NORTH HOLLYWOOD — So what if George Balabushka is to billiard cues what Antonio Stradivari is to violins? Ernie Gutierrez likewise is a legend--scratch that, a living legend--who has grown just a little tired of living in the master cue maker's shadow for the past three decades.
Gutierrez is world-famous in his own right--crafting ornate custom cues with elaborate materials, including ivory, gold, jewels and rare and exotic woods. Several of Gutierrez's cues--valued at as much as $10,000 apiece--have slid between the fingers of billiard 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 one of the world's best living cue makers, Gutierrez says he still competes with the ghost of Balabushka, who died in 1975.
"Balabushka is still, probably, more famous than me because he's dead and a lot of his cues have become collectibles," said Gutierrez, 53, 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 he once aspired to be.
But if current trends continue, he may be proven correct. Gutierrez's fame assuredly will escalate with the value of his cues once he joins Balabushka in that Great Pool Hall in the Sky.
Until then, he figures to create a few more glittery, jewel-encrusted sticks in styles that would have even Balabushka racking his brain. Unlike his predecessor, Gutierrez has at his disposal computer-assisted lathes to more precisely fashion the perfect pool cue.
"Ernie Gutierrez came along and put the artwork into making cues," said Terry Moldenhauer, owner of AAA Billiards, a supply store in North Hollywood, and a collector of custom cues. "He is, in my opinion, the world's greatest living cue maker."
That assessment was all but confirmed in July, when Gutierrez 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 book, "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 today.
Only within the past several years, however, has cue collecting joined the sports memorabilia craze.
Many of Balabushka's approximately 1,200 cues have 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 Harvey Martin, Herman Rambow and Gus Szamboti, all legendary cue makers now deceased.
Cues from Gutierrez's assemblage of about 2,500 already are among the most expensive and sought-after items, partly because of the construction materials. In April, an ivory-and-silver Gutierrez cue sold in Japan for the equivalent of $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 crafting 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.
In 1961, interest in the game skyrocketed with the release of the movie, "The Hustler," starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. 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, about 100 of which are made a year, have since become among the most widely copied cues in the billiard industry.