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As Willis McCluskey knows, Columbia is more than half a century past its heyday when it comes to pool halls.
McCluskey, known as “Mac” to fellow regulars at Booches, is an 88-year-old snooker hustler and a gentleman historian on the local billiards scene. He started playing pool in Columbia in the 1930s, when he was a student at the University of Missouri.
The “Billiards” section of a 1937 Columbia phone book shows six pool halls: Booches, Battertons (a workingman’s pool hall that everyone called “Bat’s,” according to McCluskey), Estes Smoke House, Recreation
Bowling Alley, the Smoke House and— McCluskey’s—favorite, The Huddle.
“I spent the entire time I was supposed to be in psychology class over there,” he said.
As the pre-World War II pool halls changed hands and dropped out of business, only Booches, which opened in 1884, survived. Although many modern customers know Booches for its burgers, it has maintained its niche as a pool room. Booches is the local hotspot for Snooker and three-cushion pool, games that require a table with no pockets. McCluskey has played snooker there for 60 years.
The 1961 film The Hustler, starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, generated new interest in the game.
Local pool sharks had a handful of pool halls to choose from in the 1960s and early 1970s. Les Wagner, co-owner of Billiards on Broadway, frequented The Paramont, at the southwest corner of 9th and Cherry streets,
where, “If you could run 35 points in snooker, you’d get a free Pepsi,” he remembers. Another popular hangout for pool players was the Stein Club on Broadway downtown.
Pool’s popularity also increased after film’s 1986 sequel in, The Color of Money, said Fred Schmidt, owner of the billiards supply store Schmidt Billiards.
“In the last 40 years it seems like pool has been tied to great pool movies,” Schmidt said. “Shortly after [The Color of Money] came out, my business sort of exploded here in town and I was able to move into a place over here at Bernadette Square.”
Cheap consumer electronics, the popularity of video games, and the increase in organized sports and activities have eaten away at the time young people have to learn to play pool, Schmidt said. He longs for the 1960s and early 1970s, the time he considers the great epoch of American pool.
Phil Spudich, the former owner of Rack ‘n’ Roll and Columbia Billiards, which both closed last summer, said the best shots in town played at his pool halls and have migrated to Billiards on Broadway.
As for the other pool halls in town, “They don’t play pool in those places,” he said. “They just beat the ball around. Except for the few good snooker players and Booches, a good player at Billiards could beat almost anyone in there.”