Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cornbread Red, Fats & Johnston City

I love this picture. Billy Burge, better known as "Cornbread Red," was a famed road player, an expert one-pocket player, and a colorful wild man. He was a fixture of "The Rack," a famed pool hall in Detroit, and also a backroom denizen of the Johnston City tournaments. Burge placed second in the Johnston City one-pocket division, back in 1966. He died in 2004.

I got to thinking about Cornbread Red after stumbling across this goofy snapshot on the Internet. It's one of a whole bunch of great pool photos that veteran pro Mary Kenniston recently uploaded to her Facebook page. (Thanks Mary!)  Burge epitomized the Johnston City generation of pool players that included Boston Shorty, Handsome Danny and the Tuscaloosa Squirrel. He was the subject of a biography, written with Bob Henning, and he also turns up in the autobiography of Minnesota Fats, The Bank Shot.

On page 135 of that last book, in the chapter titled "Exposed By Hollywood," Fats describes encountering Cornbread Red and others in Johnston City. The players were all razzing Fats about being a has-been player. Red became the victim of one of Fats' famous put-downs.

"I really think you're all washed up," Danny said.
"I think so too," Mr. Tuscaloosa Squirrelly chimed in.
"And so do I," said Mr. Cornbread Red. "I think Danny and the Squirrel are right, Fatty. You're finished."
"Is that so?" I said to Mr. Cornbread Red. "Well I'll tell you what I'll do. When I get through with Mr. Handsome Danny, which will be very shortly, it will be your turn to come to the table with the cash, Mr. Cornbread Red. And when I get through busting you down to your last dime and paying your bus fare back to Detroit, you'll be known as No-Bread Red."
That was enough to silence The Breadman but it wasn't enough to convince Mr. Handsome Danny, on account that Handsome kept right on trying to out talk me.
Biographer Tom Fox, who co-authored the Bank Shot, apparently witnessed the exchange. I really enjoy that book. It's hilarious. I was able to facilitate its republishing a few years back after it had fallen off into obscurity. The new version was put out by Lyons Press, which also published Hustler Days and The Hustler & The Champ.

Bob Henning's book also is excellent. It's called "Cornbread Red: Pool's Greatest Money Player." You can find it on Amazon or you can order it directly from Henning, at Bebob Publishing.  And finally, if you want to read more about Cornbread Red, check out Cornbread Red was inducted into the organization's One Pocket Hall of Fame back in 2004.

-- R.A. Dyer

Thursday, July 15, 2010

PoolSynergy9: Hustlers, Beats and Others

It would have been 1982 or so, back during my college days, and a friend of mine had just handed me a copy of Hustlers, Beats and Others. The book was the width of a Lucky Strike cigarette. A real thin paperback. I remember the pages were dog-eared and coffee stained.

My friend had discovered Hustlers, Beats and Others atop a pile of similarly musty books at an Austin thrift shop. He figured — quite correctly as it turned out — that this book would interest me. He paid a quarter for it. "Check this out," he said, grabbing the book back for a moment. "Right here. There's a whole section here on hustlers."
Hustlers, Beats and Others is about exactly what it says it is about. New York sociologist Ned Polksy, the author, describes the lives of beatniks, petty thieves and pool hustlers. He examines them almost as if he were examining members of a tribe, writing about both their gathering places and their customs. My friend gave me the book because he knew I was familiar with the game. But the pool halls described in it were nothing I recognized. In Polksy's world, serious men argued over "spots," made giant wagers and sometimes cheated one another. In mine, college kids played for beers.

Flash forward: I graduated from the University of Texas in 1986 and then bounded off to Costa Rica, where I had accepted work at The Tico Times, an English language newspaper. Not long afterwards Touchstone Pictures released The Color of Money, the pool film starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. A bunch of us ex-patriot reporters bounded out to the local movie theater to see a subtitled version of the film and then afterwards, inspired, we ventured into a San Jose pool hall.  It was up a flight of cement stairs. I remember having to step over a drunk.

The room was called Center Pool and it was unlike any I had ever seen.  These were not surbanites playing pool. These were not college kids winding down after their bio-chem exams. These were serious players, men not running two balls or three, but entire racks in succession. I thought I was good, but I had no idea what good was. These men were playing on giant tables, the largest I'd ever seen — and they made long cut shots and crazy caroms and they gambled. Money, Costa Rican colones, glided back and forth between the players. Even the spectators were placing bets. It donned on me then that these men hardly ever left the pool hall. I realized that this was their home. It was a culture exactly as Ned Polksy had described it.

Our assignment for this month's installment of PoolSynergy was to describe how we came to love pool. So that's my story, more or less. I fell in love with the sport as it was played in Costa Rica, which seemed to match the descriptions from Polksy's book. You can see the sociologist's influence in The Hustler & The Champ and Hustler Days, my books about the early years of American pool. Of course I had other influences too, not the least of which was my Uncle Rob, who was the first pool shark I ever knew. But those days in Costa Rica left quite an impression.

At the top of this post I've embedded a Super8 film I shot at Center Pool,  a room that sadly no longer exists. You can also read other PoolSynergy essays by clicking through the Angle of Reflection blog, which you can find here.

-- R.A. Dyer

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Memories of Fort Worth's Texas Recreation

An old friend of mine, who goes variously by the names of "Big Daddy" and "Lucious Tibideaux," sends in this great recollection of a famous pool hall in Fort Worth, Texas.  Big Daddy also invites others to send in their own testimonials about old time pool halls that no longer exist. I've written a couple over the years, including one about Houston's Cue & Cushion, which was a favored spot for Jersey Red.  There's also Le Cue, which was an action hotbed during the 1960s. I write about Le Cue in Hustler Days

Big Daddy writes here about the old Texas Recreation, which, like so many of the great rooms, was located above a flight of stairs. I'm sure that among the legends trudging up those stairs was none other than U.J. Puckett, who was Fort Worth's most famous old school hustler.  That's a picture of Puckett, above. He later went on to haunt Fort Worth's Fast Freddy's pool hall. Literally.

Here's Big Daddy's note.

When I was a teen-ager in Fort Worth, I had an uncle who introduced me to Texas Recreation in downtown Fort Worth. This was an open-bay pool room with dozens of table where you played for 60 cents an hour. I came back later when I was 16 and 17 and hustled pool there. Ask around, old timers probably remember the pool hall.

It was located in downtown Fort Worth on Houston Street on the second floor over a burlesque house. The burlesque place had photos of dancers in glass frames on the walls in front of the place. These were girls with feather boas wrapped around their waists and chests. I never went upstairs before checking out the photos of the dancers that week. Right next door to the burlesque house was Peters Bros. Hat stores, which has been fitting cowboy hats since 1933 at the same location. It is still there.

- Big Daddy

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Daddy Warbucks and Johnston City

Johnston City Sign
Gary Carlson, a former graduate student from Southern Illinois who wrote recently about a chance encounter he had with Minnesota Fats, also sent in a note about stumbling into a poolroom owned by George and Paulie Jansco. This was sometime back in the late 1960s. The Janscos were the creators of the famous Johnston City tournaments, which I write about in Hustler Days. Carlson appears to have stumbled into a game with Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes, although his memory is a bit fuzzy on the point. Carlson says the players appeared to be off their game and ended up spending a good part of the evening arguing about the spot. That's a picture of Daddy Warbucks, below, although he's standing there next to another young fan (not Carlson). Right above this post I've included a picture of the Johnston City sign. Cokes was known for his fondness of one-pocket and firearms.

Here's Mr. Carlson's note:
Prior to the experience with Fats, maybe it was 1965 or 1966, I lived in Decatur, Illinois and was finishing up my bachelor degree in Chemistry at Millikin University. A buddy of mine who I played pool with said we should go down to southern Illinois to watch a major pool tournament. So, we piled into his ’58 Chevy Impala and away we went. I have no idea how he learned of the tournament, but the drive took longer than I had anticipated.
Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes history
I didn’t know what was going on — I knew nobody and certainly didn’t see nor hear anybody named "Minnesota Fats." The place was wall to wall packed. Difficult to see the action and it seemed somewhat disorganized. After watching endless 9-ball, we learned that the more interesting stuff was going on “out back.”I can’t recall (after all, this was about 45 years ago) if it was in a part of the same room walled off or a small building separate from the main room. I think we paid $5 for entry. It was north of the main building (which was like ‘50’s deco), the latter which sat on the northwest quarter of the intersection. In any case, we were there only maybe a couple hours and the only memory I have was in this back room. Frankly, I wasn’t very impressed with the caliber of play – but what did I know? I thought I saw people just as good back in Decatur. I used to watch Don Tozer play there. Anyway, I recall or heard of or saw “Jersey Red,”Eddie “Knoxville” Taylor, and “Big Daddy Warbucks” who I much later learned was Hubert Cokes. The match I recall was between Big Daddy and somebody else – I can’t recall who – seems like Taylor, but I’m not totally sure if Taylor or Red were even there that year and I just heard their names – but it was certainly Big Daddy. I also remember a LONG conversation about what the handicap would be. The game was going to be 8-ball and a race to something for $100 (good money back then). Now, instead of their bridge hand, Warbucks was to use his hat for a bridge and the other guy went into the toilet and returned with a big toilet brush. As I said, the play was unremarkable. I expected long runs, “magic” shots, etc. I was young.
Now I regret that during 1966-1969 when I was in Carbondale, I never bothered to even go back there to watch again – even though it was just east a few miles. Curiously, I did play in a band and we actually played a couple of gigs there at that location. I’ve forgotten the name of the place. It might have been “Janscos."

-- R.A. Dyer