When I think of Milwaukee, I think of beer, bowling, hot ham and rolls, and Polish barmaids. So whenever I’m in town there’s really no reason to go anywhere but the Holler House. It has all four.
There used to be taverns like the Holler House all over the midwest. It’s in a weathered two-story house, with a sign that’s missing the e in Holler and a hand-lettered placard informing strangers there’s no public telephone. Upstairs there’s a barroom with brassieres dangling from the ceiling fans, a sinkless chlop room–Polish for men–and a mixed-drink board advertising the gin buck and the red robbin. But it’s what’s in the basement that makes the Holler House a real museum of life in a big-city Slavic neighborhood. It’s a bowling alley, two sloping lanes built of planks first laid down in 1908, carrying balls toward a cage where a pin boy–yes, a pin boy–gathers up whatever the beery bowlers can knock down.
The Holler House lanes are older than any other certified bowling alley in the United States. After World War II people in south Milwaukee started buying cars and driving to new multiplex alleys with 24 lanes and automatic scoring, but the Holler House hung on, thanks to either the stubbornness or the inertia of its owner, Marcy Skowronski. Marcy and her husband, Gene, moved into the apartment behind the bar in 1952, when she was a 26-year-old bride. Gene has since passed away, but 80-year-old Marcy is still serving up drinks, even though the years have squashed her down to four-foot-ten and she can barely see over the bottles on the bar.
The last time I went to the Holler House it was a Sunday afternoon. While the second-shift bowling league was clattering downstairs, Marcy and her daughter, Cathy Stuckert, were preparing dinner for patrons in the kitchen between the bar and the apartment. During her break Marcy told me the bar’s history.
“I gotta sit down ’cause I got a hangover,” she said, plopping down on a chair next to an out-of-tune piano. “Last night was a big night. It was couples’ league.”
The Holler House was founded by Marcy’s father-in-law, “Iron Mike” Skowronski, a short but powerful man whose handshake, Marcy says, could squeeze 30-year-old men into submission. He called the tavern Skowronski’s, and after his son and daughter-in-law took over it became Gene and Marcy’s–a green neon sign with that name still lights up the front window. But it was dubbed the Holler House by a patron who couldn’t believe the racket inside.
“There was a man came in one Monday,” Marcy said. “He said, ‘How’d you like to get bombed with me? My wife’s in California.’ He brought his wife in the next week and there was a lot of people, there was a political convention on TV. They were arguing politics, somebody was playing the piano. The next week, he said to his wife, ‘Where do you want to go get drinks before dinner?’ She said, ‘Take me to that Holler House!’ She was German, so she spoke broken English. After that, that’s what everyone started calling it.”
Marcy has had more than one chance to leave Milwaukee and the Holler House behind. After Gene died she bought a condo in Arizona but decided it wasn’t her speed. “I went to this hospital there to do some volunteer work, and the guy in charge asks me what I want to do,” she says. “I told him I wanted to read porno to blind people. He just rolled off in his wheelchair. I couldn’t take it. That place is for old people.” A man from Ohio courted her, “but he lived in the boonies, with the trees and the squirrels. I didn’t want none of that.”
She’s made one concession only to age. “I can’t drink beer,” she said. “I drink wine. Years ago, I drank gin rickeys. I used to carry my own lime, ’cause not all the bars had fresh limes. I’d carry a lime and a knife.”
“I tried to order a gin rickey at Gibsons Steakhouse,” I told her. “The waiter said, ‘No one’s asked for that in 20 years!'”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” she said. “It’s nothing but gin and lime and seltzer!”
Marcy slid off her chair and shouted at her son-in-law, Todd Stuckert, who was tending bar.
“Todd! Make this guy a gin rickey!”
I carried the cocktail down to the basement and watched the bowling league. World-class kegler Earl Anthony has bowled at the Holler House, but he didn’t come to pump up his average. There hasn’t been a perfect game here since FDR’s first term, and weekend bowlers can expect to lose 20 pins off their typical score. The planks are real wood, not synthetic, and they’re oiled with a spray can, not a computerized roller. Bowlers are convinced the lanes slope inward, though Marcy says it’s just an illusion. It’s also hard to get a proper pair of shoes from the Florsheim disaster area under the stairs. The stock consists of castoffs from dead bowlers and moving-sale finds.
“A common expression here is ‘Only at the Holler House,'” said bowler Tom Haefke. “You’ll have one or two pins here where every other place has a strike. I’ve seen a lot of 200 bowlers on their hands and knees here. It’s real–nothing sterile. The other day, the pin boy had to wipe up water because the roof was leaking.”
To see the pin boy in action I walked along the rubber mats in the gutters, then slithered under the pin-setting machine on my belly. Twelve-year-old Alex Frank was jumping from lane to lane, scooping up fallen pins, restocking the racks, yanking a wire to lower them into place, and rolling the balls back on a wooden track. He gets paid 30 dollars a day, plus tips. The balls were flying down the lane at 12 miles an hour, slamming against a leather pad behind the pins, but Alex said he wasn’t afraid, even though he was once nailed in the ankle with a flying pin. In his frantic dance he sometimes lost track of whether a bowler was on his first or second ball, but when he made a mistake he always heard about it from the other end of the basement. “They tell me which pin to put down,” Alex said. “I like it when it’s a strike–it’s easy to figure out where it all goes.”
From the pin boy’s nook the six bowlers were little more than dim figures in a haze of cigarette smoke. Two of them were Marcy’s grandsons. Kris Stuckert lives above the bar in an apartment once occupied by his older brother, Mike. It’s a rite of passage in their family. “It was like my college, even though I didn’t go to college,” said Mike, who has since married and started a career as a carpenter. “I actually ran the place for about a year and a half. You could hear the bar from upstairs, but you get used to it. It’s like traffic or living near an airport.”
And what was going to happen when his grandmother could no longer run the Holler House?
“That’s a good question,” Mike said. “Pretty much see if anyone steps up, or if it’s a team effort.”
That day seemed a long way away. By four o’clock Marcy was serving dinner for 25 upstairs, a Thanksgiving buffet of turkey, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, stuffing, and cranberries–even though this was the first Sunday in April. After everyone had sopped up the last puddle of gravy, Marcy and Cathy reminisced about the celebrities who’ve visited Holler House.
“Joe Walsh from the Eagles came here,” Cathy said proudly. “Lazer 103, the rock station in town, was doing a party for him here. I called my mom and I said, ‘Who’s down there?’ She said, ‘Some scuzzy guy in a pink limousine.’ ‘What’s his name?’ ‘Joe Walsh.’ ‘Joe Walsh from the Eagles?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I took off from work to come see him.”
Cathy turned to her mother and asked, “Who was the porn star that was here?”
“Traci Lords is a nice girl.”
“Oh yeah,” Marcy said. The actress visited during the filming of the indie comedy Chump Change. “Very pretty girl. She started when she was 15. If I’d known then what I know now, I’da become a porn queen. I wouldn’t have become a slut, but a, what do you call it?”
“Woman of the world?” I suggested.
“Yes. That’s it.”
And then there was Frank Deford, the dapper Sports Illustrated writer who stopped by the Holler House on a nationwide bowling alley tour. He interviewed Marcy for an hour, then used the quotes she gave him during two hours of drinking afterward. But she wasn’t bitter about that old reporter’s trick. She still keeps a softening copy of the magazine behind the bar.
“It was the Super Bowl issue,” she said. “John Elway was on the cover. I got more ink than he did, and I don’t even play football.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.