Blatt Billiards: A Century Of Pool And Games
Enter the Blatt Billiards showroom and warehouse in Woodridge, New Jersey, and your eyes will drift upward to the wooden frames of antique pool tables, stacked one on another, climbing to the ceiling. Here is an 1880 Pfister model made of maple wood. It rests on top of a J.M. Brunswick and Balke Co. Nonpareil Novelty table from 1874, constructed of dark rosewood with bird’s eye maple marquetry inlays. The woods run the gamut: from white oak to elm burl, from Makassar ebony to endless varieties of mahogany. These tables are just biding their time, awaiting adoption and a change of location to someone’s home.
"I call it functional art," says Jeff Roeder, gazing up at the stacked antiques. Functional art indeed. Only here you get to walk off with the art. Jeff is the chief of technology and marketing at Blatt Billiards. The Roeder family took over the firm and kept the Blatt name.
This vast stretch of century old tables, shoehorned into 48,000 square feet of high-ceilinged space, offers a clear window into Blatt Billiards' past, back to 1923 when it first opened its doors in Manhattan, doing business as Sam Blatt and Sons. Here lie some 3,000 tables, spanning every style from every decade over the last 150 years. Aisles upon aisles of table parts are loaded on shelves. There are cue racks and ball racks. Bolts of cloth are rolled tight like outsized sausages, each secured with thick string. The table pieces—legs, rails, and frames with colorful marquetry—cram in, leaning against one another.
Jeff points to a four-and-a-half-by-nine relic, ready to be crated and sent to Singapore. This Brunswick model, constructed of quartersawn oak and adorned with brown leather pockets, goes for $68,000. Getting it to its destination—some 9,512 miles from New Jersey to Singapore—will add another $10,000 to $15,000.
Are these models the best made tables in the world? “We certainly strive for that,” says Bruce Roeder, Jeff’s father. “I would say that our construction technique is mirrored after the way the antiques were produced. We know that those tables, the way they were crafted, have lasted 100-plus years.” Then there’s shipping the product. "We set up a table in Utah last week on a Saturday at 9 am," Jeff adds. "The table was on time. The mechanic flew in on time. Before you make the sale, you must find what they want. What size? What material? Creating a customer order. Then getting it there.” So online referrals aren't just about the lumber—all acquired in North America, save for exotic woods obtained from around the world—but about customer service, too. "We’re an icon in New York City," Bruce says, matter of factly. “We’ve outlived any other dealer in New York City. At one time the Bowery had 80 table companies. There used to be a pool room on every corner in New York.”
Cabinetmakers toil in anterooms on the perimeter of the warehouse. Bruce introduces Peter, a cabinetmaker for 30 years. The layman doesn't associate a pool table with a cabinet. "A pool table is a cabinet first," Bruce insists, gesturing to the panels of wood on the sides. He points out an ivory-colored inlaid design that Peter will affix with wood glue. Cabinetmakers, who sit atop the woodworking food chain, speak of someone “having good hands”—meaning a proficiency that includes both a keen eye and manual dexterity, skills essential to refurbishing antiques and—a taller task—building custom-made models from scratch. Honing these delicate skills may require a three-year apprenticeship, like the one underwent some years ago. Bruce knows. Before he could afford anything better, he learned with a Sears home table saw. He lacked the money to buy the machines. But he had a pal Enzo, who in turn recommended him to Tony in Oceanside, New York, who provided $50,000 worth of machines. “Tony said, ‘Pay me a little every month.’” Now Bruce deals with Tony's son-in-law Eddie. “It's been nothing but a wonderful relationship. I take this to the grave with me. They helped me become what we are.” The tools of the trade are here: table saws, boring machines. compressors, joiners, routers. Here the carvers, sanders and stainers work on constructing and finishing tables.
Lasting a century in any legal business is laudable. But in the gaming space—where pastimes such as billiards wax and wane in popularity according to trends and even the seasons—the centennial of a corporation's birth is more impressive still. Besides old-world excellence, evolution is part of the firm’s formula for success.
To help make Blatt immune to trends in pool popularity, the Roeders have expanded the company. In 2014 Blatt opened its newest store and showroom at 330 West 38th Street and moved their manufacturing from Broadway and Eighth Street to Woodridge, New Jersey. In addition to a display of 65 tables, the 38th Street showroom flaunts a bulging inventory of darts and game room equipment, likely the largest in the tri-state area. There are also custom-made chess and backgammon boards, card tables, shuffleboards, ping pong tables, dart cabinets, air hockey and shuffleboard, Foosball. Back to pool, there are bumper pool tables, billiard highchairs and ball boxes, cues, and Aramis Belgian balls. Also shown are billiard tables that double as dining room tables, with wooden planks fitted and colored to match the room’s decor. High end cues rest in humidors, where the preferred temperature to prevent warping is 77 degrees and 55 humidity.
Steve and Dave Roeder, along with Bruce Roeder, are partners. In addition, Dave oversees the New York showroom and showrooms in Texas and Los Angeles. Prior to the opening of those rooms, Dave was responsible for all custom installations throughout the world. Steve is the Chief Financial Officer and is responsible for all the financials. Steve and Dave also participate in high end sales. "It is a great team effort as we move into our 100 year anniversary," Bruce explains.
In 1913, ten years before commencing business, Sam Blatt, cabinetmaker, came to New York from Russia. He started repairing cues, ivory balls, and making ferrules, the hardened plastic caps that supports the tip of a cue. He was catering to hundreds of city rooms whose tables needed a stich or two to save a torn cloth or cigarette burn on the green baize. For proprietors who couldn't afford new cloths, he flipped them over to show their unused, greener side. He also repaired bowling alley pinsetters and ball returns. Soon he and his son Maurice began taking apart and reconditioning the old behemoth tables made by Brunswick since 1845.
Pool’s fever swept through the city in the early 1900s. Professional tournaments were well-attended, especially in hotbeds of pool activity such as New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Ralph Greenleaf, an Illinois native and winner of eight of the ten pocket billiard championships played in the 1920s, was raking in $2,000 a week playing straight pool in tournaments and making trick shots on the Vaudeville Circuit. Then came the Great Depression.
Many billiard parlors closed due to the dire economic conditions, which lasted more than a decade after 1929. The period bankrupted pool room owners to World War II and beyond. Oddly, that citywide bust became Blatt’s boon. Blatt scooped up the old wooden models—suddenly available for pennies on the dollar—increasing its inventory by some 2,000 tables. Some of these antiques were created in the early to mid-1800s. For Blatt, it was the best of all possible worlds, sort of like car dealers finding old Model-Ts abandoned at the curb.
These wooden relics were the seedlings that helped Blatt flourish. Not all of the tables had ornate design elements, such as Cabriole legs or mother of pearl inlays, or brilliant veneers. But a small army of wood workers, marquetery men, carvers, finishers, gliders, polishers, and leather workers set to work on them. Once rejuvenated, the tables’ original luster shone through. Models of every conceivable kind of wood surfaced, each bearing its own ornate identity. The result were tables that weren't just as good as new, but better. Pool and billiard tables ranged from eight to ten feet. Snooker tables ran to 12 feet.
After World War II, Jeff's grandfather Eric Roeder started at Blatt sweeping floors. He learned the trade and eventually took over the company, passing it to his sons and then to his grandsons, Jeff and Brian. Jeff now runs the factory in Jersey.
The company’s meteoric growth was followed by curious spurts and declines in the industry. While pool rooms shuttered in the 1950s, home table ownership increased. The professional game remained steady. The best billiard and pool players, legends such as Willie Hoppe and Willie Mosconi, thrived on the tournament and exhibition circuit. Then a billiard boon followed the 1961 release of The Hustler, a taut drama starring Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats and Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson. Shot in black and white, the film captured the game’s seedy reality and unsavory characters. The audience for the 18-hour match between Fats and Fast Eddie appeared like the guys who gambled at McGirr’s, Ames, and Julian's Billiard Academy on 14th Street, a second-floor joint resting atop a Horn and Hardart cafeteria. A quarter century later, novelist Walter Tevis’ sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money, was made into a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Newman attempts to pass on a pool education to his pool protégé Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, as they hustled in one dive after another on their way to Atlantic City for a big tournament. Pool’s popularity soared to the moon. Elegant rooms with antique tables, and waitresses serving those tables, opened by the hundreds in major cities and the suburbs.
Suddenly, pool was cool. The Friars' Club on 55th Street, a storied New York social club and once home to countless comedy roasts, wanted in on the excitement. In 1999, they called on Blatt to create a custom table. Blatt fashioned a hand-carved Oak model and called it the Friar Briggs. It adorns the William B. Williams room on the third floor of the club. It goes for $58,000. The same model is available in mahogany, walnut, and cherry. As ever, customers can pick their own decorative elements, such as the wood of their choice or the color of the cloth.
There are a broad range of restored antiques, such as the Narragansett, the Griffith, and the Kling. For different tastes there are Florentine marble models in 21 different hues, even stainless steel, and glass tables. Those desiring to play in the rain, or hopeful of getting a tan while stretching over the baize, can select from outdoor tables such as the white Roman with brown basket pockets, the Constellation, and the Black Pearl. Each table can take from six months to a year to build, depending on the intricacies of the design elements. Blatt builds about 300 custom tables a year.
Perhaps the most popular of all Blatt’s restored antiques is the eight-legged Lafayette. Other restored tables include the Monarch, the Equestrian, the Imperial, and the Regina.
Aside from the elegance of the tables and cues, pool is a pastime where people still queue up to listen to stories involving hustlers, celebrities, and literary figures. Actors like Paul Sorvino and Jerry Orbach played well and were featured in industry publications such as Billiard Digest but also in tabloids around New York. In between playing Julian Marsh in "42nd Street," which ran for nine years and 3,486 performances at the Winter Garden, Orbach would slip off to play at the West 54th Street Lone Star Boat Club, a home away from his Eastside home. Actors often appeared at tournaments as spectators or even promoting a favorite charity. Orbach played for more than 40 years and even wrote a high school paper for geometry class on three-cushion billiards. When he came to New York to work and study he headed to McGirr’s and Ames, two legendary rooms where The Hustler was filmed. Orbach learned a valuable lesson while studying with Lee Strasberg, head of the Actor’s Studio on 15th Street in New York. “Lee said ‘John Wayne is acting. Laurence Olivier is acting. Marlon Brando is acting. They all come from different places, but they are all actors. You may like one kind; I may like another. But don’t say someone is not an actor.’ That’s Lee’s lesson of tolerance. You would think that being from the Actor’s Studio, and stressing the method, that he would only accept one way.” The lesson stayed with Orbach. With pool, he never got too big for the company of hustlers, ne’r-do-wells, and delightful rogues, the usual habitues of pool rooms.
One such character was his mentor. “I was taught nine-ball by one of the best nine-ball players in the country,” says Orbach. “A guy named Johnny Eyebrows. He lived at the Manhattan Hotel on 45th and 8th, and he used to get up at noon or one, have a little breakfast, maybe go for a run. Late afternoon he would go over to the luxury baths, have a steam, a massage, a swim, go to Frankie and Johnnies and have a steak, a salad, whatever, take a shot of Scotch, swig it around in his mouth, mess up his hair and walk into McGirr’s. Now everyone who knew him, knew him. They wouldn’t play him. But all the bus drivers and all the soldiers and sailors and everybody else who came wandering in would get their clocks cleaned by Johnny, because Johnny did this drunk act that was fabulous.”
Paul Sorvino, who played Paulie in Goodfellas, often teamed up with pros such as Mike Sigel and Johnny Archer—as he did with one memorable occasional at the Meadowlands Convention Center—to promote his Asthma Foundation. Sorvino could run balls in a variety of games, including straight pool and nine ball.
Here and there, Rudoph Wanderone, better known as Minnesota Fats, would show up at a tournament and hold court in a W.C. Fields accent. “There’s a difference between hustlers and scufflers,” Fats instructed one audience in Johnson City, Illinois, a kind of pool Olympics where champions in one-pocket, nine-ball, and straight pool descended from 1961-1972. “The hustler gets it once in a while, and the scuffler never gets it. Ain’t Nixon hustling? 24 hours a day? Tryin’ to get elected?”
Promoter Charlie Ursitti refereed the Willie Mosconi versus Minnesota Fats “Great Pool Shootout,” at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue. Narrated by Howard Cosell for the ABC Wide World of Sports, the show was one of the highest rated sports shows of the year.
The game has always had its literary devotees, too, including cigar puffer Mark Twain. A self-professed billiards addict who played up to ten hours a day in his later years at his home in Hartford, Connecticut, Twain once claimed that “the click of billiard balls was the most distinct sound in the world.” In his biography The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine wrote, “Once in a burst of exasperation he made such an onslaught on the balls that he landed a couple of them on the floor. I gathered them up and we went on playing as if nothing had happened, only he was very gentle and sweet, like a summer meadow when the storm had passed. One he said, ‘This is a most amusing game. When you play badly it amuses me, and when I play badly and lose my temper it certainly must amuse you.’” Bigelow wrote that Twain celebrated his 71st birthday by playing all day. “He invented a new game for the occasion, and added a new rule for it with almost every shot.”
Aside from the relaxation and joy of the game, as Twain found, there are some physical and cognitive benefits to shooting pool. Walking around a pool table for 30 minutes can burn upwards of 200 calories, by some estimates. To sight the balls properly, it’s recommended that the shooter “get down on the shot,” nearly resting his chin on the butt end of the cue to see the entire length of it—including the tip, cue ball and the object ball in a single line of vision. Because of the repeated bending, pool players get low-impact exercise of their back, hips, and legs. Further, to reach shots players must stretch out over the green baize, all the while maintaining balance while cueing the ball at various angles. Pool also involves logical planning. A player might think, ‘If I want to make the seven-ball next, I will try to roll my cue ball to this area nearby.’ This sort of problem solving includes several calculations at once: namely, where to cue the ball (dead center, or high, low, right or left, with spin or “English.”), what angle to hit the object ball, and how hard to hit it. With all the challenges it presents, the game is an evergreen. It has survived the test of time.
This is good news for Blatt.
The Roeders continue to find tables as old and distinct as the one Mark Twain played on. The firm acquires its tables through the usual channels, such as pool room closings and estate sales. But there are more adventurous discoveries too. A few years back Bruce Roedeer stumbled upon his own memorable piece on one such search and find mission. Travelling through Ogdensburg, New York, near the Canadian border, he heard of a table buried in an old woman's coal bin. Sure enough, beneath the coals was a table painted lime green. Roeder stripped the paint and discovered a beautifully inlaid table made in 1880. The oldest model they ever laid hands on—a Charles X-style table made in 1820—was discovered in a castle in Paris more than 30 years ago. The side panels were rose wood with a wide reddish-brown and black grain. Against this background, in a yellowish wood called French aspen, lay sprawling vines and lions underneath trees. More striking still were the six pockets, each with a sculpted bronze hand that offered up to players any pocketed ball. When it was fully restored this full-sized snooker model sold for more than $185,000.
That price isn’t the highest. The most expensive was a custom carved table for $250,000. “The more carving, the more intricacy—both are going to add restoration time,” Jeff explains. “Time is of the essence. If you have cabriole legs, and inlays, and different ornamental elements, the price goes up. Tables can take up to eight months to make. We're doing one now from 1870. We know our tables will last a lifetime."
With the company having expanded to Dallas and Los Angeles, we can say that Blatt is on a continuous roll.