Camaraderie caroms around corner bar

October 07, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

Something strange is happening inside Marie and Ellie's.

Ellie Wilcox is in back, standing next to the pool table. Her excited eyes run along the bar until she spots Vicky.

"Come here," Ellie shouts above the roar of voices.

She grasps Vicky's arm.

"Tell this man what Marie and Ellie's means to you," Ellie says.

Vicky Brzozowski, 29, lives a half block away and plays pool at the bar with her husband three or four nights a week. Marie and Ellie's means the world to her, she says. Marie and Ellie have helped a lot of customers through hard times, she says. Some call them Mom.

Vicky says she loves them both very much. She hugs Ellie. Then she hugs Marie.

Ellie selects another person, and then another, and one by one they stand next to the pool table and bear witness for this loud, smoky, crowded bar in Highlandtown. "This is real-life living here," Ellie says. "This is a combination of many people put into one. Our motto is: One for all, and all for Marie and Ellie's."

Something strange indeed: This corner bar in the Formstone building at North Potomac Street and East Fairmount Avenue serves far more than beer; it serves up heaping helpings of camaraderie and devotion with a born-again, cult-like zeal.

It all began with pool.

Marie and Ellie Wilcox, who coincidently have the same last name, bought this skinny bar, formerly Jim's Bar, in 1982. In the back was a pool table.

Marie, 53, and Ellie, 50, sponsored softball and soccer teams. In 1984 they organized a pool team -- or, as they state in a one-page, hand-written history of Marie and Ellie's: "In 1984 our life began in pool."

They now have 48 players and eight teams that play in the Bud Light Pool League. It's the world's largest pool league; more than 100,000 men and women play every week in the United States, says Terry Justice, who runs the northeast Maryland division of 400 teams.

Bar teams play one another in a game similar to eight ball. Marie and Ellie's teams have won 131 trophies, prominently displayed in long rows above the bar.

Three teams from Marie and Ellie's played last weekend in a tournament at The Green Room billiards hall in Dundalk. The players hoped to win a trip to Las Vegas next summer for the $250,000 Bud Light International Team Championship. The best a team from Marie and Ellie's finished was ninth. Only the top eight qualified to play for the trip to Vegas. But Marie and Ellie had big plans.

Anybody who played pool at the bar, whether they were on the winning team or not, would have gone to Vegas. Marie and Ellie would have rented a trailer for everyone. Frenchie Boucher would haved towed the trailer behind the cab of his tractor-trailer truck. Frenchie is a truck driver from Dundalk and captain of four of the bar's teams.

"We done figured it out," Ellie says before the tournament. "It's 3,800 miles. We'll take three days to get there, we'll be there three days, and we'll take three days to get back."

Her face lights up like the Fourth of July. "In America you can do that," she says.

Something else that's strange about Marie and Ellie's, at least on first glance inside the door, is that nearly everyone seems to be dressed in black. Actually, it's only their T-shirts that are black.

On front of the shirts a cool cat lounges in a chair, holding a pool cue in one hand and a beer in the other. He is saying: "No problem." Also, the shirts carry the words: "Pool shooting fools."

The pool shooting fools are electricians, assistant grocery managers, the temporarily unemployed, car salesmen and barmaids. Some are married to each other. One couple is engaged.

Charles Harris is manager of Danielle's Bluecrest Caterers in Pikesville. At 52, he's older than most of the players. He's the top shooter at Marie and Ellie's. He's played here four years.

"Come in here some nights and the whole bar's covered with crabs," he says. "Other nights they've got free hot dogs, or crab soup, or ham and cabbage, spaghetti and meatballs -- all for free.

"Other teams come in here, and they're just overwhelmed by the hospitality. Everybody wants to get on this team because we have such a good reputation. Everybody wants to play for Marie and Ellie's."

Marie and Ellie, neither of whom are married or have families of their own, say they've nurtured their younger customers as if they were their own. Ellie says in some cases the environment in the bar is more family-like than their customers' environment at home.

"There are no nobodys here," Ellie says. "Everybody's a somebody at Marie and Ellie's."

She pauses, and says: "I know it sounds a little phony. But it's genuine. They put on this T-shirt and all of a sudden they're somebody."

She calls over Walter Whittemore, 29, who lost his right arm in a car wreck eight years ago. He testifies in a soft voice that Marie and Ellie urged him to play pool after the accident and helped him regain his confidence and self-esteem.

"See what I mean?" Ellie says.

She talks about America, about how different peoples united together to form this one, beautiful country. That's what happened here at Marie and Ellie's, she says. Everybody's one.

And everybody's for Marie and Ellie's.

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