Monday, September 21, 2009

On the Road With Minnesota Fats

by Stephen J. Gertz


I’ve been shooting pool since I was four years old. No con. By the time I was six I was playing for stakes. My first sucker was a neighborhood kid in Washington Heights. I spotted him coming out of a candy store with an enormous bag of gumdrops. He was about five years older than me but I shot him straight pool and I won every last one of his gumdrops. He went home crying. When I was ten I started playing for cash” (Minnesota Fats, The Bank Shot and Other Robberies).


My introduction to Minnesota Fats, legendary pool hustler:

It’s 1986. After arriving late into Nashville, I check into The Hermitage, the hotel where Fats, 73, lives rent-free in exchange for hanging out on the hotel’s mezzanine and shooting pool for and with the guests for a few hours each day. He’s in the lobby, lounging on a sofa with two very attractive women draped over him like shawls.

“You’re late, Kid,” he caroms in a gruffly quiet yet very emphatic New York accent. I’m thirty-five. “I got the double-double on these tomatoes. It’s harvest time. I’ll catch you on the break.”

He stands up, the chicks attach themselves to his arms, and the three vamoose to his room.

I catch him on the break – at breakfast the next morning.

“Let’s belt out some calories,” he commands, “and we’ll talk the proposition.”


Said proposition: I’m in town to supervise a brief promotional tour for Fats’ first (and only) video, How To Play Pool Starring Minnesota Fats (Karl-Lorimar Video, 1986). It is also the exact time that Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money is being released, the latter-day sequel to The Hustler (1961), the movie that introduced Minnesota Fats to the world. Disney gave me the double-door when I proposed a promotional alliance, and now, just for spite, I’m determined to piggy-back onto The Color of Money because the color of money is the same hue for both projects and we need to sell 15,000 copies for the video to break even.


I’ve set up a release party in Nashville with the help of a local music industry publicist who’s promised to deliver the city’s Country-Western stars; Waylon Jennings is in the video as Fatty’s guest, everybody in town loves Fats, and, I'm assured, it’s a Hungarian cinch that the party will be star-studded. The publicist is also a very attractive woman, a fact that will go a long way toward ensuring Fatty’s ongoing cooperation because he put the cranky in cantankerous and cannot be moved by anything other than money on the table or a gorgeous babe. As there is no money on the table (or anywhere else) for him to be paid for his promo toil, this is not an effort he is enthusiastic about enduring, and the big maha from the home office, me, does not impress him at all. For all I know, Fats considers me strictly a filage.

Breakfast conversation quickly turns from the proposition to all the people Fats has known “since time began.” Fats has a generous sense of temporal existence. He, in fact, has a generous sense of just about everything and has turned hyperbole into high art. A woman is not merely beautiful, she is beautiful “beyond compare,” she “makes Raquel Welch look like an onion.” He is, also, “the greatest storyteller since Aesop,” and after listening to him for a while I know he’s on the square; I could listen to him for hours. He speaks in a colorful patois, the language of poolrooms, gamblers and hustlers, and I want to hang a jewelry box around his neck like a feed bag to catch the pearls that routinely fall out of his mouth. He is an enchanting, if sometimes difficult, personality.
 
David Kastle, Fatty’s manager, has joined us. David is a few years younger than I am, a sharp guy who fell in love with Fats and decided to take him on and reinvigorate his career, which had faded with his advancing age leaving not much more than the legend. But a legend is not legal tender; bills have to be paid with cash. The legend needed to be leveraged. The video deal is a first step and David will be accompanying us for the duration. He, too, wants everything to run smoothly. David can handle Fats – up to a point. When reason fails, bring in the girls.

I spend the afternoon frantically going over arrangements with the publicist who lulls me into a sense of nervous prostration. Everything will be fine – unless it isn’t.

Dolly Parton, George Jones, and the rest of the stellar cast of promised Country-Western artists have, evidently, made other plans for the evening - they are not standing by their man - and the press has, apparently, other pressing engagements. I’m dying, David Kastle is fuming. The publicist blames a misalignment of the planets.

Fatty, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. Salesmen and the V.P. of Ingram Distribution’s video division are in attendance and eager to shoot a little pool with the legend, who has no qualms about separating them from their simoleans and it doesn’t matter whether it’s two-bits, a single, a fin, a ten-spot or a deuce that’s on the table, money means action and he’s as predatory as if a carbuncle had been laid on the felt. No matter how shallow or deep the green, Fatty sees red, smells blood, goes in for the kill, and whacks out all of ‘em. But never have losers felt so much like winners; the salesmen now have a story, How Minnesota Fats Wiped the Table With My Ass, that they’ll be telling for the rest of their lives.

Were it not for its motivating effect upon the sales force – a fact far more important than having stars show up – the release party would have been a complete scratch. It is an ill-wind omen of things to come, as is the brick itching to evacuate my bowels.
 
Afterward, Fats, David, the publicist, the Ingram V.P., and I grab a late dinner and, once again, Fatty regales with stories about Willie Mosconi – his pool-universe arch-enemy; Princess Fatima, who appreciated his moves with a stick; Zsa-Zsa Gabor; the day Dillinger dropped; Russian pinochle on the high seas; craps on the Hudson; a south-of-the-border standoff (“El Gordo,” the Fat One, wins); the sultans, viziers, rajas, ranis, maharajas, the crowned heads of Europe, the potentates of all stripes that he's met, and other fables from a fabled life.

With all his talk about knowing everyone since God created the heavens and earth, I can’t help but try to throw him a curve to see if I can force a strike.

“Did you know Louis Levinson?” This was a cousin of mine, actually one of my paternal grandfather’s first cousins, an ultimately deceased by unnatural cause citizen of Detroit  who might just as well have been a denizen of Damon Runyon’s Broadway, an underworld character of color with a legend of his own.
 
He swings.
 
“Sleep-Out?” 
 
Home run.
 
But before I can confirm that yes, I am referring to “Sleep-Out Louie" Levinson, second-story man in youth, a gambler of renown and owner of Club Flamingo, a rug-joint (an illegal casino with carpeting to attract the straight, monied class, as opposed to the standard clandestine, no-frills sawdust-joint) in Newport, Kentucky, action-central for gambling in the mid-west U.S., Fatty proceeds to weave the tale of how “Sleep-Out “ earned his moniker, a story I was weaned on: He lived at home but his professional activities were nocturnal and he’d often return at all hours of the early morning, if he got home at all. More often than not, he’d just lie down on a table in the local pool hall and cop z’s, hence “Sleep-Out.”

When he didn’t show up at home, his mother, my grandfather's Aunt Mary, a big bear of a Russian Jewess who, had she remained in the Motherland, could have crushed Hitler’s invading army simply by falling on it, would go out looking for him, her first stop the pool hall where she’d find him sawing logs comfy on the green felt, grab him by the ear and march him out of the pool room, down the street, and home like he was a five-year-old juvenile delinquent. This scene would invariably inspire hysterics in bystanders innocent and otherwise.
 
"Sleep-Out" earned a couple of footnotes in the Federal annals during his career. At the 1951 O'Conor Senate Committee Investigating Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce hearings, the following burlesque routine occurred during the October 16th session:
 
Witness: John Maddock, bookie.

Mr. Rice. Have you ever transacted any business with Howard Sports in Baltimore?

Mr. Maddock. Who is Howard Sports?

Mr. Rice. Howard Sports, the news service.

Mr. Maddock. I refuse to answer that on the grounds I might incriminate myself.

Mr. Rice. In 1944, did you transact any business with Howard Sports ?

Mr. Maddock. I refuse to answer that on the grounds I might incriminate myself.

Mr. Rice. Do you know a man by the name of Sleep-out Louis ?

Mr. Maddock. I refuse to answer that on the grounds I might incriminate myself.
 
Later that same day:
 
Witness: Meyer Rosen “sporting figure” in Baltimore, the night-shift bartender at Phil's Bar, a job that covered his bookmaking activities:

Mr. Rice. I have a series of checks here, I wonder if you can help us out on these. They are drawn on that account [Phil's Bar]. Here is one drawn December 13, 1945, on that Maryland Trust Co. account to Louis Levinson in the amount of $7,227, deposited in Newport, Ky.

Mr. Rosen. I don't know anything about it.

Mr. Rice. Did you ever hear anything about Louis Levinson?

Mr. Rosen. Never heard of him.

Mr. Rice. Wouldn't know any reason why "Sleep Out Louie" would be receiving $7,000 from Phil's Bar account?
 
Mr. Rosen: I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.
 
"Sleep-Out," apparently, was held in such high esteem by his colleagues that to even admit to his existence was considered a profoundly rude discourtesy, anti-social behavior that might land you in the slammer - or worse. His brother, my "Uncle" Eddie Levinson, was one of Meyer Lansky's top lieutenants ("Eddie Levine" gets a slice of the Cuba cake in Godfather II), running Meyer's casinos in Miami, Havana, and Las Vegas.
 
Suffice it to say, when news of my connection to Sleep-Out hits Fatty's ears my stock with him rises into the stratosphere. I'm practically family. It won't last long.
 
Our first and last stop on the grand tour is Atlanta. Ingram has set up a few in-store appearances for Fatty, the Atlanta premiere for The Color of Money will occur while we’re in town, and I’ve heard a rumor that Paul Newman and Tom Cruise will be racing at the Atlanta Speedway that weekend. This is our opp to glom on to The Color of Money like green on a pea.
 
Make it happen, I tell the publicist, who, as insurance for Fatty's continuing cooperation, I insist must accompany us to Atlanta.
 
Just how we got to Atlanta from Nashville is lost to me, contrary to Montaigne's dictum that "nothing fixes a thing so intensely as the desire to forget it." Chalk it up to PTSD.
 
We arrive at our hotel, dump our stuff, eat lunch, and head for the first video store on the schedule. Ingram, apparently, sub-contracted the in-store promotion and publicity to the CIA because all evidence points to Fatty's appearance being a state secret. David Kastle is royally pissed, the publicist is tsk-tsk-ing, I'm beside myself (always one too many) with aggravation, and "El Gordo" is irritated "beyond compare." We go through the motions with a few people who accidentally walk into the store, and wrap up this disaster before FEMA shows up.
 
The store didn't even have any copies of the record on hand.


I couldn't bear any of the promotional tchotchkes that vendors had been offering - how many variations on an 8-ball can there be? Plenty, it turned out: 8-ball keychains, 8-ball paperweights, 8-ball slip-on pencil erasers, pens with a hula girl with 8-ball breasts, 8-ball balls, etc. (including a cue stick pen). So when David Kastle told me that he'd recently thrown Fats into a recording studio with a bunch of young, adoring guys and dolls, had Fats tell his stories, and taped the whole thing, I ran some numbers and realized we could press and package a record for only three cents more per unit than the cost of the lame promo gifts I was offered. Hence, The Sultan of Stroke: The Legendary Minnesota Fats in His Own Words. Mea culpa: my title.
 
Because when he spun his amusing folk tales of pool hustling life he employed his own, incomparable, often indecipherable argot, I reprinted the glossary that appears within The Bank Shot and Other Robberies, Fats' autobiography and the best book that Fats had anything to do with, on the back of the album cover as A Brief Dictionary of the English Language by Minnesota Fats. Any one with an interest in weird words and phrases needs to get a copy of this book; there are things within the glossary that I've never seen in any slang dictionary, or heard elsewhere. Space precludes a full reprint; here are a few gems, in Minnesota Fats' own words:
 
A Filage: An out-and-out fraud. An impostor claiming he's a chef when he can't even fry an egg. (The word, of French origin, is slang for cheating, as in palming a card, or faking, as in bluffing. I use it as a noun and a verb).
 
Who Shot John?: Ridiculous conversation, ridiculous beyond compare.
 
Hungarian Cinch: A proposition where there's no way to lose. A sure thing, a mortal lock.
 
A Carbuncle: A Gargantuan bankroll, like maybe the size of an eggplant.
 
A Tomato: A doll whose natural endowments are exquisite beyond belief.
 
A Multi: A person who not only has millions but lives like he has millions.
 
A Big Maha: A very important person who moves like a very important person. (Short for Maharajah).
 
The Double-Double: extra-strong sweet-talk, usually accompanied by a smile.
 
The Double Door: To get rid of somebody real quick, like walking in the front door of a joint and out a side door.
 
The Horns: When there's no way to win a bet on account of somebody has put a curse on you.
 
Tush Hog: A very tough guy who is always looking to use muscle on somebody.
 
Triple Smart: An extremely intelligent person who is not only three or even more times more intelligent than a very intelligent person, but whose intellectual capabilities border on the phenomenal. A triple smart person is such a rare and extraordinary individual that only one comes along in a whole lifetime. (In my long and illustrious career, I've also been known as both Double Smart Fats and Triple Smart Fats).
 
Tapioca: The never-never land of busted gamblers. A very, very lonely and hideous place indeed.

• • •

The other video store on the calendar? A sensory deprivation tank with cash register and drop-in box.
 
By this time, I'm feeling in the thick of the pudding, Tapioca's favorite son.
 
We eat dinner at a coffee shop near the theater where The Color of Money will shortly make its Atlanta debut. Sitting at the counter, we have two women flanking us who, upon overhearing our conversation and learning who the old guy with us is, lean in so close that Fats now has human epaulets on his shoulders. Please believe me when I tell you that they soon opened their purses, took out the keys to their hotel rooms across the street, and presented them to Fats. I have never seen anything like it. Young, old, and all women in between fell all over Minnesota Fats when he opened his mouth. His name and legend were a free pass to Mount Venus.
 
We can see a crowd forming in front of the theater with a line snaking up the street and around the corner.
 
"I'm not standing in no line," Fats states as inarguable fact.
 
Not a problem. I walk our group up toward the entrance and whisper to the theater crowd control kid the identity of the old man in our party, a whisper modulated so that only people within a half-mile radius can overhear. 

Magically, the crowd parts like the Red Sea. Oohs, ahs, and hushed bruits accompany our promenade through the mob, into the theater, and into our seats because every one alive has heard of Minnesota Fats but few have ever seen him; the legend precedes him like Jane Mansfield's rack and, like same, everyone wants to bump into it, if for no other reason than a reality check.
 
"Minnesota Fats" was born Rudolf Wanderone in 1913 in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood. When he was ten years old, his father took him to Europe to study with the great German billiards player Erich Hagenlocher. He won his first major tournament when he was thirteen. He left school in the eighth grade and began his life as a traveling pool hustler. Over the years he became known by many variations of the handle "Fats:" Triple Smart Fats, Broadway Fats, Chicago Fats, etc. He was New York Fats when The Hustler came out in 1961. When Willie Mosconi, who had been the technical adviser on the film, let it slip that the fictional character "Minnesota Fats" in the movie was based upon New York Fats, Rudolf "New York Fats" Wanderone, approximately a nanosecond afterward, exploited the situation, appropriated the character's name, and Minnesota Fats - a real, living person and instant legend - was born. He became a popular guest on television talk shows, noted as much for his entertaining manner as his pool skills. And he loved the limelight.
 
The limelight had dimmed to near dark, and the pathetic direction of this little tour had become a humiliating embarrassment for Fatty, who, incidentally, hated The Color of Money. My affection for Fats had grown deep, my well of guilt was overflowing its large capacity, and I definitely felt like a cheap filage.
 
He was not happy about schlepping out to the Atlanta Speedway on the off-chance that we might catch Newman and Cruise and capture publicity. The publicist, who was now assuaging Fats' mounting irritation with full-time cooing that was losing its ability to calm, was dubious about us getting in. I insisted that we try.
 
We arrive at the Speedway and pull into the parking lot. A young attendant stops us. The publicist, who is driving with Fats in the passenger seat next to her, rolls down the window. I'm in the back seat with David Kastle, and the gist of what I hear is that we cannot enter without special tickets to get us to the pit area where Newman and Cruise are hanging out. The publicist is trying to BS our way in. 

Rudolf Wanderone, aka Triple Smart Fats, Broadway Fats, and Chicago Fats, who had been unusually quiet during the  drive,  was  growing  visibly agitated.

"I have often thought that the best way to define a man's character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, 'This is the real me'" (William James).
 
Fed-up with how events had thus far transpired and with patience exhausted for everything, he leaned in toward the publicist so that the parking attendant could see and hear him through the window and, age seventy-three now electrically and instantly rolled back decades, impaled the young man with an existential flag on sharpened flagpole meant for the whole world:
 
"I'm Minnesota Fats" - he then emphatically grabbed his crotch - "an' here's my fuckin' ticket!"
 
We breezed in.
________
 
In over twenty years I have never seen a copy of The Bank Shot and Other Great Robberies (New York: World, 1966) in fine condition in a fine dust jacket. There just don't seem to be any out there. I am aware of only one signed copy but I am somewhat dubious about its authenticity: Minnesota Fats rarely signed anything in holograph; he carried a self-inking rubber stamp of his signature which he used whenever asked for an autograph. When I inquired about how long he had been doing so, he simply - and predictably - declared, "since time began."
 
He died in 1993.

3 comments:

  1. Miss Fats, and remember that trip well.
    I have never seen a more intimidating pair of steel blue eyes in my life. Underneath it all lurked a kind soul. "Fats" needs to be a movie. A story about the man who started it all, taking pool from the back rooms to the front page.
    -David Kastle, Former Mgr.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. David: So pleased that you finally saw and read the piece. Get in touch through my contact info here. I'd love to re-connect. - Steve

      Delete

 
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