Milwaukee gives a holler to favorite bowling alley

By: AP
By: AP

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- The walls that line the pair of lanes in this tiny bowling alley seem close enough to make a bowler feel claustrophobic. But at a 100th anniversary party Saturday, the walls of Holler House felt like the wide-open arms of family.

The wood in the lanes is original, and the narrow quarters cause thunderous echoes as bowling balls rumble down the lanes. Pin boys reload the manual pin mechanism by hand, and numerous photos and momentos on the walls document the history and good times at the nation's oldest bowling alley.

In a city that became synonymous with beer and bowling, Holler House tavern and bowling alley has been an enduring landmark. Hundreds of patrons returned to relive the good times at the anniversary celebration.

"I've bowled at other places but this was always the best place to come," said Barbara Kwarcinski, 68, of Milwaukee.

From the outside, the Holler House looks like any other bar in this quiet working-class neighborhood. But walk inside and you get an idea of what "Cheers" might have been like if the bar in the TV sitcom had bowling lanes in the basement.

Milwaukee resident Matt Hersel, 49, came to the Holler House when he was 17 for his first beer and became a regular. It's where he met his wife, and he bowled there for 23 years until back problems forced him to quit.

He recalled old-timers who told stories of living through the Depression and their World War II exploits.

"Guys here were tough as nails," Hersel said. "You didn't come here to party, you came to get to know guys like that, hardworking guys, guys that taught you things about life."

Signs on the walls recall that bygone era. Original handbills announce bowling tournaments in 1912 and 1916; other signs advertise a hot beef sandwich for a nickel and a half gallon of beer for 25 cents plus deposit.

In preparation for the party, the Holler House got its first thorough cleaning in almost 40 years. Among the gems unearthed during the cleanup were five wooden bowling balls, each with only two finger holes and weighing about 15 pounds.

One casualty though was the tavern's naughty bra collection, about 1,000 of them, each signed by the woman who left it.

"About 40 years ago we were sitting here drinking and, I don't know, I guess we started taking our clothes off," said tavern owner Marcy Skowronski, 82, while sipping a vodka tonic. "It just became a tradition that women would leave a bra the first time they came here."

Many began falling apart over the years and Skowronski had the rest boxed up. "I'm sure it won't be long before we have a whole new collection," she said.

Her late husband Gene was born in the apartment behind the bar, and she moved there in 1952 as a new bride. The tavern was originally named for them, but earned its nickname about 35 years ago because of the persistent sounds of raucous reveling. Its claim as the nation's oldest bowling alley was confirmed by the U.S. Bowling Congress.

Skowronski, says she has no intention of retiring, even at 82.

"Nope, I'm going to die behind the bar," she said. "Why would I leave all this? These people, we all care about each other. We're all extended family. No, this is where I belong."

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