There’s no slowing Marcy Skowronski down. At 91 years – and counting – she still tends bar occasionally at the Holler House, 2042 W. Lincoln Ave., making her possibly the oldest working bartender in the country.
The Holler House, which houses the oldest certified bowling alley lanes in the country in its basement, was first opened in 1908 as “Skowronski's.” “Iron” Mike Skowronski, Marcy’s late father-in-law, opened the bar — which never closed during Prohibition.
“Everybody drank — as my father-in-law used to tell me,” Marcy said. “They hid the booze under my husband’s crib. When the feds came, they’d say ‘Oh, leave the baby alone.’”
Marcy and her late husband, Gene, took over the bar in 1954, when it became “Gene and Marcy’s.” It eventually evolved into Holler House.
“One night, this guy says ‘Get drunk with me. My wife’s in California,’” Marcy recalled, sitting at a red-and-white-checked table.
“So I did, but then a couple of weeks later, he comes back with his wife, and we had a political convention going on (lots of arguing), and then we had someone plunking the keys on the piano over there, and the jukebox was going. A few days later, he says to his wife, ‘Where do you want to go for a drink before dinner?’ And she says, ‘Take me to dat holler house.’ So I just said to my husband, ‘Why don’t we call it that?’”
The name stuck – and Marcy stuck around, too. Today, the bar is run by her daughter Cathy Haefke and Cathy’s husband Tom Haefke. But Marcy still holds court most nights, sitting at the bar or one of the bar’s red-and-white-checked tables. If Cathy or Tom run an errand or go fix the pins downstairs, Marcy will be the one to serve you a beer or mix you an old-fashioned.
It’s too hard these days, she says, for her to do the prep work of setting up for the night or closing things down, but she still knows how to bartend.
“There’s a lot of work involved in being a bartender,” says Marcy. “It’s not just mixing drinks, you’ve got to clean up and you’ve got to do books. The tavern business is tough. But I’ve always had a lot of fun in here. Naturally, I have a lot of friends here. They’re like family.”
Like any good Milwaukee tavern worth its ale, Holler House has all the historic ambiance one would expect. It’s got the old signs – including one advertising a “Red Robin,” which Marcy explained used to be a combination of beer and tomato juice (perhaps a forerunner of how most Wisconsin bars serve their Bloody Mary’s with a pint on the side?). The dark-wood bar is set off by the red walls and floor.
There even are a few bright red T-shirts featuring Marcy’s likeness (along with some of her favorite sayings, some of which are unprintable) for sale behind the bar. They’re leftover from her 90th birthday.
But unlike many bars, there also are a ton of bras, along with a few men’s undergarments, tossed up on the ceiling. The bar’s bra-tossing heritage was, of course, started by Marcy. “It was back in the ’60s, and my girlfriends and I were drinking, and we started taking our clothes off,” Marcy explained. “I can drink vodka all the time, but give me beer, I get crazy.”
For awhile in 2013, Marcy and her family had to remove all the bras because a city health inspector declared them a fire hazard. Marcy, of course, raised holy heck. She eventually was allowed to put the bras back on the ceiling, where they have remained ever since.
While Marcy has tended bar for more than 60 years, Holler House isn’t where she got her start. In 1954, Helen Zamsky hired her to be a “cocktail waitress” at her bar, Helen’s Maplewood Tavern, on Okauchee Lake in Oconomowoc.
“It was illegal for women (who weren’t owners) to bartend in Oconomowoc, but Helen liked to have a good time,” Marcy said. “She’d just leave, and if I didn’t know a drink, the customers would help me out. I was young and I had a blast working. It worked until somebody blew the whistle on me.
“It was another tavern owner who complained (to the town officials) ‘How come Marcy’s tending bar?’ Then I couldn’t do it anymore. It was a different time. I remember when women weren’t allowed in the front door of bars.”
After losing that gig, Marcy started working at the family bar, and she’s been here ever since. “The drinks are so different today,” said Marcy. “It was a shot and a beer or highballs. Now, the kids ask you ‘What’s a highball?’”
In the middle of this interview, Marcy’s daughter asks her to entertain a bachelor party from Neenah that came to celebrate. So, Marcy told a few unprintable jokes.
“Tell ’em I’m standing up in his wedding. I’m the flower girl,” she told the revelers as she signed the groom’s right butt cheek with a permanent black marker.
“I’ve only been doing this (signing butts) for a couple of years,” Marcy said.
Which adds up to how many autographed derrieres?
“I’d say a couple hundred,” she said.