Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
March: Herman & I
IN 1960, the night-desk man at Bensinger’s poolroom in Chicago offered to sell me a brand new Rambow cue, with two shafts yet, for just under $30, the same price he paid for it new. That was more than I had on me at the time, so that cue got away. But, given that today you can find mere cue tips — and lately, even single cubes of chalk — that cost more than that, you’d have to say that jointed cues, from name cuemakers, may well represent pool’s only real growth.
I never got acquainted with New York’s Frank Paradise, the cue-making star of his time; I did speak several times each with George Balabushka and Gus Szamboti, the last two artists who could be definitively singled out as Numero Uno of their respective eras. But, because Herman Rambow was here in town, I had modest experience with him. I can remember owning at least four of his cues, at varying times, even a model that included the old beveled, abalone-inlaid edge at the very bottom. Somewhat remarkably for me, I never broke any. But, as with many pool players, I did reach low points in my life when I needed to sell them off.
My first Rambow, purchased about two years after I had to decline the one at Bensinger’s, represented an almost unheard-of value. The owner actually advertised it in the Chicago Tribune classifieds. He was offering what amounted to a fancy Rambow, inlaid not merely with veneers but tiny ivory dots and bullseyes, then called “sites”; four, count ’em, four shafts; and what was commonly called a “Rudolph” case (said to be designed by the great player himself), hard Mexican hand-tooled leather including the handle, ranging from reddish-brown to cordovan in color, with a flip-back top and strap, all for just $75. That particular wand and case were stolen from me, right out of Bensinger’s room where preferred customers’ cues were stored, and I took the poolroom to court and won. Old Norman Bensinger himself told the judge that his storing cues amounted to a “gratuitous bailment,” in the manner of a coat-check service, and therefore should not be held responsible.
“Well, I don’t play pool,” responded the judge. “But I do play golf, and when I’m done, I leave my clubs sitting openly in the pro shop. I expect that they will be placed and stored somewhere safe. If they were ever stolen, I’d not only sue the pro, I’d be tempted to throttle him too. Find for the plaintiff.”
The building in which I visited Mr. Rambow was downtown, but you’d never notice it unless you were looking for it. As it happened, the same building housed the opticians who furnished my first pairs of eyeglasses, but I was too young then to even know what pool was. The sign listing the building’s tenants did include a triangle of colored balls that I enjoyed looking at because I thought it pretty; maybe that was an early signal of sorts. The great cuemaker’s employer called themselves Keefe & Hamer, and advertised themselves as a billiard-supply company. The Brunswick/Balke/Collender company, which all but ruled pool back then, allowed Keefe & Hamer to put their nameplate on some of their tables, and that made some sense because Mr. Rambow had begun his career as that company’s principal cuemaker. The company apparently consisted of two near-catatonic mopes on the counter out front, and Mr. Rambow’s workshop in the back. Prospective customers were allowed to walk back there directly to visit him, which would ultimately prove to be an extremely foolish decision.
Compared to the lavishly equipped cue shops of today, his was almost threadbare: just a single lathe, on which he turned out both butts and shafts, and what appeared to be a small mountain of sawdust. It was everywhere you looked; the room bore its refreshing smell. It was believed among players that he turned out maybe two or three cues a week, rarely straying from the four-veneered-prongs design. Unfortunately, his last years were not particularly kind to him. He was repeatedly ripped off; the bad guys would simply stroll into his shop as customers, grab whatever they could, and take off down the five flights of stairs. Mr. Rambow, small and old, was completely at their mercy, and the two semi-zombies on the desk were no help either. The Chicago Police Department’s communication system was not all that sophisticated back then; if Keefe & Hamer indeed bothered to call the cops, help arrived late if at all. And even when things went smoothly, Mr. Rambow was tending toward senility, and the cues he produced toward the end were frankly not very good.
And however old the Rambow cues that are still around today are, their hit seems “mushy” compared to today’s best products; the butts sometimes feel fat. He rarely used any woods other than rosewood, ivory, maple and ash, and it’s pretty obvious that he was not nearly the judge of wood, as to potential playability, that today’s artists are. Paradise, Balabushka and Szamboti were all said to be hundred-ball runners; Rambow played nothing that anyone knew of. He never did graduate to either stainless-steel joints (he used brass, occasionally plastic) or maple shafts. As I’m neither a metallurgist nor woodworker, I can’t get specific over why or how, or even if, those decisions affected the hit of the finished product. But his cues are decidedly not the equal, nor even close, of today’s, although he was logically the first cuemaker inducted into the BCA Hall of Fame and is indeed considered the father of the art.
Mr. Rambow died too poor to even afford a headstone. A year or two back, Chicago’s incredibly generous straight-pool fan Dennis Walsh spearheaded an effort to raise the $800 or so needed for one. It’s nice to report that the man finally got a small taste of the dignity he so richly deserved.