By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
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By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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It's five o'clock happy hour and St. Louis' only inductee to the Bartender Hall of Fame is at home watching Harry, his 134-pound Doberman, relieve himself in the yard.
"The longest Harry ever pissed was 54 seconds," offers the stooped and grizzled Mark Pollman.
That the 62-year-old Pollman would speak of such trivialities does not surprise his many friends and followers. In his decades behind the bar at the Fox & Hounds Tavern a dark, cozy watering hole tucked inside Clayton's Cheshire Lodge Pollman has earned a reputation as a cantankerous, know-it-all, contemptuous grouch.
But then, that's his charm.
"The man is a pure entertainer," says Mike Mesa, a Maryland executive who books his business trips at the Cheshire Lodge just so he can visit Pollman at the bar. "He comes across as mean-spirited, but I don't know anyone who can draw people together, be it through conversation, the puzzles and games he keeps behind the bar, or his inexhaustible knowledge of trivia."
Typical Pollman antics include refusing to serve customers the drinks they order (and instead making them whatever concoction he decides they should drink), berating clientele for their lousy tips and forcing male patrons from their barstools whenever a pretty lady wanders up to the counter. While the shtick invariably stuns most newcomers, many eagerly return for more abuse.
"When I take people to meet Mark, I brief them that he's kind of like a cross between Don Rickles and Andrew Dice Clay," says KMOX (1120 AM) talk-show host John Carney. "And, oh yeah, he's surly as hell."
Without question, Pollman's gruff veneer rubs many folks the wrong way. Legend has it that the list of complaints filed against him with hotel management has grown to the size of the yellow pages. Last month the complaint log received its final entry when a waitress at the bar accused Pollman of purposely spilling a drink on her blouse.
"After the incident I pulled Mark's file; he has a very substantial file," says Cheshire Lodge owner Dan Apted. "There's been plenty of conversation over the past few years about his lack of respect to customers and employees. We felt we were at risk if we kept him any longer."
On March 22 Apted fired Pollman after thirty years of bartending, with nine years spent slinging drinks at the adjoining Cheshire Inn and another twenty-one at the Fox & Hounds.
An unapologetic Pollman suggests he's a victim of political correctness and maintains his dismissal never would have happened if Dan Apted's father, the late Steve Apted, were still running the hotel.
"If he didn't get four or five complaints about me per month, he'd ask me what I was doing wrong," boasts Pollman, who adds that the eccentric senior Apted didn't care what his barkeep did with the tavern so long as he didn't have to go to jail for it.
Dan Apted agrees that his father and Pollman shared a certain chemistry but says times have changed.
"Mark is recognized internationally, nationally and locally for his spiel and his ability to get attention," says Apted. "He has a very, very consistent following. It was one of the toughest decisions I've had to make in terminating him."
News of Pollman's firing sparked a firestorm of protest among Fox & Hounds regulars, with many patrons dispatching angry letters to hotel management. Late last month, news of Pollman's dismissal hit the airwaves when KTRS (550 AM) personality McGraw Milhaven mentioned the bartender's ouster on his morning talk show. The topic lit up the switchboards.
"The calls came in for almost an hour," Milhaven recalls. "Even if you didn't know Mark Pollman by name, anyone who ever went to that bar remembers the crusty bartender with the puffy shirt. St. Louis lost a great institution when he was let go."
When expecting visitors to his Dogtown home, Pollman will still gussy himself with the ruffled pirate shirts that long identified him behind the bar. But in truth, most days find him in sweats and a T-shirt. Spread out along a threadbare couch in the living room lie a dozen boxes and folders full of the personal knickknacks he kept at the Fox & Hounds.
There's the Rastafarian wig he defiantly wore to work following an embarrassing incident three years ago when the Cheshire Inn (under management of a third-party operator, not the Apted family) refused entry to two black men with dreadlocks. There are the hundreds of prized military patches that soldiers and officers left him during their stopovers in the pub. But mostly, the boxes contain the hundreds of photocopied riddles, games and mindbenders he'd dole out to any and all customers who dared challenge his mental acumen.
"You'd go in there some nights, and it was like he was a proctor at the SATs," says KMOX's Carney. "Everyone would be hunkered down taking one of his quizzes. The man's knowledge of trivia is unparalleled."
Few people know as much about the history of booze and the distilling process as Mark Pollman. Lining the walls of his cluttered home are some 5,000 books on the subject of liquor and spirits, with titles as obscure as Drink and the Victorians, Old-time Cocktails and You Can Drink and Stay Healthy.