WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 1998
FRONT PAGE - METRO SECTION

From the canvas to the mat
Gallery owner gets in the ring as pro wrestler


By Paul E. Kandarian
GLOBE CORRESPONDENT


Champ's Arm Twisted!
PORTLAND, Maine -
Weekdays, Rob J. Elowitch runs one of New England's top art galleries from his handsome, turn of-the-century house on a hill in the posh section of this seaport city. Softspoken and cultured, he is the very image of a fine-arts connoisseur.

And then there are those weekends when Elowitch puts on his black tights and a snarl and becomes Robbie Ellis, a pro wrestling villain who for30 years has been mixing it up with the likes of Killer Kowalski or Razor Ramone in gritty gyms and halls around New England.

The opponent.s he hits with his trademark "big splash" attack from the top ropes of the ring are often less than half his age. Elowitch will turn 55 this spring, about the same time he expects to become a grandfather.

"It's all about dreams, I guess you can say!" Elowitch says softly from the office in his Colonial revival home that sits on a hill over looking the Fore River as it winds towards the Atlantic. "This fills the whole fantasy."

The whole fantasy takes him to places like the Police Athletic League hall in Fall River, Mass., which could have been lifted from the first Rocky film. Elowitch is billed as "The Living Legend," a sneering, jeering bad guy who plays the booing crowd like an abrasive fiddle as he strides with cocky confidence into the ring.

With a flying "big splash," he sets up The Commando, an opponent at least 20 years his junior and the crowd favorite. Ellis endures a couple of vicious back slams to the corner posts but then takes The Commando down with a "reverse DDT," a face smash to the mat.

One, two, three. Ellis wins by a pin and antagonizes the crowd again on his way out, shouting "Next time!" to signal his intention not to be such a nice guy when he comes back to town. And on the regional pro wrestling circuit, you always come back to town.

Elowitch wanted to be a pro wrestler ever since he was a kid growing up in Portland. He wrestled for Amherst College, where he was a theater major in the mid 1960s, but knew he wouldn't have much of a shot at the pros due to his size - he stands 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs about 170 pounds. But a dream's a dream.

"I was visiting Annette [now his wife] at Boston University one time and was passing an old Boston Arena sign that said 'Learn to Pro Wrestle,'" Elowitch says. "I went to the address and it was like a movie, I swear. There was this big gangster-looking guy sitting at a desk in an office way above a wrestling ring, with cigar smoke coming out of the windows."

The Champ at home

He enrolled at the school and became addicted to pro wrestling. When he and Annette married and moved back to Maine, he didn't tell her what he was up to, inventing a new excuse every Sunday to sneak off to wrestling school.

When he finally told her - but no one else - she just shrugged and said "Well, have a ball," Elowitch says. "That was a huge load off my mind."

It wasn't until he finally wrestled in Portland in 1984 that his avocation became known in his hometown, and the publicity actually helped his gallery business.

Elowitch's love of the arts began in college, when a friend "forced me to go to museums."

After moving to Maine to help with the family tire-manufacturing business, he became friends with Willard Cummings, founder of the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

He fell for the arts and knew the tire business wasn't for him. Cummings became mentor to Elowitch and his wife, imparting his knowledge to them and imbuing them with a deep appreciation of all art forms. Cummings died the day the Elowitches opened Barridoff Galleries in 1974 (the name is from his father's side of the family).

Elowitch's love of art was in full bloom. So was his pro wrestling career, as he traveled dozens of times a year, mostly around New England. He was a good guy for most of his career, going "bad" about five years ago just because, he laughs, " I was tired of being the good guy."

The good guy Elowitch loves fine paintings and sculptures, loves buying and selling them, loves holding successful annual art auctions that have often racked up more than $1 million each. Works by artists such as George Bellows, Fitzhugh Lane and Marsden Harley have been sold through the gallery.

But he is equally at home talking about wrestling. He's been around long enough to share wrestling cards with no-names and big names, including Killer Kowalski, the Funke brothers, Razor Ramone, Paul Orndoff and Rick Martel. Like any pro wrestler, Elowitch declines to discuss whether pro wrestling is fake or not, saying only that it takes impressive athletic abilities to get tossed all over a ring.

As to when he might retire, Elowitch shrugs. "I go to doctors, several of them, a heart doctor, chiropractor, they all say the same thing: There's no reason for me to stop," Elowitch says in a manner that is not so much the usual bragging of a pro wrestler but rather the straightforward common sense of a native Mainer. "They say I may be 54, but my body isn't.

"When my body gets to be 50, they say it'll be time to stop," he laughs. "I just don't know when that will be."



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