Pool Party

Mike Gorman

Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) and Charlie Burns (Myron McCormick) enter the Ames Billiard Hall, a seedy New York City pool establishment.

Burns (reverently): It's quiet.

Felson: Yeah, like a church. Church of the Good Hustler.

Burns: It looks more like a morgue to me. Those tables are the slabs where they lay the stiffs.

Felson: I'll be alive when I get out, Charlie.

-- The Hustler (1961)

A bright June day in Colorado, in the downstairs family room -- call it a den -- in a freshly built model home of the beige, nondescript variety in a new, upscale subdivision on the eastern edge of Colorado Springs. Lauren, a perky ten-year-old in pressed jeans, stands at the edge of a home-sized pocket billiards -- more commonly known as pool -- table, trying to hit the cue ball. She takes a swipe and misses.

The sound man on the set gives her a tip. "Hold it tight," he says. Lauren brushes her blond hair out of her face and leans down. She sets her mouth and tries again. This time she hits it off center; the ball angles off toward a green cushion.

"You're giving her too much to think about," says Arch, adjusting his camera.

"Arch Bryant," explains Dawn Dawson, a creative type with Reflections, a Colorado Springs advertising agency. "He's done a lot of work nationally for us."

"I worked as director of photography for the Perry Masons filmed in Denver," Arch says. "I've also directed for America's Most Wanted and the Discovery Channel --mostly dramatic reenactments."

Arch looks around the room. An assistant is pulling new beer and martini glasses out of a box and setting them on the bar, in view of the camera; there are billiard balls built into their stems. "Those glasses are great," he says.

"Aren't they?" the assistant agrees.

Today's script is simple: It's a thirty-second television commercial that will air in mid-July on ESPN during a pocket-billiards tournament. It opens with a closeup of a number of fantastic pool shots -- combinations, banks, so on. The camera switches back and forth between the caroming pool balls and Lauren, who is startled and amazed. Soon another camera shows who she is playing against: her grandmother, who finally misses a shot. "You're going down, grandma," the girl says as she settles in for her first attempt.

As the commercial ends, a tagline will appear on the screen: "To star in your family tournament, see your local BCA dealer today. Pool: Everybody's Game."

There's only one problem so far: Neither grandma nor Lauren can play pool particularly well. They are just the actors -- the talent hasn't arrived yet.

"When's the shooter going to be here?" Arch demands.

"Any minute," the assistant calls.

Angela (Elizabeth Taylor) approaches George (Montgomery Clift), who has wandered off from the party to be by himself. He has found a pool table and is taking skilled shots.

Angela: I see you had a misspent youth.

George: Yes, it was.

-- A Place in the Sun (1951)

Almost five years ago, the BCA -- the Billiard Congress of America -- decided that something should be done. "They thought they had to rehabilitate the image of pool from hustlers and smoky pool halls to what it really is -- a family-oriented activity," explains Amy Long, a BCA marketer who has been working on the campaign since the start. (Although BCA officials estimate that there are 17 million pool tables in the U.S., they don't exactly know how many are in homes and how many are in taverns.)

The billiards trade group relocated its headquarters to Colorado Springs as part of an effort to convince the U.S. Olympic Committee to consider putting pool on the path to becoming a full-fledged Olympic sport.

And in 1998, the BCA coughed up $500,000 to change the public's perception of billiards. "We didn't totally want to make the sport wimpy," Long adds. "But the BCA represents the table manufacturers, and they wanted to sell more tables for the home."

"We're creating awareness," explains Jeremy Cox, an ad executive with Barnstorm, a Colorado Springs firm that ended up with the account. "I mean, bowling has exploded. Bowling is perceived as a family-oriented activity.

"But billiards," he adds, "is not. Billiards is The Color of Money. Billiards is The Hustler."

Father Jerry (Pat O'Brien) walks into the sleazy pool hall. The young punks are drinking beer and throwing around dough.

Father Jerry (to the group): A life of crimes is nothing to envy.

Gang member: Look, Father, we don't fall for that 'pie-in-the-sky' stuff anymore, see."

Father Jerry starts to leave.  

Scornful Punk: Can't you get them to go to heaven with ya?

Father Jerry turns around and punches him in the face.

-- Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

First to get his marching orders from the BCA was Ernie Paicopolos, a researcher at Opinion Dynamics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We ran a series of focus groups around January 2000, and then a thousand-person telephone survey," he says. "What we found was a definite desire on the part of families to have a more friendly environment and that pool lent itself to a more family-friendly situation.

"But," he continues, "we needed to create that sense that it was a family-friendly activity. People already thought that way. Ninety percent agreed that 'Almost anyone can have fun playing pool' -- despite the images associated with pool in movies -- smoky bars, things like that.

"I mean, it's not always the most family-friendly environment when a pool table shows up in advertising."

Paicopolos's research resonated with the BCA: Families were good; families weren't two-bit hustlers; families bought pool tables. The ball was kicked over to Dave Anglum, a Minneapolis-based specialist in creative strategy and taglines. "The BCA was very adamant about coming up with a tagline," Anglum says.

He recognized the problem right away. "To say that this was a unique and challenging program to work on is an understatement," Anglum says. "Obviously, the BCA is trying to change mind-sets -- to upgrade the image of pool. You've got to change perceptions."

Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) tries to explain why he isn't married.

Keyes: Almost did once. A long time ago.... Even had a church picked out, the dame and I. She had a white satin dress with flounces on it. I was on my way to the jewelry store to buy the ring. And then suddenly the little man in here started working on me.

Neff (Fred MacMurray): So you went back and had her investigated.

Keyes: Yeah, and the stuff that came out. She'd been dyeing her hair since she was sixteen. There was a manic-depressive in her family, on her mother's side. She already had one husband. He was a professional pool player in Baltimore. And as for her brother...

Neff: I get the general idea. She was a tramp from a long line of tramps.

-- Double Indemnity (1944)

Using Paicopolos's numbers, Anglum came up with a handful of strategies and potential directions for the new family-friendly campaign to take. But the general idea was the same: Keep it clean; billiards is wholesome.

Anglum wrote: "Pool is a sport that doesn't leave anyone out." "Pool helps families pulled in different directions stay together." "Pool has a calming effect on people who feel their days are rushed and too pressure-filled."

A gangster discovers the machine gun: Get outta my way, Johnny, I'm gonna spit!

He begins spraying bullets into a rack of pool balls, powder and cues. They dance and splinter and explode into hundreds of pieces.

-- Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932)

Anglum next crafted taglines that he thought might sum up the kinder, gentler game of pool. Despite the BCA's preference to keep it mild, with some earlier efforts he couldn't help himself: "Meet bowling's cooler cousin," one read. "For a totally nonviolent evening, come in for some cutthroat," said another. A third promised, "Hip, trendy and swanky since 1400 AD."

"A perfect excuse to stare at your date's rear end," and "Romantic tables for two, three if you're kinky, four if you're really twisted," were other early rejects.

Even tamer fare was rejected by the BCA for various reasons. "Pool: Your table is ready" ("Using a common phrase you hear a lot, but too much on the manufacturing side," Anglum explains); "The pocket's call" ("A cerebral, lofty tone, poetic, call-of-the-wild feel"); "Bring it to the table" ("More edgy, attitudinal, kind of a 'bring-it-on' style"); and "It's break time" ("Evokes a sense of urgency") all were considered and discarded. Finally, the BCA agreed on the wordplay of "Pool: Everybody's game."

Next up was the filming of the commercial. Working off Paicopolos and Anglum's earlier work, Arch and Dawson wrote the script of the grudge match between the girl and her grandmother. Neither actress was capable of the shots needed for the filming, so a ringer had to be brought in to demonstrate the game for the new audience of moms, dads and kids.

Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart): How'd you get in here?

Vivian (Lauren Bacall): Bet you can't guess.

Marlowe: Oh, but I can. You came in through the keyhole like Peter Pan.

Vivian: Who's he?  

Marlowe: A guy I used to know around a pool hall.

-- The Big Sleep (1946)

"I started playing pool about 45 years ago," says Charlie Shootman (his real name). "In a pool hall, of course. The Hideout, west of Colorado Springs. It had two snooker tables and one pool table.

"Back then," he adds, eyeing Lauren and her grandma, "there wasn't no women in the pool hall. That was taboo."

Gray-haired with a slight pot belly rounding out his white T-shirt, aviator spectacles and a neatly trimmed white mustache, Charlie tries hard to follow directions. "Ah, Charlie, you gotta wait till I say 'Action!'," Arch says after the rack breaks before the cameras roll. Later Arch complains, "Your cue keeps getting in my camera shot."

"Sorry," says Charlie. "I'm not used to being a movie star. Besides, forty years of habit is hard to break."

So are his smoky, hustling, distinctly non-family-oriented memories of pool. "I played pretty good before I went into the service," he says. "Then, after I went into the service, I started playing really good. I was stationed in North Carolina -- nothing else to do but shoot pool.

"I got out of the service at 21, and I didn't have a job for the next twenty years. I earned my living playing pool. I went from bar to bar; I was the top-rated bar player in the country. I've played for a dollar; I've played for a beer; I've played for $2,000. Some of it's not so fun -- if you're a thousand miles from home and nothin' in your pockets.... But then I'd always go up to the bartender and say, 'I'm broke, but I play a pretty good game of pool.' And he'd set up some games."

Charlie pauses and remembers. "It was quite a life," he says.

"Charlie," Arch's assistant yells. "You're on!"

"I gotta get a cigarette," says Charlie.

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