At first glance, the Holler House looks like any other cozy dive bar in Milwaukee with a fridge full of beers manufactured at breweries within a few miles and a television for cursing at blunders by the Green Bay Packers. It distinguishes itself, however, with 88-year-old owner Marcy Skowronski, a sprightly and bespectacled lass who has white hair and wears a Miller High Life sweatshirt, jeans and New Balance sneakers while drinking tiny beers she calls “shorties.” Marcy keeps the bar lively with a long, colorful history of stories about winning a Shirley Temple look-alike contest; the manly travails of Iron Mike, her father-in-law who founded the place more than 100 years ago; and how she once belted out a fight song with a drunk sailor.
“I was singing ‘Anchors Aweigh,’ and he put it on my head,” she says, indicating a pristine navy officer’s hat on display next to the liquor bottles.
As in Nordic fiction — but not as creepy — there’s a secret lair in the Holler House basement. Swing open a side door, switch on a light, climb down some stairs and behold two pristine wooden bowling lanes, which have been here since Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. Built in 1908, they are the oldest regulation-length bowling lanes still in use in the United States.
Bowling lanes these days all use robotic pin-setting. Not Holler House. Here, a pin boy sets the pins. As in, a real-life boy — like Pinocchio — has to stand at the end of the lane and replace the bowling pins after you (hopefully) knock them down.
If you show up while the pin boy is in chemistry class, you will not bowl. If you do not tip the pin boy, or if you yell, “Yoo-hoo, pin boy!” at the pin boy, you will not bowl. You must call ahead to make sure the pin boy is on duty.
There is no iPhone app for it.
I throw my in-flight-magazine weight around and get a retired pin boy — Marcy’s grandson Kristopher, since promoted to bartender — to work his expertise at the end of the lanes.
A heap of bowling shoes is on the floor for customers to pick through. If you can’t find your size, bowl in socks. Luckily, I’m able to squeeze into some shoes one size too small.
Then there are a bunch of balls in the closet, engraved with the names of the customers who forgot them.
My ball is named Rick.
Milwaukee does old-fashioned greatness like no other town in America. The best sausage in the city is sold at Usinger’s, which has been churning out the stuff since 1880. The premier spot to buy cheese is Wisconsin Cheese Mart, a fresh face on the scene, having opened in 1938. Holler House is clearly the best place to drink beer in the state — nay, the world — and it was opened in the days when all men wore hats.
So in a day of Wisconsin glory, you can achieve the Holy Trinity of Milwaukee — brats, cheese and beer — in exactly the same fashion that you would have when Benny Goodman ruled the radio airwaves in the 1930s.
Marcy, who lives above the bar, inherited the establishment. It was founded by her late father-in-law, Iron Mike — the sort of mythical fellow who broke all the glasses in the place when he rapped his knuckles on the bar.
The place was called Mike’s at first and later Gene & Marcy’s because she shared it with her now-deceased husband. Then one night, says Marcy, a new customer was there when everybody was arguing about politics, the jukebox was blasting and somebody was drunkenly banging on the bar’s little piano.
“Take me to that holler house,” the customer told her boyfriend the next day, and the moniker stuck.
Lots of stuff has stuck at the Holler House, which is across the street from the cemetery that is home to Milwaukee’s deceased beer magnates. Forest Home Cemetery is the final resting place for (in order of importance) bigwigs from Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst and the guy who invented the typewriter. Marcy has a tradition of baking 30,000 cookies that consist of 27 varieties every holiday season. And she insists on using the same stalagmite-covered, 75-year-old, never-washed skillet to cook the popcorn served free to customers. If “It Ain’t Broke, So Don’t Fix It” was a religion, the Holler House would be its pilgrimage-worthy temple.
As intoxicating as the bar may be, I have come for a purpose, which I share with Rick. As I release him to his destiny, Rick clatters noisily down the old lane and smashes through all 10 pins, leaving me dancing.
The euphoria experienced by hitting a strike on the country’s oldest lane cannot be replicated in one of those newfangled alleys where they offer “cosmic” bowling and serve edamame.
Of course, there may have been some 8s, 7s and 6s before I hit this strike. But I’m sure that history will forget those.