City Cigar Store which housed a poolroom. (C late-1940s)
Little Falls Pool Halls – Reflections on a Bygone Era
This Writing Series article first appeared on LittleFallsHistoricalSociety.org.
Coming of age in the 1950s and 60s in Little Falls, New York included a number of rites of passage for the young men of that time. For some, these rites included the risky action of staying out well past your curfew, experiencing your first dance and your first kiss with that special high school sweetheart, sneaking your first puff of a cigarette under the bleachers at the football field, and for many young men it was that first time you heard the magical sound of billiard balls clacking together in one of the many iconic but also now long-gone pool rooms in the City of Little Falls.
BACKGROUND OF POCKET BILLIARDS AND THREE-CUSHION BILLIARDS
The games of pocket billiards / pool and three-cushion billiards / carom have long and rich histories, being played by kings, commoners, presidents, ladies, gentlemen, and hustlers alike. The game of pool actually began as an outdoor contest played on grass similar to croquet. The first recognized known indoor pool table (grass-like green) was in France during the reign of King Louis XI, sometime in the mid-1500s.The game spread rapidly through French nobility where the game was refined and popularized. William Shakespeare’s 1600 play Antony and Cleopatra refers to the game of pool.
Three-cushion billiards began in the 1870s.The first recognized pool tournament was played in 1878 at C.E. Mussey’s billiard room in St. Louis where Waymon Crow McCleery was declared champion. Between 1910 and the 1920s straight pool, nine-ball, and eight-ball all began to be played.
By most local accounts, pool hall life in Little Falls changed little from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. The same pool hall activity probably went back to the late 1800s when working men first had factory paychecks to put at risk on poker and pool tables. In general, pool halls and barrooms were the center of social existence for many men, young and old alike.
During the 1930s Great Depression through World War II and into the Eisenhower 50s, the preferred Little Falls pool halls were Wally’s Cigar Store (536 East Main Street), the City Cigar Store (501 East Main Street), and Bride’s Cigar Store (598 East Main Street). The real “action” poolroom was Wally’s where pool and billiard games with cash bets could be engaged in at almost any hour of the day.
The distinctive click of ivory balls, cigar and cigarette smoke, spittoons, swearing, nicknames galore, tense gambling contests, remarkable shot-making displays of draw, follow, and English, and even a forbidden, but sometimes necessary, masse’ shot were the norm. If the right palms were greased, backroom poker games and horse track bookmaking also took place in pool halls. It was a man’s world, easy marks and pool sharks, saps and sharps, the only intruding female may have been an angry wife or a worried mother seeking to extract a loved one from this setting.
Many of us have seen the 1961 classic film THE HUSTLER starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats, and George C. Scott as Fats’ ruthless backer. Little Falls pool halls were similar to those portrayed in that film.
A comedic take on three-cushion billiards can be viewed in the 1964 film A SHOT IN THE DARK. Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) and Benjamin Ballon (George Sanders) engage in hilarious slap-stick interplay with a billiard table and cue sticks.
And then came the 1960s and its major cultural shift against the backdrop of the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements and new wave feminism. All the rules changed.
A corporate decision by the Brunswick Company in the early-1960s to market their pool tables to a wider market changed everything. Pocket billiards were marketed as “family fun” and traditional pool hall life was changed irrevocably. New pool rooms allowed women to enter, shoot pool, and “hang out with the guys.” Pool tables were even covered with felt of different colors. Blasphemy to the old guard!
THE HUSTLER-like poolrooms were being replaced by billiard centers more like those shown in THE COLOR OF MONEY, the 1986 film starring Newman and Tom Cruise.
Locally, this transition resulted in the slow-motion “death” of several pool halls – Bride’s and Fox’s primarily – and the opening in the late-60s of the brightly lit The Diplomat Billiard Center on the Albany Street side of Shoppers Square across from St. Joseph’s Church.
Throughout the 1960s, various poolhalls often served as the meetup point for a group of guys who might shoot a rack or two of pool or play a game of three-cushion billiards before heading off to possibly greater adventure. Kandyland was the major mixed gender locale competing with poolhalls for one’s leisure time, but a “check-in” at the poolhall was a given even after one turned eighteen and could go to barrooms. Poolhall “action” was always alluring.
1960s LITTLE FALLS POOL HALLS AND BILLIARD CENTERS
BRIDE’S CIGAR STORE
In the early 1960s, Brides was the preferred poolhall for many young Little Falls men, mostly high schoolers. Bill and Les Bride were the owners and Harry Bloodough and Bob McCarthy were employees, the latter many times referring to the young clientele as “hunyocks.”
Upon entering Bride’s, you were in the front area of a store where tobacco products, candy, paperback books, and newspapers were the main consumer attractions. One passed to the left of the sales counter and through a doorway into the long narrow back room containing three green-felted pool tables. The condition of these tables and cue sticks was marginal, the felt was old and the tables were not level, making for some erratic play. There were high stools overlooking the pool tables and the bathroom was in the back up a stair or two.
Straight pool and eight-ball were the only games that could be played in Bride’s. Nine-ball and rotation were not allowed as those games required the “slamming” of balls. In general, no high stakes gambling pool games took place in Bride’s, in essence, there was not much “action.” It was a great place to meet up, shoot a game or two of pool, drink soda, shoot the breeze with your pals, and hang out.
Two of the more colorful higher quality players in Bride’s were Dickie “Fritz” Gregorka and Keith Zabry.
Unfortunately, many high school boys did not think much of Les Bride as he shuffled through the poolroom area carrying paperback books and other merchandise from a back storeroom to the front store area. Little did we know that Les Bride was a decorated World War I veteran who had been exposed to nerve gas. The arrogance of youth, shame on us.
Masle’s Cigar Store was operated by Larry Masle (but everyone referred to him as “Mas”) from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, Masle’s was situated in the middle of a block of buildings on South Ann Street which ran from the railroad tracks to the Barge Canal. Across the street from these buildings was the Allegro Shoe Company. This block was magical to a young adult male because it contained, besides Masle’s, a pizza parlor (Viola’s), a grocery store that sold alcoholic beverages (“Ernie’s”), a barroom (Kit Kat Klub, “Ratman’s”) and a “store” where they sold a little of everything (Johnnie Rusin’s). Of course, a high-end restaurant, Henry’s, was also in the block but it was beyond our means. It was interesting to watch Caddies and other luxury cars pull up in front of Henry’s and dispense the well-to-do in their furs and expensive suits. Strange, because Henry’s only served two entrees, steak and pork chops.
Masle’s had two large, plate glass windows facing the street. Entering the store on the left was a glass display case, a Pepsi or Coke floor cooler, and wall racks. From what I recall the display case and the wall racks were either empty or contained items of little interest. However, the soda cooler was always full – regular size bottles of soda were 10 cents and large RC Colas, which was the preferred drink, were 15 cents. On the right side of the entrance was the counter with “Mas” seemingly always behind it. No one else worked for him, he was a one man show. Masle’s sold only sundry items – cigarettes, cigars, potato chips, Slim Jims, and other bagged snacks, candy, gum, newspapers, and other small items. I always wondered how he made out with such a small stock.
Past the counter there was a partition that extended approximately half-way across the room. It was behind this partition that the poker table was hidden out of sight. The rest of this rear area was occupied by two large, ancient pool tables set parallel to the street. The front table was the preferred one, although one pocket spit out balls that were stroked too hard. The back table was rarely, if ever used. That table was not level and the cushions were soft. A small bathroom at the extreme back of the store completed the layout.
Pool was not the preferred pastime at Masle’s, card games were. The pool tables were pretty much only used while waiting for a card game to begin. Ron Ciano, Anthony “Tony” Visconti, and Rich Green were probably the best players, but because of the “slop” pool games played – pill pool, and rotation – they didn’t have a chance to show their stuff and usually took their games “uptown.” Malse either charged five cents a game, or a penny a minute, I forget which. As a sidelight, if a ball left the table the shooter was charged an extra five cents by Masle.
Weeknights were usually reserved for “knock rummy” games, but Saturdays and Sundays were poker days. Because poker seats were hard to come by – only seven players at a time – you had to get there by noon on each of those days to get a seat ( a pool of 15 to 20 guys, ranging in age from seventy years old to eighteen, were, in the lingo, “poker faces.”) Masle always played, taking a seat so he could watch the front door for the seldom seen regular customers. There were many different forms of poker games played – straight poker, low-in-the hand, match it – so each player had to be up on the rules for each game and what hands were good in each game and which were not. But the games went fast because everyone knew the rules. Games were fifty cent limit per raise, with three raises per card. Doesn’t sound like much but remember the times. Minimum wage was not much more than a dollar, one fifty cent blue chip could buy a gallon of gas, and two blue chips a six-pack of cheap beer. Often there was also cash on the table but the police officers who stopped in to buy a large RC Cola and watch the game didn’t seem to mind the illegality of it.
Masle’s was a place for young adult males to meet, southsiders and northsiders alike. With the large front windows it was very well lit and there was only a modicum of dust, cigarette smoke and the aroma of age. Who cared anyways? If there were no card games, or nobody wanted to shoot pool, wiffle ball games would be gotten up with the Allegro building as the “outfield.”
Charlie Marosek and his sidekick “Nick” operated Charlie’s Pool Hall near the old intersection of West John Street and West Main Street. It was purported by old timers that Charlie was well off monetarily from proceedings from illegal slot machines, “one-armed bandits.” I’m not sure when Charlie began his operation but his pool hall, like all the other surrounding buildings, was torn down as part of Urban Renewal in the mid to late 1960’s. Today it would be located near the traffic light at the intersection of John and Albany Streets.
Charlie’s sat beneath Buccafurno’s produce store, facing John Street, The Globe barroom, owned and operated by Stuart Balderston, was next door to Charlie’s. As you entered, a display case and a rack of used hunting rifles were on your right. On the other side of the entrance was the main counter manned by Charlie or Nick. The usual fare – cigarettes, candy, newspapers, magazines and all manner of other small goods, including ammunition was behind the counter. Here Charlie ran the service – for a fee – of cashing checks from the nearby Snyder’s Bicycle factory. Beyond the counter, toward the back of the store, was the sporting goods section with primarily fishing rods, reels, and lures. There also was a pinball machine that would pay off if the player attained a high enough score. If you got too good at the game and were being paid off too often, Charlie or Nick would ban you from the game for a length of time.
In a side room were the two pool tables, set perpendicular to each other. A very loud jukebox that always seemed to be playing the latest songs completed the décor. The pool room, like the rest of the store, was very dark with little or no sunlight entering the small, tobacco smoke-stained windows. The tables were old, but in very good condition. Each table would be regularly serviced by a company from Utica, and if you were lucky, you could watch these “craftsmen” at work.
Pool was the main attraction at Charlie’s and the tables were frequently in use. The charge for using the tables was a penny a minute, which would commence when the player asked Nick or Charlie to “mark me.” Games were always played for money. Nine- ball, eight-ball and straight pool were the preferred games, with lesser players playing rotation. The best players were John Ribnikar, Gary Beasley, Lester “Juice” Lemik, and Jim Parkhurst. Players from other pool halls would often visit Charlie’s, but the Furnace Street and West Main Street guys were the mainstays. The better players would often play for twenty dollars a game which equated to about two days’ pay at Snyder’s. Us younger guys would only spectate and marvel at these games.
Charlie’s was a true pool hall and, unlike Masle’s, was not a place to just meet and hangout. Afterwards, Charlie Marosek opened a sports shop on Flint Avenue sans pool tables.
The name on the front windows said “The Idle Hour” but everyone knew it as Fox’s Pool Hall. The room was located on Second Street next door to The Corner Tavern and was owned and operated by Norm (Pa) Fox and his son Harold. Behind the counter and working the cash register was Felix DiPietro or “Fish” as he was affectionately known, a hard-core handicapper and horseplayer. Also, racking the balls was Ed Laventure, a true old-timer, sports bettor, and veteran of many nine-ball games whose favorite expression was “Ride the Nine.”
The first thing you saw when entering the long narrow room from Second Street was a carom or three-cushion billiard table positioned the long way leading the way to three traditional pocket billiard or pool tables positioned crossways in the remainder of the narrow room. The back wall of the room (complete with thick smoke-stained windows) had a back door in the center that opened to an alley behind the building. It was a quick escape route if you were under sixteen and the local police happened to poke their heads in the front door. It was also a place where any number of questionable activities could take place.
The obligatory restroom was located in the left rear corner of the room. Although the “staff” at The Idle Hour did their best to keep it clean, you can imagine the condition it was usually in.
The room was very dimly lit and kind of smoky, but there was enough light from the long fluorescent bulbs over each table for you to see that this was a serious place, a genuine old-school pool room.
The games that were played ran the entire gamut, eight-ball, nine-ball, rotation, pill pool, straight pool, straight rail billiards, and three-cushion billiards. Most games were just played with the loser paying for the cost of the game (or for “time”) but there were also many contests where there were bets riding on the outcome. Sometimes small bets just to keep the games interesting and sometimes big bets in games which would tend to separate the men from the boys! Some of the younger regular players and minor local legends in the room were Bill (Bumper) Gressler, Bill (Billy A.) Atutis, and Cory Urich. Some of the older regulars (mostly on the carom table) were Phil Will, Tom (The Undertaker) Konchar, Bill Cheney, and John (Bunny) Oliver.
To the best of my recollection, near the left rear of the room, was a trap door that led downstairs to a cellar running the length of the building. Rumor had it that this underground enclave was home to card and crap games, and slot machines.
Urban renewal in the mid to late 1960s spelled the end of The Idle Hour on Second Street. Norm and Harold were forced to move their pool room to a location on Albany Street, interestingly enough, just a stone’s throw from the current location of the Little Falls Historical Society’s Old Bank Building Museum.
That location, even though all of the tables, counters, soda machines and ice cream coolers made the move, never had the same character or atmosphere as the original place.
The second phase of urban renewal in the early 1970s wound up closing the book on The Idle Hour at the Albany Street location as well. Its closing ended the era of the old-school pool room in Little Falls.
The void created by the loss of the old pool rooms due to Little Falls urban renewal however was soon filled by a new, upscale, and modern pool room or “Family Billiard Center” called The Diplomat (or The Dip as it was sometimes known).
The opening of “The Diplomat” billiard center in Little Falls in 1965 was early evidence that there was a new movement in the world of traditional pool and billiards, a move away from the smoky dimly lit rooms of the past to a more brightly lit, more family friendly, youthful environment. This new image was reinforced by transparency to the outside world through large glass windows, brand new modern looking tables and colorful felts. There was a feeling of openness and welcomeness for any and all.
The billiard center was located next door to Dan Dee Donuts on the southeast corner of Shoppers Square. It was originally owned and operated by Mike and Vic Noll, two businessmen from the Utica/Syracuse area who were also former owners of Jack and Jill‘s billiards in Herkimer. Behind the counter was a well-hardened, diminutive, De Nobili cigar smoking fellow named Sweeney. He was always there with a friendly ear to listen and willing to give advice on any topic.
To the best of my recollection, there were two three-cushion (carom) tables and approximately eight or ten regulation pool tables. There was also a jukebox that was always filled with the latest Rock & Roll songs along with the requisite vending machines for snacks and soft drinks.
The room offered a place for the young people of the times to gather, socialize, and play some friendly games of pool and billiards. The Brunswick company also did a good deal of promotional work “selling” the new image of the old game. This promotion included in-person exhibitions by professional pool and billiard players.
One such exhibition displayed the talents of famed champion Babe Cranfield who wowed the crowd with a nifty trick shot demonstration. After the exhibition, Babe accepted challenges from members of the audience. The quintessential slam ball artist himself Pete Rovazzi took up and challenged Babe to a game of rotation. Amazingly, Pete “slammed his way” to victory over the pool champ who could only smile and shake his head in amazement as Pete pocketed enough high-value striped balls to claim victory.
One of the new “modern” features of The Diplomat included a time clock that was operated by the person behind the counter. When your time began, the green handle was pulled and the time of day was printed on the ticket corresponding to your table number. When your time ended, the red handle was pulled and the amount of time that had passed was accurately calculated so you always were charged the correct amount. In the old pool rooms this task was always done by paper and pencil.
As successful as this business was, after two or three years, Mike and Vic Noll decided to move on and the Billiard Center was taken over by Adam La Pone. It became known as Adam’s, or simply The Pool Hall.
ADAM’S BILLIARD CENTER
Adam La Pone (A.K.A. Turtle) took over the Albany Street billiard center in the mid-1960s. Adam was a much different person than either Mike or Vic Noll or Sweeney and the nature and character of the pool hall changed markedly under his ownership.
Turtle was an excellent three-cushion billiard player himself who would gladly “give lessons” to anyone who challenged him with the only cost being the two cents a minute fee for table usage. Turtle seemed to have coined the term “the chief” to describe a common occurrence in three-cushion billiards when the cue ball inadvertently strikes one of the two object balls and thus negates the shot attempt.
Adam’s Billiard Center became more of a mixed gender hangout place and less of a traditional pool hall, although lots of high-level pool and billiard playing took place there. Adam became almost a grandfather figure to the teenage boys and girls who frequented his establishment. He was a good listener and dispenser of free advice. The billiard center had more or less replaced Kandyland as a hangout for teenagers.
Higher stakes nine-ball games involving many of the same players mentioned in Fox’s from above were generally played on one of the back most tables to ensure maximum privacy. Quiet spectating was allowed, the loudest voice was often a player using an expletive following a “blown shot.” Higher stakes limits for such games were usually one dollar from each player to whoever sank the five ball and two dollars to whoever sank the nine ball. The ever-colorful David Trask and Jim Kopanski. sometimes also played in these games
Soon after opening, Turtle installed a ping-pong table where players of all skill levels competed intensely. At some point, the ping pong table was taken out and more tables and chairs were moved in. It was there that racehorse pitch was played on an almost daily basis by up to eight players. This action took place just inside the front door in full view of anyone who cared to watch. One would assume that Adam somehow had the “green light” for such games.
On weekend nights, Adam’s was crowded with pool and billiard players and the teenage crowd hanging out both inside and out front. Turtle had a brisk sale of soda, candy, and cigarettes. With the ever-popular Dan Dee Donuts bakery and restaurant next door, that corner of Shoppers Square was quite busy.
Eventually, Adam La Pone retired and closed his poolhall and with its passing an era of Little Falls history came to a close. No more poolhalls.
It has been said that the only thing constant is change, the popularity of most things comes and goes. The art and skill required to play the games of pool and billiards have slowly given way to a different skill set. Fast forward to the present day. Video games and short attention span activities occupy the recreational time of much of today’s youth. Instead of refining the hand-eye coordination skills necessary to put reverse English or masse’ on a cue ball, today’s kids would much rather improve their nimbleness with a game controller or a joystick.
Gone is the appreciation of watching or executing an elegant cue stroke that completes a difficult three-cushion bank shot on a billiard table or pockets the “money ball” in a nine-ball pool game. Gone also is a most colorful era of community history in which various pool rooms played a prominent role in the lives of many Little Falls men. Gone but not forgotten.
As Billy Phelan tells his nephew Danny in author William Kennedy’s great 1983 novel BILLY PHELAN’S GREATEST GAME: Stay out of pool rooms, kid, or all you’ll ever have is fun.” Many Little Falls men, both young and old, and later young women also, chose not to stay out of pool rooms and did have a lot of fun.
Michael Walo and Jeffrey Gressler, both members of the Little Falls Historical Society, wish to thank fellow Society member David Krutz for his timely assistance with this 2022 writing series article.