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Story by Sandi Hamilton
Honk’s – No Girls Allowed!
When a recent post about Five and Ten Cent stores was shared on Facebook, Soduskans quickly began reminiscing about the Ben Franklin Store on West Main Street, but that post led to the topic of another West Main Street establishment…Honk’s… the local billiard hall that many of us remembered when we were growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. Wes Doyle knew a lot about the history of the business. ” Frank Atkinson owned the billiard hall aka “Honk’s”. I believe Frank died in 1976. My guess… he owned it from around 1930 to mid- sixties or so… the name of the hall may have been Atkinson’s. It was also home to a Western Union Station, where locals sent messages and money. In the late 50’s my father (Bill Doyle) worked for Frank nights and on Saturdays running the billiard hall. When customers came in to send Western Union messages, Frank would don on a Western Union Cap and enter the barred window of the Western Union Station. Frank wore gold rimmed glasses and was a quiet man with an interesting personality. One section of the business included an ice cream bar where customers would sit on stools and order soda, floats, ice cream in a dish, or banana splits. There were trays behind the counter that had all the fixings to make ice cream dishes. I can remember men coming from the local bars to get a Bromo-Seltzer. The Bromo-Seltzer was in powder form, mixed with water from a tall tap. Con Loveless, the village constable, would stop in and chat with Frank and his customers. I can recall pool tournaments with teams of two competing from other towns coming in to Frank’s. They played different forms of pool and billiards. They keep score on wooden discs strung on wire above the tables. My father loved playing pool, and I remember in one match he ran 168 balls! The Telephone number for the Cigar & Billiard Parlor in 1937-38 was 124-J (8 Main St Sodus). Frank lived at 12 Grove Street. His home number was 120-R.
Dale Raes reminisced about his time spent in the establishment. “When I was a kid – a law existed that said you had to be 18 (or accompanied by an adult) to enter any pool hall in NYS. But that changed to 16 just about the time I turned 16. So that was cool.
Just about every parent hated it and didn’t want their kid going in there.
I remember when the smoke stain on the windows was so heavy you couldn’t even look inside. And they had a lot of hunting supplies inside – including guns and ammo.
And that god-awful deer scent. (A lotta guys got a ‘dose’ of that stuff!)
And this great root beer….and old pinball machines. (They had an old shuffleboard when I first started going in.) And of course, three great pool tables – and one not so great, and one billiard table.
I first remember Floyd (I think it was Floyd) Philo owning it. Then eventually I think Bobby ‘O’ (Ogradowski) owned it for a while. But not for too long before a younger local guy took ownership ( can’t remember his name) (And that’s when and how “Uncle Jim” started running the place.)
But during all my years in there it was Rich Viniski’s domain for most of us.
Rich was really good at pool – but that wasn’t why it was ‘Rich’s’ place.
I saw Rich win a lotta games. I saw him loose plenty as well.
FYI – He won a lot more than he lost.
I saw genuine hustlers pass thru and I remember one legitimate ‘Amateur’ came in one day. He was special – very talented. Anyhow…from most everyone’s point of view it was pretty much Rich’s sand box. I know it was for me.
Fred Lebbert commented that “… it was Rich’s domain for sure. Mick (Rich’s brother) was real good too. When Tony Dumbleton got out of the Air Force, he rented a room from my Dad (Harold Lebbert). He could give Rich a run for his money. Rich made a lot of money playing 9 ball, Tony was best at straight/billiards pool. Tom Nephew’s dad was really good. There were some old timers that would come in and were really good, I think they practiced a lot in the Masonic Hall above Zecher and Capacci’s Law Office. I played straight pool better than anything.”
Dale remembered that “There were older guys – George Camp, and Mike Knight, Dick Toor, Rick Debadts, Dick Getman, Mick Viniski, Rollie Richardson, Dick Dumbleton, the Featherly Bros. John Jimerson, Bob Fleck,…and I could go on and on – and then the next generation; Mike Mostipak, Terry Clark, Dave Smith, Tommy Smith, Reggie Derks, Bobby Miller, Gabe Rivers, Dave Stewart, Larry Keese, Mike Boone, (myself) and so on and so on…and then the next generation:
Roger, David and Tommy Brandt, Steve Boone, Henry, Dinc, Vinnie, Gut, Danny Woodams…..etc…..
One sorta melded into the other…
and I could list another hundred names easily.
But in most people’s eyes, Rich was the ‘head honcho’ – and I have no way to explain that. He never wore it like a ‘badge’ or ‘title’ or flaunted it or ‘used’ it – it just was the way it was. Top Dog.
Everybody that knew Honk’s knows how it was.
I believe it is where the phrase, ‘Snake Pit’ (the bathroom) originated.
We’d drink out on the back deck and some guys even smoked reefer – or so I’ve been led to believe.
I say ‘deck’ – but it was a rickety back landing with a few crumbling boards and steps. I think the parking lot just off this back deck might have doubled a few times as a fighting arena as well.
Dogs. Mix it up for ten minutes – clean your bloody nose then back inside for a round of pool.
But yeah, girls – it was a Boy’s Club. A few bold girls came in from time to time and they were ALWAYS treated with respect. (I can remember Rich telling someone or other to, “Watch your mouth – there’s a girl in here.”) I’m sure Diane D., Cheryl T. and Judy D. all passed through the door at one time or another.
They’d hang out – if they chose…but in most cases I think they just saw the ‘boys’ actin like boys – and they’d wander away.
And then we’d all go back to being regular jackasses.
Ahh, those were the ‘good old days’.
The only thing missing was swinging Saloon Doors…cause it sorta feels like an old Western to me.”
As Dale mentioned, a few girls may have entered the “inner sanctum”. I remember my own brief experience when a group of my friends and I thought it would be an April Fool’s prank to enter the place. As our feet crossed the threshold, we were quickly turned around and escorted out of the door. Jane Toor and Vicky Clark remembered trying to get in because their brothers, Dick Toor and Terry Clark, “hung out” there, but their brothers wouldn’t allow it. There may have been a few exceptions. Virginia DeFisher recalls “Back in the day, about 70 years ago, it was called Frank Atkinson’s Pool Hall. I remember he was the only one who got bubble gum in every now and then. Must have been scarce back then. Anyway, I went in there, and I think we were allowed 5 pieces at a time. I must have followed my dad in ‘cause I know that was no place for me. Amazing what we remember!” Even small children were aware of the establishment. Steve Heald knew “ The place had quite a reputation, even among the kids who were too young to go there. I was probably seven or eight years old and one day my mother and I were walking down the sidewalk on Main St. As we approached Honk’s, I was all eyeballs and was trying to get a look in those smoke-stained windows. My mother would have none of that as she pushed me along and said something like “you just never mind about that place”. A while after that, it was gone. So, I never had the “pleasure” of experiencing Honk’s first hand.
Mick Stell remembered ”… when Frank Atkinson(“Honk,” called that by his black clientele for obvious reasons)left the business, Floyd Philo took it over, and contracted me to design and paint the store-wide “HONK’S” sign with the square 8 ball that embellished the front of the poolhall. Floyd was trying to make the place a little more kid friendly by adding some teen music and trying to, perhaps, find a local band to set up in the front window for some after school entertainment. Unfortunately, local interest wasn’t what was needed to succeed.”
And so, an establishment and an era that played a large part in the lives of many of the local teen age boys and men in our community ended.
Thank you to Dale Raes, Fred Lebbert, Wes Doyle, Mick Stell, Virginia DeFisher, and Steve Heald for sharing your memories.
The following is from the book Stinky’s Tales, Growing up in a Small Village in the 1940’s and 1950’s, pages 108-110, written by Bob Pearson in 2004.
Frank Atkinson’s place of business kept him on the premises about sixteen hours a day. Like so many business owners of the era and even the modern era, owners had to be there to insure business did not go into the crapper at the hands of an uncaring employee. Frank’s place of business was named “Honks” and where that name came from I have never found out. What I did find out, however, was that Honks was off limits to young boys and certainly off limits to all women.
My instructions on the matter were quite explicit and they came from the top. My father was omnipotent in my family and, in my eyes, in the community. He was the mayor, a volunteer fireman, treasurer of the volunteer firemen, successful salesman, navy veteran of World War II, and ruler of the domain called 20 High Street. My father told me early on that I was to stay out of Honks. This included the front part as well as the pool area.
This created a dilemma for me since several of my peers went in there, and my older brother went in there with his friends. Honk was a rotund, short man who looked old at every step of the way in my growing process. Honk’s wife was active in the Presbyterian Church where my mother established herself and us as members. My Dad went two or three times per year, but Isabel and her children showed up regularly. We often sat with or near Lavina Atkinson. Lavina was Frank’s wife and no one, and I mean no one, would ever put her with him in matrimony. The husband and wife Atkinson were the original odd couple in my life. She was tall, slender and rather pretty. Honk was the absolute opposite.
Somewhere in my childhood en route to manhood I ventured into the smoky den called Honks. The first time was a revelation. Peering out at me from behind a counter nearly as tall as his own five-foot height was Honk. His glasses rested down on his nose and he welcomed me with two words: “Root beer?” honk sold root beer in frosted mugs for a nickel. I bought one and sat on a worn out stool at a dingy counter and sipped the wonderful drink.
I did not offer up any conversation since I knew I did not belong there, nor did Honk say anything. He seemed to tolerate young men and boys who drank root beer and who played the two pinball machines in the place. His real business was the pool hall in the back.
As I looked out into the back of the place, I could not recognize anyone. A haze hung over the green, felt-topped tables. The smoke prevented me from recognizing any of the men who frequented the business. It seemed that everyone smoked at Honks. That was probably one reason for my father’s edict. Coach McGinn often said that people on his teams at Sodus should not be seen in the pool hall. I guess his concern was the smoke. The idle time wasted there probably concerned him also. He desired activities more conducive to sport excellence even though he made few suggestions for our idle time of a sport-specific nature. This was long before the idea of sport camps and specialization occurred. His major concerns were Honk’s pool room and girls. Of the two potential evils his players seemed to fear being seen with girls much more than the coach seeing us in Honks.
Once I knew I could get into Honks for a root beer, the other things there became readily apparent to me. There were girly magazines. Honk sold newspapers and also the tabloids of the fifties called the New York newspapers. He also sold all kinds of tobacco products, fishing lures, fruit pies, hats, gloves, and assorted adult male things like decks of cards with nudes on the cards.
The pool tables probably provided the greatest source of funds because it seemed like there were a dozen tables back there. I only went back one time with an older boy, merely as an observer. The smoke lingered permanently since there was no modern air filtration system, nor did the back door get opened during the winter months. Second hand smoke was definitely there, and almost certainly it caused breathing and lung problems for the regular customers. No one worried about second hand smoke back them, because no one even worried about first hand smoke back then.
I would see high school athletes back in the pool area when I was in junior high school and marvel at their courage to defy Coach McGinn’s edict about Honks pool room. I also wondered about their common sense. The thought never, ever crossed my mind to ever, ever challenge McGinn’s edict on Honk’s pool room. The edict on girls was something else!
After getting the root beer fix during several visits, I ultimately became a pinball machine player at a nickel a pop. The machine took my paper route money for many weeks as I underwent a minor’s addiction to the game. During a long span of time right there under Honk’s gaze we were clever enough to put little pieces of wood under the front legs of the pinball machine. This revelation became common knowledge to all who played the machines and the end result was that the ball would linger on the less-tilted playing surface and allowed for huge scores as the pinball careened off the targets repeatedly. Huge scores were rewarded with free games. Once a guy named Jack Lewis had so many free games on one machine we took turns rotating the free play among eight or nine of us. Within two months or so of this underhanded alteration of the machines on our part Honk caught on. His counter-measure was severe. He banned many of us from the machines for a long time. he also attached them to the floor somehow to eliminate the problem of the less-tilted surface.
Despite the clear-cut violations of the parental and coaching guidelines, young men still frequented the place. The thrill of defiance back then was no doubt the same as today. The difference, pathetically, is that the consequences of defiance today are profound and life-threatening because the risks and places of risk are manifestly different. Honk may have looked sinister, but Lavina turned him into a pussy cat. She even had the brass to walk in the place in broad daylight and get papers. She was the only woman I ever saw in the place. Honk was a whipped man.