Bowling alleys tend to be noisy places, but the only thing you’ll hear at one Wisconsin bar is the soft singing voice of a girl as she sets pins and returns bowling balls.
Such is life at the Holler House, a Milwaukee landmark that just so happens to house the country’s oldest certified bowling alley in its basement.
The bar, open since 1908, features just two lanes, no credit card machines, and a whole host of reminders of a simpler time when families would literally live in the buildings in which they ran their businesses.
Want bowling shoes? You can find them behind the lanes in a pile on the floor. Want a bowling ball? Those can be found on a rack next to the shoes, or in an adjacent room that also contains a wide variety of relics from the building’s history, including a “Holler” sign that once hung in front of the pinsetters, still operated by hand by so-called “pin boys” that work with incredible precision and speed.
That is, except for Morgan, who according to the proprietors is the first girl to ever work as a pin-setter. She listens to a wide variety of music during games, including modern artists like Justin Bieber and Sam Smith and old-school artists like Prince and Curtis Mayfield.
Games are $5 apiece, including shoes and ball rental, and bartenders Cathy and Tom Haeft will gladly spin you a yarn or two, including a description of the building as soon as you walk in the front door.
According to their remarkable tale, the bar has been in the family since it opened, originally called Skowronski’s and then called Gene and Marcy’s until 1975, when a German woman next door called it the “Holler House” in honor of the racket that rowdy bar patrons created when they would show up. The name has stuck ever since, and is now emblazoned on the front of the building and on the door.
Marcy Skowronski, turning 92 in February, is still an active participant in the scene, telling jokes and entertaining customers when she hops behind the exquisitely designed bar. A wide variety of beers and beverages, including Old-Fashioned’s, a Wisconsin staple, are available for purchase, but you’d better bring cash, as credit cards aren’t accepted.
In addition to the original wood lanes, the 15-pound wooden bowling balls that were found during a thorough cleaning in 2008, a dusty piano in the corner, and the photos of famous celebrities (Jack White of the White Stripes is a regular, and Joe Walsh of the Eagles has also picked up a few 7-10 splits in his time), there are bras everywhere. According to tradition, women on their first visit to the bar can sign their bras and have them hung inside the establishment, much to the chagrin of fire inspectors who have tried, and failed, to get rid of the practice.
Even with only two lanes, there are still several leagues that use the alley, and tour groups constantly arrive to take in the quaint scene despite the bar doing absolutely no advertising. Stories in Sports Illustrated (written by none other than Frank Deford, who downed many a drink with Marcy) and television shows have helped bolster the bar’s profile considerably, but there is still an element of authenticity that hangs in the air.
That, perhaps more than any other factor, is what makes the bar so remarkable. There is no attempt at faux-folksiness, and it genuinely feels like the type of neighborhood establishment that has gone extinct in many places.
Located just an hour and a half from downtown Chicago, the Holler House is a remarkable piece of history that isn’t just stuffed behind glass and admired from afar. It can be experienced, in full, and the owners will certainly encourage you to do so with a cold Polish beer in hand and with a sense of fun in your heart.