In addition to being the principle tobacconist in Beverly Hills, California, Kramer's Pipe & Pipe Tobacco has earned recognition all over the globe for its proprietary house blends — many of which were mixed specifically for famous celebrities like Danny Kaye or Cary Grant. From New Mix to Kramer's English, these tobaccos are heralded by pipe connoisseurs far and wide, not only for their celebrity history but for their unique character as well. But how did it all get started? What propelled a simple tobacco shop on Little Santa Monica Boulevard to such wide-spread recognition?
To answer these questions, we recently sat down with Marsha Kramer Keller, who now runs Kramer's Pipe & Pipe Tobacco with her husband Jim Keller, to discuss the Kramer's legacy. This article shares her thoughts and attempts to bring to light one of the most fascinating stories of success, camaraderie, and community alive in the pipe tobacco world today.
History of Kramer's
The Kramer's story begins in Chicago, Illinois, where Marsha's father Allen Kramer moved with his large family at age seven. In his youth, Allen familiarized himself with the pipe and pipe tobacco market, working with tobacco distributors to provide concessions for nightclubs in the area. With this experience under his belt, he later opened a small tobacco shop on the North Side of Chicago with his lovely wife Tina.
But as the United States entered into the Second World War, Allen was called up for military service (1A) and forced to sell his quaint shop. He was never sent abroad, but instead went to work at a factory making torpedoes and naval ammunition. According to Marsha, "He was so good at making torpedoes that they just kept giving him deferments." That machinist skill wasn't confined to his work at the factory, however. As busy as he was in his new role, Allen still found time to work on the lathe, tinkering with pipe and lighter repairs — a grounding hobby which, no doubt, offered him a small sense of normalcy until the war's end in 1945.
Fast forward to 1949: Allen and Tina Kramer visited California on vacation. Enamored by the weather, friendly vibe, and sense of opportunity in this post-war era, they decided to stay and set up another tobacco shop along Little Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. When asked about the location, Marsha explains:
"They actually took a lot of time and were very meticulous about their location. They would drive to different neighborhoods, park, and watch the foot traffic and see what the neighborhoods looked like... Beverly Hills was just a little village at the time. We had a butcher shop next door, and a knitting store, and across the street was Beverly Hills Seed Co., which was a precursor of sorts to Home Depot and those kinds of stores. Across the street as well was a bicycle store. My dad and Fess Parker, who played both Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone, actually used to ride from there to Malibu many a Sunday. It was a sweet little neighborhood. It wasn't fancy; it was just nice."
Allen & Tina Kramer in their Chicago shop - photo courtesy of Kramer's Pipe & Pipe Tobacco
As Marsha mentions, Beverly Hills really was just a tiny village at the time. In addition to the various small businesses lining the street, there were a number of quaint little churches behind the shop on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, but the most important one for this particular narrative was the Church of the Good Shepherd. Father Martin Dempsey, an Irish-Catholic priest, was assigned to the church around the same time the Kramers set up shop in Beverly Hills. An avid pipe smoker, the good Father and Allen Kramer instantly developed a strong relationship, bonding over pipes and pipe tobacco.
Sometime shortly after Allen and Tina opened up their store in Beverly Hills, the landlord of their building decided to raise their rent substantially. Despondent, Allen wasn't sure what to do. He'd just moved his family across the country, and paying so much more rent seemed dismal at best. Confiding in his newfound friend, Allen discussed his leasing issue with the good Father, and Dempsey listened. According to Marsha, "My father had seen an empty storefront on the same block in the next building, and when he mentioned it to Father Dempsey, the good Father gave him the support and sage advice to make the move... 'Allen, rent that shop and move!'" The Kramers did just that: they moved the whole shop that first year.
After disassembling all the knotty pine counters and cabinets, which Allen crafted himself, they set up just down the block. One day shortly after, the two friends were chatting, and Father Dempsey mentioned to Allen, "I would really like to buy my tobacco from you." The good Father, at the time, smoked a certain Dunhill blend, which Allen spread out on the tobacco bar and dissected component by component. Having run a successful tobacconist for many years now, Allen was able to determine the individual leaves in the blend, just not the proportions. So Allen would make the good Father a small sample, he would smoke it, and provide feedback for the next run. After several iterations, Father Dempsey cried out, "Allen, stop right there. This is better than anything I've ever had from Dunhill. This is what I want to smoke!"
Kramer's Pipe & Pipe Tobacco became Father Dempsey's go-to tobacconist for all his pipe tobacco needs. It's worth mentioning here that several well-known celebrities attended Father Dempsey's establishment, the Church of the Good Shepherd. So when the good Father smoked his custom blend, it drew the attention of some rather renowned characters in the congregation. Cecil B. DeMille, for example, once approached Dempsey while smoking his blend, exclaiming, "What is that tobacco? I love it!" The good Father, of course, pointed Cecil to Kramer's, along with a host of other well-known folks in Hollywood.
Allen Kramer in his Beverly Hills shop - photo courtesy of Kramer's Pipe & Pipe Tobacco
The Kramer's Blending Tradition
Through word of mouth recommendations from Dempsey and others, as well as the Kramers' ever charming rapport with customers, Allen and Tina went on to provide tobacconist services to a range of other celebrities. Some would come in and ask for the now established Father Dempsey's mixture; others wanted something custom to their own tastes. Cary Grant, for example, enjoyed medium Latakia blends and was quite fond of Kramer's proprietary English, but he wanted something a little sweeter. Adding a little Irish Aromatic to the English base, Allen was able to blend up a mixture that matched all of Grant's preferences, which eventually became Kramer's Blend for Cary Grant.
In fact, it was through this highly personalized, customer-focused blending style that many of Kramer's most well-known tobaccos came about. Customers would come in and describe their tastes and preferences to Allen, and he would match them on the spot, adding a little more sweetness here, a little more body there, until the customer was satisfied. Kramer's Blend for Danny Kaye, likewise, followed this approach. A dear friend to Tina and Allen, Danny Kaye would regularly visit the shop and spend time with the Kramers. He enjoyed the iconic New Mix blend, which features a hint of Perique, but like Cary Grant he wanted a touch more sweetness. So Allen added a pinch of Irish Aromatic to the mixture, and the two friends went back and forth until the proportions were just right.
Kramer's Pipe & Pipe Tobacco Today
Allen and Tina continued this tradition of customer-focused blending until Allen's passing in 1973, followed by Tina's passing in 1999. But their legacy is anything but forgotten. Fast forward to 2017, and Kramer's is still running strong under the supervision of their daughter Marsha Kramer Keller and her husband Jim Keller, who operate one of the only second-generation, family-owned businesses in Beverly Hills. Kramer's house blends are now some of the most revered boutique mixtures on the market, having achieved something of their own celebrity status by pipe smokers all over the globe.
In close collaboration with Marsha and Jim, we here at Smokingpipes have worked to make their family's legacy more accessible to the general pipe smoking public. From Father Dempsey, to Extra Smooth, to New Mix, you can now find all of these exquisite pipe tobaccos in either bulk or tinned facings on our site. So check them out; you needn't be a celebrity to experience the Kramer's tradition first hand.