People

A Milwaukee Institution

Marcy Skowronski, 91, still tending to customers at the iconic Holler House.

Marcy SkowronskiAt 91 years of age, Marcy Skowronski might just be the oldest working bartender in the country. Most nights you can find her holding court at the Holler House on Lincoln Avenue in Milwaukee, which houses the oldest certified bowling lanes in the country. The bar was first opened in 1908, when it was called Mike’s, after her father-in-law, "Iron Mike." She and her husband Gene took it over in 1954, and it was renamed Gene and Marcy’s. It evolved into the Holler House.

When her daughter Cathy Haefke, or son-in-law Tom Haefke, has to run errands or set the pins or fix something in the two-lane alley in the basement, Marcy pours shots, serves brewskies, and makes Wisconsin Old-Fashioneds for customers. She entertains tour groups who flock to the bar, poses for pictures with tourists as far away as Australia and Japan, and tells dirty jokes to visiting celebrities and bachelor parties.

Marcy sat down with us at Holler House, at a table underneath an array of bras festooned on the ceiling (which, of course, Marcy started), to share the wisdom gained from bartending for the last 63 years. And to tell a few stories.

How did you get started bartending?

“Helen Zamsky hired me to ‘cocktail waitress’ at her bar, Helen’s Maplewood Tavern out on Okauchee Lake in Oconomowoc in 1954. It was illegal for women [who weren’t owners] to bartend in Oconomowoc, but Helen liked to have a good time. 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.”

What happened?

“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.”

So what did you do?

“I went to work [at the family bar] in Milwaukee. The city and the smaller communities were quite different.”

Tell us a bit about the history of the family bar. Did it close during Prohibition?

“Everybody drank, as my father-in-law used to tell me. They hid the booze under my husband’s crib. When the feds came, they’d say, ‘Oh, leave the baby alone.’”

How did the Holler House get its name?

“One night, this guy says, ‘Get drunk with me. My wife’s in California.’ 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?’”

In the middle of the interview, her daughter asks her to take a moment to tell a few dirty jokes to a bachelor party, who had come all the way from Neenah, WI, to celebrate. So Marcy tells a few, unprintable jokes involving sex, and then she signs, with a permanent black marker, the right cheek of the groom. “Tell ‘em I’m standing up in his wedding. I’m the flower girl,” she says, as she signs.

How many derrieres have you signed?

“Oh, I’ve only been doing this for three or four years. I’d say a couple hundred.”

Now, you started those bras on the ceiling?

“Yeah. It was back in the ‘60s, and my girlfriends and I were drinking, and we started taking our clothes off. I can drink vodka all the time, but give me beer, I get crazy.”

Photo by Kyle Edwards Photo by Kyle Edwards

So, what’s your drink of choice?

“A vodka and a tonic. It used to be a gin rickey — gin, seltzer and lime. And back then, most bars didn’t use fresh limes so I used to carry them in my purse. I took them with me when we visited the Hoover Dam.”

In 2013, I understand you had to take the bras down. What happened?

“A female city health inspector declared them a fire hazard.”

So, you complained to your alderman and got the city to remove the ruling?

“Yes.”

How have things changed since you first started bartending?

“Well, the drinks are so different. It was a shot and a beer or highballs. Now, the kids ask you, ‘What’s a highball?’”

What’s your advice to new bartenders?

“Just be nice to people. Even if you don’t agree with them. Be nice. Sometimes, you want to slap them, but be nice. I’ve listened to a lot of problems over the years; I could have a blackmailing business. Also, some bartenders will wait on you, and then just walk away. You’ve got to talk to people.”

How about for new tavern owners?

“There’s a lot of work involved. 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.”

Jeanette Hurt is the author of Drink Like a Woman and is an award-winning writer focused on spirits, food and travel.

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