Hollywood Pipes

Laurie Jacobson
Hollywood has always been about looking good.
That’s why the pipe has been there since the first cameras rolled. It’s the ultimate accessory. You wear it both in your face and in your hand. You display it in your home. And with proper care, it will last a lifetime. Let’s face it, most marriages in Tinseltown are based on the same principles, and don’t fare as well. But a pipe is more than just a smoke — something you dispose of when you’re through — it’s an appendage. And just like Liz and Dick, Lucy and Desi, Groucho and his cigar, some Hollywood celebrities are forever linked…with their pipes.

Bing Crosby has done more for the pipe than any other entertainer. A pork pie hat Popeye and a pipe became his trademark, generating instant recognition for his multitude of fans. And since so many of Der Bingle’s fans wanted to emulate his casual, contented air, a company called Merchant Service created the Crosby-style pipe which, like Bing’s, has a very long, thin shank and stem. "It’s my personal favorite," says Charlie Kornguth, owner of Beverly Hills Pipe & Tobacco Company for more than twenty years and in the industry for forty-six. He takes a new pipe from the shelf and points to the imprint: "Bing’s Favorite." Did any other celebrity have a pipe named after him? Charlie recalls Edward G. Robinson pipe tobacco…"and Playboy had their own pipe. Hugh Hefner was one of the great pipe smokers. He had them made up with the bunny insignia on them to give to guests, friends and what have you. To my knowledge, they were never sold on the market." The winner, and still champ: Bing Crosby.

"Al would put silver bands on Bing’s pipes," says Tina Kramer, proprietor of Kramer’s Pipe and Tobacco, which she and her late husband Al opened in Beverly Hills, in 1948. "Bing would only smoke that one shape. He had them made up in England. He’d bring back a bunch and have my husband put on silver or gold bands for him."

A lot of Hollywood history has gone up in smoke at Kramer’s. "Years back, all the directors and producers smoked pipes, and they all came here," says Tina. Al made and repaired pipes at his lathe in the front window. George Sidney, director of Showboat, Pal Joey and Bye Bye Birdie, had a special stamp for Al to imprint Sidney’s name on all his pipes. "Stems break or men eventually bite through them. Al would make the new stem, tailor it to fit the inside and the outside, make them look like new, put a band around it. There are very few people who do that kind of work now."

Tina now refers to Al’s lathe as her sentimental comer and she guards it fiercely, as did Al. In all his years, he only allowed one other person to use it. "Yul Brynner. He liked to work with his hands," Tina fondly remembers. "He made his own furniture and he was great." Brynner sat in the front window of Kramer’s making pipes. What kind of a reaction did that draw? "1 had women lined up inside and out," Tina laughs, adding, "he had the most beautiful eyes of anyone I’d ever met. When he looked at you, they’d just burn. He was quite a guy."

Brynner was just one of many celebrities the Kramer’s welcomed. "Oh, the oldtimers were so nice, and friendly," Tina reminisces. "They’d come in and chat, sometimes tell us their problems, just like we were bartenders… Danny Kaye was wonderful. I still have a mixture of tobacco I made up just for him…Billy Wilder quit smoking, but he still comes in for mints…Jack Lemmon is such a nice man." But for Tina, there was one customer who outshines all the others, past, present or future. "Cary Grant," she sighs. "Cary Grant carne in about once a month, always smiling, always talking to the customers." A poster-sized photo of Grant hangs in the store. "Whenever you see Cary Grant with a pipe, it’s one of mine," she proudly declares.

Tina asserts, "Your pipe should be your friend for life." And, to ensure that her customers understand this, she gives pipe lessons. "There’s a way of filling it, of packing it, in a way to keep it going. A lot of pipe smokers burn more matches than anything else. We show them how to fill it, to light it, how to smoke it all the way to the bottom without having to light it every little bit of the way, and how to clean it."

Charlie, too, emphasizes the importance of pipe lessons. "I take the time to let them know how to take care of it. I tell them every thing about it. I go beyond that. After you’re home, if you’re frustrated that it keeps going out or whatever, come back in and let me help. You tell me what’s happening and let me help correct it. We go all the way with them." There is another large photo in Kramer’s, near the tobacco bar that is replete with brass foot rail. It’s of an Irish Catholic priest who played an important role in Kramer’s history as well as in the smoking history of some of Hollywood’s biggest names.

Father Dempsey wandered in one day and started talking with Al. They became great friends and the father confessed that he got his tobacco elsewhere, but if Al could make a comparable blend, he’d buy it. "Al took a look at the blend and spotted four or five different kinds … and the two of them began to work on it. After the fourth try, Father Dempsey said, ‘You can stop right there. It’s better than theirs ever was.’" 

The good father happened to be friends with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, an avid pipe smoker himself. DeMille inquired the name of the father’s tobacco blend. "There is no name; it’s my own private mixture which Kramer’s makes for me. If you want some, just go and ask for Father Dempsey’s blend and they’ll give it to you." DeMille did just that. Then he brought actor Henry Wilcoxon in… and partners Jesse Lasky and Sam Goldwyn. "Pretty soon all of Paramount Studios were coming in asking for Father Dempsy’s blend," laughs Tina. "It’s a strong scent, like a campfire burning. To this day, it is still one of our best-selling blends." Tina points to two Rolodex spindles jam-packed with customer names and the formulas for their personal blends. Every formula is confidential and no additives are ever used. Here with an antique scale and a large bowl, Tina mixes her magic for hundreds of loyal customers: cherry, vanilla, rum…Cary Grant smoked their English blend.

Beverly Hills Pipe & Tobacco has its share of clients, too, but Charlie is tight-lipped about their regular accounts. Son Todd runs the place now, hut he’s been hanging out there since he was six. He reminisces about the old days, when Beverly Hills was a quaint neighborhood with a slower pace. "Lots of friendly types came in every day: Marty Allen, Jack Carter, Danny Thomas, Milton Berle, Hank Greenberg, Jonathan Winters, Sugar Ray Leonard. My dad is real nice and real smart, and big, big celebrities would use him as a soft ear. Thank God we don’t have stools in here!"

"What we’ve heard in here is unreal," laughs Charlie. "Why? The store is not intimidating; we’re informal, the door is open, even if it’s 100 degrees. There are certain times of the day you can find 12 people standing in here — producers, directors, politicians, athletes, writers, actors — you name it, we’ve had ’em all in here."

His confidentiality began when Jerry Lewis declared bankruptcy with his first divorce. "We were listed as one of his creditors. Back then, this stuff was available to the press and we received calls from all over wanting to know what he had purchased. ‘You’re the only creditor who won’t tell us,’ they said and I told them that’s how it would remain. That is an endorsement and that is their livelihood and I will never interfere with that." Now that’s a Hollywood tobacconist.

Both on screen and off, filmland citizenry used the pipe to add that "certain something" to their character or image. Often the line was blurred. "Some actors smoked pipes in their private lives and carried it with them on screen simply because it was comfortable for them. Others used it strictly as a prop for their screen roles," says Marc Wanamaker, renowned Hollywood historian and archivist. Certain screen characters just wouldn’t be complete without a pipe. Try to imagine Sherlock Holmes without one. How about "My Three Sons" dad, Fred MacMurray? Or Popeye? Corn cob pipes were standard fare for Walter Brennan and other hillbilly, farmer and "Grapes of Wrath" types while, Wanamaker adds, "the polished English gentleman always had a pipe to help lend an air of distinction." That goes for other cultivated types: professors, doctors, lawyers, writers. The pipe came to signify intelligent, thoughtful men, not necessarily wealthy, but always educated.

Charlie agrees with that. "How can I put this and be politically correct?" He thinks for a moment. "I don’t know how else to say it: you don’t see bums smoking pipes." From silents through talkies Hollywood has backed that up: refined men like Orson Welles Edward G. Robinson, Robert Taylor, Valentino; sportsmen like Bogie, Errol Flynn, John Barryrnore. Dracula star, Bela Lugosi was a cultured European from the old school, a macho man who could become a monster if his wife did not clean his pipes properly or jump to light them. (Not surprisingly he was married four times.) Character actor Regis Toomey was one of many celebrities who collected hundreds of pipes in all shapes and sizes from around the globe.

"A man doesn’t have just one pipe," says Tina. "They must have pipes to change off to or it’s going to get awfully strong and smelly." "You need about three pipes," says Charlie. "People see different shapes they like and accumulate a collection, hut if you’re an every day pipe smoker, you only need about three. That gives them a chance to dry out." He mentions one client — a celebrity who had over 1,200 pieces. "That man probably smoked thirty of them and half a dozen with any regularity." All he’d say is it wasn’t Regis Toomey.

Charlie smoked a pipe for many years, and still has his collection which he speaks of in loving terms. He cites several reasons for pipe smoking being a gentleman’s repast: "It takes work to smoke a pipe. You have to take care of it. When you’re finished smoking a cigarette or cigar, you toss it and that’s the end of it. When you’re finished smoking a pipe, you have to clean it." He goes on, "They are more difficult to carry. You also have to carry your tobacco…pipe cleaners…a tamper…pipe lighter. And if you go out and forget your cigars or cigarettes, it’s not a big deal. But if you forget your pipe, you don’t want to just run into a store and lay down some good dollars for a pipe."

Pipe prices run between $20 and $100. Tina says you can get a really good one for $50 or $60. She also suggests buying a "second" from a good company. "It won’t make any difference and it costs a lot less." Even some of her celebrity clients do it. "Everyone likes a good bargain."

Charlie sells new and estate pipes, some of which were celebrity owned. "Years ago, most of our (new) pipes were from London. London produced some of the finest pipes I’ve ever seen. Now we also get pipes from Italy and France."

Tina has never noticed a drop or rise in the popularity of pipe smoking. "Pipes have always done well here." Charlie disagrees. "The late ’70s and ’80s were all about pipes — all shapes and sizes — they just smoked." Any women? "In the late ’60s-early ’70s, there was a line of women’s pipes. They had rhinestones on them, a little on the garish side; they did not succeed. Women smoked pipes in the ‘80s, but not as a big thing. 1 don’t know if pipes and women will ever catch on. It would be nice…"

Despite what he sees as a current dip in popularity, Charlie believes pipes will make a Hollywood comeback. "It’s beautiful smoking…and a great value. Cigars are getting so expensive. I think a lot of today’s cigar smokers are going to pick up a pipe as a switch-off smoke, and end up going more toward the pipe."

Elegance, culture, contentment and a friend for life. With qualities like that, the pipe will surely be discovered by Hollywood’s newest generation of stars.

PipeSMOKE Summer 1997

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10 Responses

  • Nice article. Sometimes I feel that I was born 20 years too late. What an era that was.

  • This is inspiring article, that’s why i love old pipes and my PAD is to old pipes…

  • Loved this. My Dad used to smoke a pipe, and it was when all these Hollywood people mentioned were in their prime. It was such a romantic era. Great piece. Thank you!

  • Having never been one that was into celebrity worship or for ever giving a rats behind about the daily lives of the Hollywood mega stars, I’ve always had certain amount of respect for the stars of old, many of those mentioned in the article. They lived there private lives which were often plagued with serious problems but rarely did they allow themselves to become the “stars” of their own personal dramas. That pipe shop would have been some place to be around in the 1950’s-60’s and after reading the bit on Bela Lugosi, I wonder if he ever penned a “how to” book on keeping ones wife in line? Kidding Dear, really.

  • This is a terrific way to handle archival material like this. It looks terrific. But I’m wondering if you actually need to go this far: I think it would be just as interesting to simply have scanned PDFs of the original magazine. (And it would certainly be less time consuming from a design standpoint.)

  • Fantastic article! I did smoke pipes in the 1980s, but I was in my 20s and there simply wasn’t the media availability through the internet etc. to get the interaction and to learn as much as you can now.
    “I don’t know how else to say it: you don’t see bums smoking pipes.” Love it!

  • Bob, you are correct that it would be less work. However, it is worth the extra effort to have machine-readable text, and html code that can be optimized for search engines. That way the information can be found when searching, more people will find it, the site gets more traffic, – everybody’s happier. Interested readers find cool content. Advertisers get more impressions. The site makes the money required to produce the content. It’s the great circle of life. 🙂

  • Kevin, another great choice in articles to revisit! Very enjoyable reading, and I really like all the pix.

  • If I ever get out to CA I would like to go to kramers. Sounds like a great pipe shop. Having never been to a real one I’m very much looking forward to it