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'Canvasman': Documentary about art-dealing Portland wrestler to premiere at Maine Jewish Film Festival

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'Canvasman': Documentary about art-dealing Portland wrestler to premiere at Maine Jewish Film Festival

PORTLAND — It takes skill for a director to shed new light on a well-known story.

But that is exactly what Portland resident Gary Robinov has done with his first documentary, "Canvasman: The Robbie Ellis Story," according to Rob Elowitch, the subject of the film.

"I knew if anyone could have gotten some really good material that someone else might not have gotten, it would be this particular team," Elowitch said. "Nobody has quite hit on the tone of what it has really been like, as he has been able to do. Coming to know who you are has a universal appeal that goes beyond the cute story line" 

That cute storyline has been retold many times since Sports Illustrated ran a feature about Elowitch in the 1980s. Elowitch, a well-known Portland art dealer, had been living a secret life as a professional wrestler. Tired of lying to his family, Elowitch told his wife about his alter-ego, known in the ring as Robbie Ellis, "the sexy sexagenarian super stud."

"I've seen things about myself that I have really had to think about," Elowitch said of the documentary. 

Since the magazine feature, Elowitch's life has been the subject of many articles and hyperbolic musings. The Sun Journal referred to Elowitch as Superman: a mild-mannered art dealer at Portland's Barridoff's Galleries during the week; the fearless "Bad Boy Robbie Ellis" on weekends. 

Elowitch recalled when he first agreed to wrestle in Portland. He was reluctant at first, worried that it would damage his reputation as an art dealer. But at the encouragement of his wife, he decided to give it a shot. 

"Instead of it hurting my business, I started getting calls from all over the world," Elowitch said. 

Now, the dual life of the 66-year-old is the subject of the documentary that will have its world premier next March in Portland at the Maine Jewish Film Festival.

MJFF Executive Director Kari Wagner-Peck said she is excited to feature a film with such deep local roots. Wagner-Peck said she was sold on the film, which has a local producer and local subject, before it was even finished.

"We have been looking and hoping for this opportunity for so long," Wagner-Peck said. "The trailer was so intriguing. It's a little glimpse into what (Robinov) is trying to do and it comes through."  

The trailer for the film starts with classical music and people poring over framed pieces of art, with several clips of Elowitch speaking with prospective buyers. The video then cuts to a scene where Elowitch is driving in a van talking about his age. 

"At this point in my life, I get asked one time much too many how old I am," Elowitch says. "I know what's coming: 'Gee, you look great for a guy your age.' You know. And I want to respond: (expletive) you, I look great for a guy your age."  

Then the frame cuts to Ellis lying on the mat, getting stomped in the chest. 

Robinov said he and photographer Daniel Davis and sound engineer Peter Nenortas began shooting footage for the documentary in spring 2008. They traveled with Elowitch's two-seat, maroon Econoline van to wrestling matches in Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Brunswick. The filmmakers also went to Elowitch's vacation home in Italy, where they spent time with the wrestler and his wife, while also shooting wrestling footage. 

Throughout filming, Robinov was continually surprised by the reverence and admiration Elowitch received from wrestling fans, whether it was a dozen people in a VFW hall somewhere in Maine or several hundred fans in Philadelphia. Elowitch also garnered the respect of his fellow wrestlers, most not even a third of his age. 

"The reverence these kids have for him and what he gives back," Robinov said. "We walked into that arena in Italy. Most of the guys are warming up in the arena and there's this beautiful scene of this stream of people, young Italian wrestlers, climbing out of the ring, lining up to shake his hand."

Robinov said Elowitch's perspective on life should be an example for everyone. 

"I'm smitten with him," Robinov said. "Do things you're passionate about and don't let people box you in."

It's a message Robinov has taken to heart. The documentary is the 46-year-old's first film and it took the better part of Rabinov's early life to decide that filmmaking was what he wanted to do. Early in life, he worked in his family business, but quit to attend the Maine College of Art so he could learn to be a painter. Instead, he embarked on a self-designed curriculum about filmmaking.

Although the film will premier in March, Robinov said there are still scenes to be shot to fill out story lines about Elowitch's role in bringing public art to Portland, and his volunteer work as an assistant wrestling coach at Deering High School.

"We knew it wasn't going to be a film about wrestling," Robinov said. "It's one thing to be wealthy, but (Elowitch) is rich. He leads this wonderful rich life and that has nothing to do with money."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net