Benjamin Kitt, 92, owner of billiard hall that was popular during 1950s and 1960s

March 17, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Benjamin Kitt, former owner of Belvedere Billiards - better known as Benny's to those who made it a second home during the 1950s and 1960s - died Wednesday of heart failure at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown. He was 92 and lived in Pikesville.

Born in Baltimore and raised on East Lombard Street, Mr. Kitt graduated from City College. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Baltimore and opened a pawnshop on Pennsylvania Avenue with a brother.

Unhappy operating a pawnshop, he sold his interests to his brother and went to work for a man who owned a pool hall on Edmondson Avenue.

The owner of the pool hall "used to play cards in Benny's games, and one day said, `I need someone to help me out for a couple of days. Would you come and work for me?' Benny said, `I don't know anything about the pool business,' and he said, `You don't have to know anything about it,'" said Mr. Kitt's wife of 64 years, the former Edith Brewer, in an interview several years ago with Michael A. Lang, a Takoma Park photographer who chronicled Belvedere Billiards and Knocko's, two legendary Northwest Baltimore pool halls, beginning in the mid-1950s.

"So, he came home and told me how dirty it was, the floor was filthy, everything was dirty. ... So Ben had a dream, he was goin' to open up a poolroom. I says, `What?' He says, `Yeah, and a nice clean room,'" Mrs. Kitt said.

Mr. Kitt found an available building at Reisterstown Road and West Belvedere Avenue, rented the second floor for $150 a month and opened for business in 1949.

"Every fraternity in Baltimore knew him. And they came every day and every Friday night they had parties, and they'd shoot pool and Ben got to know 'em all. He knew every kid in Northwest Baltimore and they started calling him `Uncle Benny,'" said Mrs. Kitt in the interview.

"Men and boys from Northwest Baltimore went to Benny's to shoot pool, play cards, work the pinball machines, or just hang out. It became a community center where boys would go after school. Mothers would telephone with grocery lists or just call their sons home for dinner," wrote Mr. Lang in an introduction to the exhibition, A Nice Clean Room: Pool Hall Portraits from 1950s Baltimore, which had its debut at Washington's Touchstone Gallery two years ago and now is on display in Santa Monica, Calif.

"It was a wonderful feeling and an adventure going up those stairs. It was freedom and meant you were in a place free of adult controls," Mr. Lang said of Benny's on Friday. Mr. Lang, now a National Institutes of Health administrator, grew up on Fernhill Avenue and first visited Benny's as a 15-year- old in 1957.

"Benny oiled the floors to keep them clean, and wives knew when their husbands had been there because they would track oil into the house," he said, laughing.

Mr. Kitt was a barrel-chested, avuncular man who favored open-collar shirts, baggy pants and expensive Italian shoes. For many years until fashion changed, he was seldom without a jaunty fedora.

Gifted with a gregarious personality, Mr. Kitt prided himself on running a family-oriented establishment where disputes were quickly and quietly ended, or counseling a troubled youth.

"He changed the image of it by calling it a billiard hall rather than a poolroom. He didn't drink or smoke. And he did not gamble in his establishment. That was one of his rules," said his daughter, Shelly B. Goldstein of Mount Washington. "He was also a good pool player, but wasn't the type to show it off."

Benny's also was known for serving Cohn's Coddies, codfish cakes that were devoured by hungry players who washed them down with chilled cans of Yoo-Hoo.

In 1966, Mr. Kitt sold the business to a cousin and opened a billiards parlor in Westview. After selling it several years later, he opened Gentleman's Cue in Pikesville. He retired in the early 1990s.

"His life revolved around his work. That was his hobby," Mrs. Goldstein said.

He was a member of Har Sinai Congregation.

Services will be held at noon today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Kitt is survived by two grandchildren. His son, Stanley M. Kitt, died in the late 1960s.

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