Few people truly have an alter ego like Rob Elowitch. By day, the 67-year-old Elowitch is a nationally known art dealer, selling Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins paintings for hundreds of thousands of dollars at the art auctions he and his wife, Annette, hold yearly through their business, Barridoff Galleries in Portland. He’s urbane, sophisticated, witty and charming.
On the weekends, though, he’s Robbie Ellis, a lean, mean, fighting machine, flexing his biceps and body-slamming opponents at independent circuit wrestling matches all over the Northeast. He has been at it for more than 40 years, though no one knew his secret life until the late 1980s.
Now, director Gary Robinov of Portland-based White Dog Arts has made a documentary about Elowitch and his many passions — art, family, wrestling — titled “Canvas Man.” The film had its world premiere at the Maine Jewish Film Festival in Portland last December, and it will screen at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 13, at the Stonington Opera House.
The idea for “Canvas Man” came several years ago, after Robinov had dismissed several ideas for the documentary he, as a filmmaker, had been trying to make.
“I was sitting at my dad’s kitchen table, and he said to me, ‘Why don’t you make a movie about Rob?’” said Robinov, whose family has known Elowitch for years. “It was an absolutely natural choice to make. His story is so wonderful and inspiring and endearing.”
Elowitch is decades older than most of his wrestling opponents, but with his age he has received a great deal of respect from his peers — for his work ethic, his positive attitude and his skills in the ring. The film shows Elowitch wrestling at places such as Dino’s Pizza in Brewer, which holds monthly wrestling matches through Independent Wrestling Entertainment. It’s not quite the stadium-size spectacle that is the province of superstars such as John Cena or The Undertaker, but it’s a regional stop for lesser-known wrestlers itching to get into the ring.
“For all the naysayers about pro wrestling, there is an incredible amount of athleticism that goes into it,” said Robinov. “Rob is in absolutely perfect shape. How many people have that amazing physique at 67? This is a guy that gets in his van almost every weekend and drives hours and hours to wrestle for 15 minutes. That’s dedication.”
Elowitch tried to keep the art world and the wrestling world separate in his life, out of fear of judgment from either side. As his profile grew, it became impossible to keep the secret. A Portland Press Herald story about a match he participated in blew his cover, followed by an article in Sports Illustrated and a profile on “The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour” in 1985.
Fortunately, the revelation that he was leading a double life only served to help his gallery, boosting prices at his auctions even as it allowed him opportunities to wrestle more regularly.
“The dichotomy of wrestling and art makes for a really interesting story. It allows him to perform, and to be active, which are two things he craves,” said Robinov. “But his story is also a beautiful love story, since he and Annette met when they were at Deering High School, and they’re still very much in love. She doesn’t like to watch him wrestle, because it looks like he’s getting hurt.”
“Canvas Man” has been submitted to a number of film festivals in Maine, including the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, the Camden International Film Festival and the KahBang Film Festival in Bangor. The movie tells the story of one man’s very interesting life, but the lesson garnered from watching the film is that there are two things that are key to happiness in life: being true to yourself, and being passionate about the things you do.
“There is nothing he does that he isn’t passionate about, whether it’s his family, his job or wrestling,” said Robinov. “He has a very honest love for what he does. Whatever he does, he does it to the fullest. I think that’s what makes him such a great character, and such a great story.”
“Canvas Man” screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 13, at the Stonington Opera House. Admission is $6. For more information, visit www.canvasmanmovie.com.