Ernie Gutierrez crafts ornate custom billiard cues with gold, jewels and rare and exotic woods. Several of them--valued at as much as $10,000 apiece--have slid between the fingers of pool greats Willie Mosconi and Minnesota Fats.
Besides the pros, pool-playing celebrities--including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. in their "Rat Pack" prime--trod a path to his door.
But despite his reputation as an unparalleled artist, Gutierrez is haunted by the frustration of competing with a ghost.
The ghost's name is George Balabushka. He died nearly 20 years ago, yet remains to billiard cues what Antonio Stradivari is to violins.
"Balabushka is still, probably, more famous than me because he's dead and a lot of his cues have become collectibles," said Gutierrez, 53, of North Hollywood, who made his first cue in 1961. "But I've been more innovative. He was a very good machinist and he did some good work. But as far as art is concerned . . . I've got the six ball over him."
Spoken like the pool hustler Gutierrez once aspired to be.
Gutierrez may have to settle for the title of world's greatest living cue maker. That assessment was all but confirmed in July, when he became the first living member inducted into the American Cuemakers Assn. Hall of Fame in Houston. Balabushka, of course, was the first to be enshrined.
But whose cues reign supreme?
"It's difficult to make comparisons between the two," said Victor Stein, co-author of the recently released "The Billiard Encyclopedia."
"Balabushka's work was never very elaborate or fancy. He made a different kind of cue that played very well and many pro players used," Stein said. "Ernie Gutierrez is a true artist and a craftsman. Today, now that we have collectible cues, the way a cue looks is very important."
The craft of cue making can be traced to 17th-Century Europe, where the game of billiards was a passion among nobility. Marie Antoinette is said to have cherished her solid-ivory queue de billard. Since 1850, cue making has flourished in the United States, where most of the world's cues are made.
Only within the last several years, however, has cue collecting joined the sports memorabilia craze.
Many of Balabushka's estimated 1,200 cues have been sold and resold for thousands of dollars. Within the last year, a Balabushka original reportedly changed hands for $45,000 in New York. Lofty prices also have been paid for custom cues made by the late Harvey Martin, Herman Rambow and Gus Szamboti.
Cues from Gutierrez's assemblage of about 2,500 are among the most expensive and sought-after items, partly because of the construction materials, partly because of his computer-assisted lathes. In April, an ivory and silver Gutierrez cue sold in Japan for $32,000.
Gutierrez has refused offers of up to $65,000 for the 1966 cue he considers his masterpiece. Made with ivory, ebony, silver and maple, it features two interchangeable shafts, as well as a matching case with the same engraving found on the cue's silver inlays.
"I'm very attached to it because I know how hard I worked on it and I know how primitive my shop was when I built it," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez also has worked as an automotive and aerospace designer over the years. But his first love has remained making cues. He was trained in woodworking as a youth in his native Colombia before moving to the San Fernando Valley in 1957.
He also liked to play pool, especially for money. Shortly after his arrival in Southern California, Gutierrez began hanging out in pool halls, playing for pocket change with cues he had begun to make for himself.
Then, that movie came out.
It was 1961 when "The Hustler," starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, was released. It caused interest in pocket billiards to skyrocket. Gutierrez figured to cash in by selling his cues. Six days after the birth of his daughter, Gina, Gutierrez launched his cue making company: Ginacue.
Ginacues, made at a rate of about 100 a year, have become among the most widely copied cues in the billiard industry.
"Almost every cue maker in the world has at least one thing in their designs that originated with Ernie," said James Buss, president of the American Cuemakers' Assn. and a cue maker. "There's a joke in the pool industry that Ernie invented ivory and he invented silver."
Yet Balabushka, by a general consensus of pool buffs, remains the master--although much of his legend can be chalked up to mystique.
Balabushka, a Russian immigrant who worked in New York City his entire career, owned only one lathe, which he used to produce every cue he made. When a visitor entered his shop, Balabushka would reportedly stop working, fearing that his techniques would be revealed.
Balabushka's woodworking skills are said to have been unparalleled. In fact, few friends were aware that he had made his own wooden finger after losing his middle finger in a band saw accident.
In New York, a mecca of the pocket billiard world in the 1950s and '60s, Balabushka frequently rubbed shoulders with the game's top professionals, and many used his cues. His immortality was heightened with the 1986 film, "The Color of Money," in which a young pool hustler portrayed by Tom Cruise proudly unveils his cherished Balabushka cue before a poolroom full of awed observers.
Gutierrez, working his entire career on the West Coast, made his mark by taking his flashiest cues to major tournaments and unveiling them before top pros. Most players were impressed, but not all preferred Ginacues. Mosconi, considered the game's greatest player, tried his hand with a Ginacue, only to return to the cherished Rambow cue said to have been his favorite.
But as photographs of Gutierrez's ivory-laden works began appearing in publications throughout the world, he became sought after by players with a taste for classy cues. That included Minnesota Fats, who has owned three Ginacues. Many of Hollywood's pocket billiard crowd flocked to Gutierrez after seeing the 18-karat-gold cue Gutierrez made for Martin in 1968. Profiled in Sports Illustrated along with its maker, the cue featured four diamonds, an emerald, a ruby and a sapphire.
Almost overnight, Gutierrez was receiving more orders from movie stars than he could shake a stick at. His customers have included Peter Lawford, Peter Falk and Jerry Lewis.
"They all started to come by word of mouth," Gutierrez said. "It's flattering."
So, too, are comparisons to Balabushka. The two men never met, although they spoke by telephone on occasion.
"I regret that I never met him," Gutierrez said. "He didn't know my equipment, I didn't know his. He didn't know my techniques, I didn't know his. He did his work his way, I did mine my way. There was mutual respect."
Stein, who spent six years researching his book, said comparing Balabushka to Gutierrez is like comparing Babe Ruth to a great modern-day ballplayer. "Their styles are so different," Stein said. "They're both artists. When you do something like (make cues) for so long, you almost have to be judged after you die."