Wrestling to the Top

Rob Elowitch’s Double Life

Originally published in “The Blue Room.”

RobLike a gladiator, Robbie Ellis slowly climbs up the three turnbuckles of the wrestling ring and turns to face his opponent Matt Rage, who attempts to get up from Robbie’s latest blow. Robbie hovers six feet above the ground; his chiseled body perched like a statue as he prepares for his famous finishing move, the big splash. In one fell swoop he leaps off the top turnbuckle, gaining height, soaring like a superhero in flight, before he evens his frame out positioning his stomach parallel with the mat. With a loud smack he lands on Rage and successfully pins him. He jumps up, swaggers his hips and swings his jacket above his head; it’s another victory for crowd favorite Robbie Ellis.

“I do a lot of flying,” Robbie says. “It’s really my gimmick.”

As a fiery September sunset descends behind the VFW in Old Town, professional wrestler Robbie Ellis just made his comeback. Injured four months ago during a match in Sanford, the Sports Illustrated legend proved he is still has what it takes. At least 30 fans paid their hard earned money and suspended their disbelief to witness Robbie, and the other featured wrestlers of the evening, pummel each other inside the ring.

In high school gyms, VFWs and American Legions across the country, hundreds of men dress up in grandiose costumes and adopt an alter ego. Hardcore fans get caught up in the storylines of their favorite wrestlers and follow them from location to location. Before each match begins, the stage is set. The lights are dimmed and the smell of sweat, baby oil and smoke mingle in the air. Backstage prior to the match Robbie waits for his cue.

“They either love him or they hate him,” says Commissioner of New Wrestling Horizon Matt Michaels. “He’s been here so long.”

Besides being the villain everyone loves to hate, there’s something else about Robbie that sets him apart from the other wrestlers. Robbie is 63, though arguably in better shape than opponents half his age. To maintain his physique he works out at a local gym between two-to-three hours every day.

Robbie’s match against Rage is the second of the evening. The music swells and the curtain parts. Robbie advances from the makeshift dressing room wearing sleek black and gold wrestling shorts, black shoes, gold kneepads, a black and gold jacket and sunglasses. His well-muscled body looks freshly oiled and tan. He struts toward the ring as if on a catwalk, armed with a sense of arrogant self-confidence.

Things can get raucous in the front row and spit tends to fly, but for loyal members of the audience this is the best part and they show their adoration or disdain for each wrestler.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Robbie Ellis the world’s Sexiest Sexagenarian Super Stud Sports Illustrated legend,” the announcer cries.

This crowd loves Robbie and they voice their approval with loud hoots and hollers. Robbie swivels his hips and kisses both of his biceps in a slow deliberate gesture.

“Here’s the love muscle right here,” Robbie says while rotating his hips to the screams of girls in the front row.

Robbie’s opponent Rage appears wearing bright red boots, black and gray pants and a mask.

Inside the ring Robbie flips Rage, throws him into the ropes and delivers his elbow straight into his opponent. Rage retaliates  by grabbing Robbie and administering a body slam. Robbie backs Rage into the ropes and climbs halfway to the top; he thrusts his groin in Rage’s face as the crowd yells “too sexy!” Next comes the big splash.

For 10 minutes of glory as his alter ego wrestler Robbie Ellis, Rob Elowitch, art dealer and owner of the famed Barridoff Galleries, made the two-hour drive to Old Town from his home along Portland’s Western Promenade.

Rob has lived the double life of a professional wrestler and art dealer for the last 20 years. Though he runs Barridoff with his wife Annette, you’ll never find her at a match, cheering on Robbie Ellis.

Like most little boys, Rob dreamed of being a professional wrestler from an early age. He wrestled in college, but it was while in Boston that his fate was sealed. Rob was walking by the Boston Arena when he says he noticed a sign that read: “Learn to be a professional wrestler.”

“I went home and put on jeans and a tight t-shirt,” Rob recalls. “I remember going inside the arena and there was a ( wrestling) ring. I went upstairs, knocked on the door and it was just like a gangster movie.”

At first Rob kept his wrestling a secret from his wife. He disappeared every weekend to Boston for the wrestling clinic, each time telling Annette he was going to visit a urologist for a recurring bladder problem. Rob says the sneaking around made him sick, but something Annette had warned him of made him keep his mouth shut.

“Annette said years before, ‘if you ever do this, we won’t make it,’” Rob says.

Despite the warning, while at a party a few weeks later, Rob could no longer stomach the guilt of lying to his wife and confessed to Annette that he had something to tell her.

As any woman would, Annette assumed the worst.

“When he told me (it was wrestling) I was so relieved, I was thrilled,” Annette admits from the kitchen table of the 1912 Colonial Revival dream home she and Rob purchased in the early 1970s.

“I went three times,” she reveals, “but it was so horrible. I thought he was getting killed.”

“No matter how much I explained it (the wrestling moves) to her,” Rob chimes in laughing.

Annette says she doesn’t get nervous any more, because she simply doesn’t go to Rob’s matches. Rob confides that Annette doesn’t want him injured for the holidays or their upcoming two-month vacation to their second home in Collodi, Italy. Since he began wresting Rob has injured his rotator cuff and his elbow and most recently the injury to his hip. He has wrestled all over the country and made his debut in Italy on November 1.

The couple met in high school and after breaking up in college, he attended Amherst, she Boston University, they finally married in 1965. Rob credits their successful marriage with a solid foundation of friendship.

On a rainy Saturday during Rosh Hashanah they banter back and forth trying to remember specific dates to their well-worn story told countless time over Annette’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. Their yellow Labrador retriever Buzz makes himself at home on the floor while the couple’s cats explore the backyard garden.

Rob and Annette started the gallery in 1972. Rob’s father owned a successful tire manufacturing business, but Rob quickly decided the family business wasn’t for him.

So he posed an idea. He asked the other partners in the company to pay him for five years, buy him a building in downtown Portland and told them they would never see him again. Rob and Annette took the funds and turned them into a successful antique and art business. That business has boomed, and though they now work out of their home, they sold more than $4 million of art an their annual auction this past August.

“We’re certainly considered one of the major art auction houses in America,” Rob says. “There was a moment that was really amazing to me, (during the auction) suddenly I got this wonderful feeling of well-being I hadn’t had in seven months.”

Rob credits wresting for jumpstarting his art business. In the beginning he feared the opposite would be true, and kept a low profile by only wrestling out of town. Inside of his home countless articles and photographs of his glory in the ring line the walls.

“Wrestling changed the world for us,” Rob says. He began to get recognized on the streets, something he says was “fun the first 150 times.”

In 1985 “Sports Illustrated” came calling and major network news programs followed, but it was a story in the local paper that revealed Rob’s secret identity to his hometown. Rob says the attention made their local art business an international success.

“The TV people treated the art part very seriously,” explains Rob. “They treated the wrestling with humor without being patronizing. It changed our whole lives. That’s when we started getting calls about people having paintings to sell.”

He cites his favorite wrestlers as A.J. Styles, Mike Quackenbush, Randy Orton and Rick Flair, who is his own age. It’s Flair who accompanies Robbie to all of his matches in the form of an action figure on his dashboard. Robbie says he doesn’t mind the long drives he has to make in order to wrestle.

“I get very nervous on the drive up,” he admits. “I wonder, ‘why am I doing this?’ until I get in the ring, it’s like performing,” the former theater major explains.

Rob uses the time alone to listen to books on tape and opera. He says the few minutes in the ring bring him instant gratification.

“It gets an awful lot out of my system that I couldn’t get out in any other way,” he says of wrestling.

As he grew older, Rob decided that Robbie Ellis needed to shed his baby face good guy image so he dyed his brown hair bleach blond and left the baby face image behind for good.

It’s not the outcome of a match that matters, Rob says.

“It doesn’t matter who wins in wrestling, it’s how the show goes and if they’ll come to see you again.”

Robbie Ellis will continue to dazzle audiences for at least the next two years. Rob says he’ll keep wrestling until it puts his health at risk. Born with a heart condition, Rob will have to leave the ring if he needs to be put on a blood thinner, which he speculates could happen by the time he reaches age 65.

Rob says he had a lot to prove in the early days as a baby face and had only a few close friends in the industry. Now as a heel, or a bad guy and countless years in the industry, Rob has made lifelong friendships, which he says are important because the dangerous moves he performs require complete trust from his opponent.

“If you can’t trust him, you can’t do it,” Rob says. “It’s very dangerous.”

As much as he loves wrestling, Rob says it’s the art that he cherishes more.

“Art is it, there’s no question,” Rob says. “It’s what I’ll have when wrestling through. If I had to pick one or the other I’d pick art, even though wrestling is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

— Brandi Neal

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