SAN DIEGO — First came Paul Newman and "The Hustler." Later it was Tom Cruise and "The Color of Money." That might be Hollywood, but you can't walk into a pool hall in San Diego without the images of Cruise and Newman lingering over a corner pocket.
Oh, you can try. You can sit in a pool hall, watching a waitress knife her way through a smoky haze while listening to the strains of Percy Sledge above the pops of pool ball on pool ball.
But then, Bob Johannis, the day manager at the College Billiards Center--San Diego's biggest and oldest pool hall--brings up Cruise.
" 'The Color of Money' gave pool a shot in the arm," Johannis says, expelling a puff of smoke. "It was flashy and showed a guy in different situations, going around meeting different types of people. It helped sell the game again.
"But that doesn't mean guys dance around the table the way Cruise did, twirling their cue sticks like a baton and whipping them around. Especially when a guy has paid $500 or $1,000 for a cue stick."
Jay Swanson, known professionally as Swanee, sits across the room. He's ranked 12th in the country by the Men's Professional Billiards Assn. He returned from Germany two weeks ago, and he's leaving tonight for a championship tournament in Las Vegas.
The color of money? First prize in the Las Vegas tournament is $15,000.
"Every pool room in the country has a waiting list at night since 'The Color of Money' came out," Swanee says. "I didn't really like the story. The kid got smart, but too smart. He started dumping games off and betting the other way just for the money. That's why Newman said, 'I'm on my way back.' "
Maybe a dozen tables are in use on this hot, lazy afternoon at the College Billiards Center. Voices are low, cigarette smoke is thick, and life is easy.
"Be right with you, Earl," Johannis calls out to a regular.
Any place which attracts a teacher from one high school and a couple of students from another, maybe two hours after the final bell, can't be all bad. Jerry Schimke, a 45-year-old literature and journalism teacher at Poway High School, sits on one side of the room. Chris Asad and Eric Gainey, who will graduate Saturday from Crawford High School, are at a table on the other side of the room. All three had finished their school year earlier in the day.
On Father's Day, Schimke had taken his 20-year-old daughter, Amy, to the Billiards Center for a few games. Later in the week, he plans to take her on a trip through Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
"Basically, what you find here are lots of exceptional people who seem to be easily bored," said Schimke, who just completed his 18th year teaching at Poway. "People who like to see life on the fringe. You can meet some incredibly interesting people.
"Everyone's a character. Everyone will tell you off. One of the apostles could come in here and people would say, 'Hey pal, you can't come in this hall with sandals.' Or if St. Paul were sitting on the table, someone would toss him out for that. And there's too much smoke. Everyone smokes.
"There's some dirt going on, but there are also doctors, lawyers, teachers and college professors. It's the only place I know where you can sit at the bar with a beer and talk about the human condition. I had a two-hour talk yesterday about existentialism. You won't get that in a bowling alley, at home . . . you won't even get that at school."
The College Billiards Center has 17 pocket billiards tables, one cushion billiards table, one snooker table and two coin-operated pool tables. You'll find regulars and newcomers. "The Color of Money," says Johannis, seems to have brought in a new crowd.
Now that they're 18, Gainey and Asad can play late. You have to be at least 16 to enter the College Billiards Center, and you can't stay past 10 p.m. unless you're at least 18 and have valid identification. Gainey and Asad play here a couple of times a week.
"This place doesn't close until 2," Asad said. "That's another cool thing."
Right now, the College Billiards Center, which opened in April, 1963, is the biggest pool hall in town. The Billiard Tavern, on Broadway downtown--which had about 50 tables--is changing management and will re-open sometime next month.
If you're a beginner, there are a few regulars at the College Billiards Center who offer lessons.
"A lot of times we'll help people out," Johannis said. "If somebody is doing something bad, I'll tell them. You pay back what you've learned."
Schimke recommends lessons for beginners.
"This is the only sport, except maybe golf, where people enter tournaments before they know the rules," he said. "People come in here and do the metaphorical equivalent of driving a golf cart on the greens. You don't walk in here, rent a table and then put a pitcher of beer on the table or sit on the table."
If you're already a terror on the pocket billiards table in your basement, there are plenty of tournaments around town. You can find one almost any night of the year.