feeling nostalgic for the halcyon days of summer, when my dad and I would make the long drive up to the Chain O’ Lakes in Northern Illinois to rent a rowboat and go fishing.

The Chain O’ Lakes, including Fox Lake, Grass Lake, Lake Marie, and Channel Lake, near Antioch, has offered summer visitors a unique blend of sporting and entertainment since the late nineteenth century.

Possibly the most famous establishment on the Chain is Blarney Island, “Key West of the Midwest,” a bar located a mile offshore in Grass Lake, where over a decade worth of bras, hats, and business cards used to hang from the ceiling.

Blarney Island – June 2002

But the fond memories of my childhood lay a little to the east, at C.J. Smith Resort. Don’t let the name fool you, C.J. Smith’s is not much more than a boat rental near the shore of tiny Spring Lake that looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1950s. At least it hasn’t changed in my lifetime.

If you are looking to rent large, gas guzzling speedboats, look somewhere else. C.J. Smith’s offers only top quality 14’ and 16’ aluminum rowboats, with a 6, 8, or 15HP motor for an extra cost. Ditch the motor, in my opinion. The experience is much more rewarding if you row.

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My High School Years in Film: 1996

I thought it would be fun to do an overview of movies that came out while I was in high school. The first video covers August to December 1996, when I entered high school as a freshman at Maine West in Des Plaines, Illinois. Yeah, it’s blatant nostalgia, even though the ’90s was a lousy decade to be a teenager. What were your favorite films from the late ’90s?