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Turning 50 with friends

John Songer has been operating The Gaslight Pizza and Grill for 27 years and is celebrating the iconic Huntingburg business’s 50th anniversary this week.

Monday and Tuesday mornings provide the fleeting moments when John Songer can take time just to think and maybe imagine what the next stage of his business looks like.

He doesn’t open until 4 p.m. on those days.

“I can come in, and I’m still working, but there’s nobody here,” he explained. “The ghosts don’t bother me as much as they do at night.”

With a cup of coffee, maybe some Sinatra playing, the framed movie posters and comic book panels depicting the battle between Johnny Dart (who bears a resemblance to John) and Oinker around him, John can see the path forward sometimes. But other times, he simply focuses on the immediate needs for operating The Gaslight Pizza and Grill, the busy and iconic restaurant that is celebrating its 50th year in business this week.

John has owned the restaurant for 27 of those years, but he remembers seeing movies in the location when it was the Victory Theatre. A rerelease of “Gone With the Wind” — his eight-year-old self hated it — and “Hello Down There,” a Tony Randall and Janet Leigh film about a family living in an experimental home underwater stick out. He liked “Hello Down There” considerably more than the Civil War classic.

“It was a little more down my alley,” he laughed.

Railroad engineer I.R. Murphy opened the Victory Theatre on April 5, 1942. The film “Skylark” and a Superman cartoon were played that day.

Eventually, the movie theatre was purchased by Warren and Fran Evans when they moved to Huntingburg in the mid to late 60s. The World War II veteran had a vision for a restaurant and theater combo that he brought to life in 1972 when he renamed the business. “Think about it. The Gaslight Restaurant and Theatre in 1972, that was so far ahead of the curve,” John said.

He remembers hanging out around the business back then because his brother, Greg, managed it for Warren. They had a soft opening when it was renamed, and John vividly recalls how they would take a contraption akin to a leaf blower to blow all the candy wrappers, popcorn and leftover trash down the slanted theatre floor to a pit in front of the movie screen. He also remembers people rolling down that sloping floor when the restaurant/theater became a saloon for a short time.

His connection to the business remained through the years. Older brother Greg (AKA Oinker) managed for a bit, and even John’s father, Glenn “Wendy” Songer, took over for a short time. Then, the theater closed but was reopened by Warren’s son, Bruce. Greg joined Bruce as a partner, and in about a year, he bought Bruce out.

“So yeah, it was a lot of handshaking over a short period of time,” John said. “But since ’77 or ’78, it’s been my brother or myself.”

John went off to college and then ended up coming back to help with his brother’s business. He worked for Greg for about five years before getting a “real” job, settling down, getting married, and having some kids. Then, around 1996, Greg offered to sell the business to John so he could concentrate on operating Reflections up the road.

“They talked to me. Dad talked to me,” John said. “I had the itch, and I said sure.”

When he took over, they were filming “Hard Rain” on the street outside.

It is hard to think about The Gaslight without thinking about pizza. When Warren added a tiny short-order grill in the front of the theater, pizza began coming out of the oven. A pizza distributor out of Mount Carmel, Ill., originally from Chicago, showed them how to make it. “They learned from a guy named Cosell McCuiston,” John explained.

The pizza remains the business’s mainstay item, but it wasn’t until supply chain issues caused by Covid-19 that John learned precisely what kind of pie they had been serving up for 50 years. “We make what is considered a Chicago tavern-style pizza,” he explained.

Chicago is known for its deep-dish pizza, but in reality, the tavern-style pizza is the true hero in the city. The ubiquitous dish was created by bar owners wanting to add pizza to their menu with the caveat they wanted to sell more beer than bread. To do so, they thinned the dough with a roller before baking. The thinner, crispy, chewy crust is covered with toppings, blanketed with cheese, and cut into little squares, or party cut, to allow for smaller, sharable portions.

John’s addition to the menu is the Johnny Dart. A storied sandwich whose creation in the 80s is explained with raised eyebrows and a comment that “Mom and dad didn’t have much in the refrigerator, and I had to figure something out.”

Pizza is king, with strombolis in second place in sales, but some nights Johnny Dart will take the top spot over them all. It’s hard to imagine what John found in his mom and dad’s refrigerator when you consider the sandwich is corn beef, swiss cheese, pepper jack cheese, with a special sauce that reminds me of a spicy French salad dressing. Regardless, it works, and the pizza version is also a top seller. Plus, you can add a splash of Johnny Dart to many other items on the menu.

That menu hasn’t changed much over the years. Connoisseurs of the establishment crave the familiar pizzas and strombolis even after moving away. So it’s common for someone to stop in to make sure they check their favorite menu item off their list of must-haves when they return home for a visit.

Although many think of The Gaslight as a bar, other than a small area in the back corner for 21 and over, the restaurant is family-friendly, with plenty of access to the stage and TVs in view.

For John, it isn’t just about the food. The Gaslight is about community. “I want everyone to feel at home here,” he explained.

Hosting the area’s dart league, the annual Mardis Gras celebration (one of John’s favorite things to do), or making pizza with kids from the next-door preschool, Color My World, are ways The Gaslight has become a part of many people’s lives.

Raider Wednesday with Walt Ferber has been going on for about 15 years. It was important to continue the tradition even after Walt retired from WITZ. Instead of putting the weekly event away, John bought the equipment needed to keep doing it. So, the tradition of bringing all the fall and winter sports teams and the marching band in for some interviews with Walt and some pizza continues online.

Then there are the children of the children of the parents that were coming in when Warren owned it or when his brother owned it. The generations returning are the measure of the business’s impact on the lives of the people it has served.

And the community has almost lost that loyal neighbor.

In 2009, John suffered through a fire that closed The Gaslight down for about eight weeks. He got the call at about 5:30 in the morning. A week’s worth of towels had caught fire in the basement filling the building with smoke. Fortunately, the fire melted a water line above it which extinguished the blaze. However, he still had to contend with the smoke damage.

“I was dealing with some personal things at the time too. It was just more fuel on the fire,” John remembered.

And the insurance wasn’t enough to cover the damages.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” he said. “I thought, how much can a guy weather.”

But he made it. He made it through Covid too. He continued to come in to work during the closure, and a lot of the new decorations and remodeling occurred during that time.

Mural with comic frames of a battle between Johnny Dart and Oinker were added during the Covid shutdown. John is a huge comic book fan with an appreciation for the artists who create the iconic characters.

Planning for the future, he wants to expand his fundraising business, potentially add a food truck, and finish the comic strip origin of the battle between Johnny Dart and Oinker — who is his older brother. “I win,” he added.

“My final plan before I leave this planet or sell this place is that the facade of the building will be brought back to being what it looked like as the Victory Theatre,” he said.

That includes restoring the ticket booth and double entrance doors and adding a theater marquee.

The family connection continues with his sons, Josh (33) and Andy (31), working there now. His daughter Choe, 15, may join him in the future. But for now, the 61-year-old will continue coming in on Monday and Tuesday mornings to spend time with the ghosts he has grown accustomed to over the years. Planning and creating and building more ties to the community through the business he loves.

Everyone is invited to join The Gaslight Pizza and Grill for the celebration this week. Here is the schedule.

Wednesday September 7

  • Raider Wednesday with the SHS soccer team
  • Pizza Buffet 5-8pm
  • Hudsy on stage @ 8pm

Thursday September 8

  • Pizza Buffet 5-8pm
  • Sparrow and Crandall host Open Mic Night beginning at 7pm

Friday September 9

  • Pizza Buffet for lunch 11am-2pm
  • Gaslight Employee reunion night past and present
  • Lindsey Williams on stage at 9pm

Saturday September 10

  • Pizza Buffet for lunch 11am-2pm
  • Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters on stage at 9pm


  1. We have moved away to Indy but when we get back the Gaslight is one of two or three restaurants we visit. Growing up the Songers were one street over from my house, good times.

  2. Great story and local history…Congrats, John…! My wife and I aren’t native to Huntingburg so weren’t here during the theatre or early restaurant days…think we arrived just before your time on the city council and the Flood movie…but we love your story of how you persevered plus your future restoration plans…and of course the pizza (which we’ll be in for this week but wish it could be more often). I also enjoyed the times you opened early for good ol’ bacon-and-egg/hashbrown breakfasts…some of us walked down at least once or twice weekly for that, and/or lunch. I remember bringing my sons there growing up to meet/talk with Warren Evans before he moved west. Indeed good memories plus good food…keep it going.

  3. Memories abound! Halloween parties! New year’s Eve! Mom and Dad with their friends. Bill and Joe cooking. Greg singing and dancing with Charlie. A lot if water under the bridge. I miss those days.

  4. Great article about a great community establishment. So glad you pushed through the rough times.

  5. Great article!! Remember when Warren and Fran, Greg and Marsha, and Bruce had it and now you and your boys. Lots of good food and fun especially now shaking dice with friends! Hope to make many more memories!

  6. I remember going to the movies there. I moved away a little over 3 years ago and still try and stop in for a Stromboli when I am back visiting family and friends.

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