RACK 'EM! : Pool Halls Shoot for an Image Uncluttered by Smoke and Shadow

Times Staff Writer

It's down 19 steps from the street, its deep recesses untouched by sunlight since they roofed the building who knows how many years ago. At opening time it smells sweetly of a decades-old mix of smoke, spilled beer, sweat and talcum powder.

Broadway Billiards in Santa Ana is the sort of place Prof. Harold Hill of "The Music Man" had in mind when he warned the folks of River City that all they had to do was let their children play pool and they'd have "trouble with a capital T."

Tom Miller owns Broadway Billiards--from the pennants of defunct pro football teams and the faded pictures of half-forgotten jockeys on the walls right down to the 100-watt light bulbs that illuminate the tables.

"There's not many of the old-style pool rooms around," Miller said. "I try to keep it that way. We get a good crowd down there."

In Anaheim, Jim and Judy Holt run a different sort of pool hall. For one thing, they prefer to call it a billiard parlor. For another, the kitchen is spotless. There's a scrubbed, let-the-sun-shine-in feel to the place, right down to the fluorescent lights.

"My husband and I, neither one of us shoot pool," Judy Holt said. "I just keep it clean for other people."

For a sport--or at least a game--that once seemed headed for the junk heap, billiards is turning out to be surprisingly good business these days, according to Miller, the Holts and the owners of other pool rooms across Orange County.

Buoyed by the movie "The Color of Money," the decline of the once-ubiquitous video arcade parlor, and an influx of Latino and Vietnamese players, pool is making one of its periodic comebacks, proprietors say. On Friday and Saturday nights there are waiting lists to play on one of the dozen or so tables in most of the pool halls in the county. Not beer joints with 3 1/2-by-7-foot tables where the main objective is drinking beer, mind you, but honest-to-goodness pool halls where the tables are 4-by-8 and the primary purpose is putting the ball in the pocket.

And next month comes an event that pool hall owners hope will popularize the game even more: the second annual Southern California Invitational Nine Ball Classic pool tournament in Santa Ana. (Last year's tournament was at the elegant Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.)

Thirty-two top players will compete, among them national champion Mike Sigel, Anaheim's Keith McReady, Philippine sharpshooter Efren Eyes and Mexican national champion Moro Paez. The winner gets $10,000; profits from spectator fees ranging up to $40 a day will go to charity. Players wear black tie or suits, spectators wear "dress attire"--that is, something other than cutoffs.

"We hope this will be the most prestigious tournament in the Southern California area in the future," said Tim Flathers, who runs a Santa Ana firm that makes pool tables. "The idea behind these tournaments is to get exposure, to make the public aware of what is happening and to show them it really is a family sport and can be done in a high-fashion manner."

But in an irony not lost on the pool hall owners, the tournament May 20 through 22 is being held not in a pool hall but in an Elks Lodge in Santa Ana. The reason, organizers say, is that the lodge can accommodate bleachers, providing spectators with good views of the game.

Still, the image of the game is not exactly what people would like.

Pool hall owners and players all worry about the game's image, badgering writers to forget images of dark, dingy dens of iniquity where drugs changed hands as often as balls ricocheted off cushions.

"It's not like that anymore," said Robin Bell of Costa Mesa, one of the top players in the country. "It hasn't been for years."

John Weatherby, owner of a Garden Grove pool hall, said that although someone came in waving a knife one recent Friday night (and wound up getting punched senseless), the days of brawls marked by flying billiard balls and pool cues wielded like samurai swords are largely over.

"They even have fights at Disneyland," Weatherby shrugged. "I guarantee you that more people have died at Disneyland than in here."

Still, when Paul Roberts talks about the "pool hall of the future," he mentions establishments in places like Dallas and Atlanta, which do millions of dollars a year in business conducted out of clean, well-lighted places.

Roberts gets paid to polish the image of pool halls in his capacity as spokesman for the Billiards Congress of America, which he describes as "the governing body of the sport and the trade association of the industry."

Roberts admits that he has his work cut out for him, though. Pool hall owners are about as organized as anarchists, and he said he has no idea how many pool halls exist across the country.

Roberts said that in all but a few cases he can't get pool hall owners to tell him how much money they rake in "because it's a cash business." Still, he figured that an establishment with a dozen to 20 tables grosses anywhere from $350,000 to $750,000 a year, "which is about double what they used to do."

One player pays $3 or $4 an hour to use a pool table, with the price rising a bit for two or more players. There's a good bit of change to be made in beer sales as well, and the bigger halls make money selling cues to the serious players.

In Los Angeles County, pool halls need police permits. Last year 322 businesses had one pool table on the premises, and 375 others had two or more tables.

In Orange County, police permits aren't required, so no one has an exact handle on the number of establishments. But Bobby Wallace, who owns an Anaheim pool hall, figures that there are 10 within 5 miles of his establishment. He and others figure that there are probably 20 or so throughout the county.

One of them is Games Plus in Costa Mesa, where painter Todd Ryding has been playing about five years.

"This is the only (pool hall) with pool, (other games) and drinking capability," he said. "And it's clean, it's in the area."

Indeed, it's the kind of place where Kristi Winton comes not to play pool but to work the video games.

A cake decorator, Winton joked that "I don't like the color combinations" involved in one of the more popular pool games, eight ball. Rather than strike the white cue ball first and drive it into other balls, she prefers to shoot the black eight ball into other balls. Unfortunately for her, that's not how the game is played.

Jan Fullerton knows how the game is played even though she doesn't take part any more.

Fullerton has worked at Broadway Billiards in Santa Ana off and on since 1965. The grandmother of four once played pool herself and gave exhibitions of trick shots. But she hung up her cue 10 years ago.

"It was either give up my family or give up pool," she said. "It took up too much time. I was giving exhibitions, traveling a lot." One of the exhibitions was with the legendary Willie Mosconi, who handled a pool cue the way Heifetz handled a violin.

In the old days, "there used to be more hustlers," guys who would sidle up to the unwary newcomer and mutter, "Want a game?" As devotees of the movies "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money" know, the fine art of hustling involves keeping the sucker just close enough to the maestro to make the poor chump believe he really can win a game, all the while putting his money in the other guy's pocket.

In bygone days, Broadway Billiards "used to be open all night," Fullerton remembered. "You had the hustlers and the coffee drinkers" hanging out in the pre-dawn hours, guys like "Fat Tommy."

"Everyone knew him because he was so fat," Fullerton said. And when people know you're a hustler, they won't play you. "So he lost weight. He became 'Skinny Tommy,' and no one knew him."

Fullerton said hustlers have other tricks as well, designed to keep their identities secret until they pick up their cues.

"You can usually tell a hustler because they're white. They're never out in the sun. They're always in the pool hall. So they'd go out to a tanning salon or lay in the sun."

Broadway Billiards opened in 1928 in a basement of a building kitty-cornered from its current location, Miller thinks. In about 1964, it moved to where it is now--but it's still in the basement.

" 'The Hustler' really helped" business, Fullerton said. "Then 'The Color of Money' helped it. Any time there's a movie, it helps. Even a rerun of 'The Hustler' on TV helps. People decide to come in and play."

Her clientele is more Latino these days, she said. "When Tom started, it was 90-10," with Anglos in the majority. "Now it's 90-95%" Latino.

Although women come in occasionally, always with a boyfriend or husband, Broadway Billiards "is one of the few old-fashioned men's pool halls that are left," Fullerton said.

Behind the bar is the mural of a mermaid, sea horses and other exotica of the deep done by "Dave the Painter." Dave was a street person in the days when they were rare. He painted the mural freehand, as well as a few of the beer advertisements hanging over pool tables.

"He was quite a guy," Fullerton said. "He painted some of the church windows around here, too." Dave slept on the stairs above the pool hall in good weather, moving inside in bad weather to what was then an abandoned office above the pool hall.

In the glory days, the space at the rear of the pool hall now taken up by three tables was an enclosed exhibition room. Hotshots from New York or Chicago would be booked to play exhibitions, witnessed by fans sitting on bleachers. "It was always a good draw," Fullerton said.

There are still tournaments nowadays at Bobby Wallace's place in Anaheim.

"We have a ladies' night, a men's night, odds and ends to get people to come in," said Wallace, who although only 42 has owned the place since 1964 and once owned two other pool halls in the county.

Wallace, a compact man not much taller than a pool cue, is a rarity in that he doesn't think the movies have brought him any business.

"I haven't really noticed a big increase," he said. "I'm pretty busy anyway. I do a lot of promoting.

"We have a lot of hustlers here," Wallace said. "There's nothing wrong with the hustlers because they're here to play. . . . Your everyday hustler who's just doing it for enjoyment and trying to make a buck doing it, he's OK."

Judy Holt has a contrasting view.

She and her husband have owned their place about 10 years: "I don't need professional shooters in here," she said. "In the long run, they're bad for business."

Much preferred, from her viewpoint, are workers who drop by after their shifts, such as those from the nearby Northrop Corp.

Holt said that in the past few months, "we've had a huge influx" of Asian players, including people such as Vira Nhongvogsithi.

"I want to learn about pool," said Nhongvogsithi, who came to Orange County from Laos eight years ago. He and his friends "come in after work, and we usually come in on Saturday night," he said. He still rates himself as "just learning" the game.

In Los Angeles, billiards spokesman Paul Roberts reeled off statistics about the game: The Gallup Poll says pool is the No. 4 sports activity among men in this country, ranks as the No. 2 team sport and "has become the fastest-growing sport in America;" Q-Biz magazine reports that pool room retail sales of cues and other items were up 48% last year; sales of pool tables, many of them to private homeowners, were up more than 65% in 1987.

"Billiards is definitely booming right now," Roberts said. "More people are passing through the door than ever before. . . . Celebrities are playing it. Pool is becoming cool for whatever reason. . . . It's continuing to grow. We don't see any plateau here."

But if pool has boosted business for Hollywood by providing the story line for "The Color of Money," and if the movie returned the favor by sending couch potatoes to pool halls, Roberts has his sights set on another entertainment medium: television.

Some corporate sponsorship, a few wizards of the cue playing in tuxedoes or evening gowns, and the money can roll in even faster, he figures.

"Billiards has become the No. 1 spectator sport on television in England, with over 385 hours of programming and ratings that rival the royal wedding," he said.

In an interview with Q-Biz, Roberts said pool rooms will know that they've arrived "when we are on the cover of Time or Sports Illustrated."

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