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

April 28, 1988|JOHN NEEDHAM | 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."

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