Tips & shafts
By George Fels
Consulting Editor George Fels has been writing for Billiards Digest since 1980, and his "Tips & Shafts" column is usually our readers' first stop when they crack open the magazine. For better or worse, pool has been his only mistress for 40-plus years.
Best of Fels
April: Spreading the Word
IT WAS the players' room of choice here in Chicago roughly 35 years ago and it's still going, although both its neighborhood and crowd have changed. For years, its marquee-like sign has boldly proclaimed, in all upper-case type, "we have smooth shafts and clean balls." (There's no telling how many drivers passing by have been forced off the road by the sheer hilarity of that.) The other side, missing a letter, merely pleads, "go bear", an unintentionally dismal reminder that that team has endured seasons in which a single player would indeed not have been much less efficient than all 11. Either that or they're advocating human reproduction, which really wouldn't seem to be much of their concern.
But however interpreted, the original intent of that signage was to entice prospects inside. It's highly doubtful that specific results, or any results for that matter, were ever tabulated, but the cue games' relationship with signage and advertising has had its bumps in the road from the beginning. For instance, how many rooms have you visited or just seen that housed a sign (often grimy, or worse) beaming, "Ladies Welcome"? Historically, ladies were about as welcome in poolhalls as cobras; that was where men went specifically to be away from women, in the manner of the Roman emporiums but with spittoons instead of pillars. (Indeed, the late sociologist Ned Polsky, in his great book "Hustlers, Beats & Others," theorized that the current malaise among American billiard rooms is precisely because society no longer needs such polarizing venues.)
The forerunner of this magazine dates back to the '20s and earlier; the company has a partial collection of those back issues, and the ads are practically more fun to read than the journalism (which was basically tournament reportage and little else). Some distinguished individual rooms could afford to advertise nationally back then, and their messages are replete with such patrician phrases as "healthful recreation" and "a tonic for the legs and back." Obviously the game remains both those things and more, even though that's not the way people speak or think of it if they ever do so at all.
Pool's best relationship with advertising, and by a goodly margin, remains the seven spots the late champion Steve Mizerak did for Miller Lite beer (although the first of those, "Just Showin' Off," is probably better-remembered than the other six combined).
The story of how the Hall of Fame player required 192 separate tries to get the single take that viewers ultimately saw has been oft-told by now. What's less well known is how he was chosen in the first place.
Out of some scores of hopefuls who answered their agents' casting calls, the final round of auditions (or, as they're referred to, "call-backs") came down to eight full-time actors and four pool players (Mizerak, his then brother-in-law Peter Margo, and two more future Hall of Famers, Ray Martin and Allen Hopkins). The spot's famous director, Steve Horn, in concert with personnel from both Miller and its ad agency, Backer & Spielvogel, first correctly decided that the pool playing needed to be genuine - no cutaways to hand shots - and thus sent the eight actors home. Of the four bona fide players, the Miz was favored both because of his better education and, probably more important, better diction.
"Just Showin' Off" also represents the only known legal test of whether or not pool is a sport. It didn't take a court case to decide this, but Mizerak was still active as a player at the time, and Federal Trade Commission regulations expressly forbid any active athlete from endorsing any form of alcoholic product. Miller, their lawyers, the networks and the ad agency simply took it on themselves to declare that pool was no sport and the Miz was no athlete. That decision is not likely to be tested again.
Mizerak's six subsequent appearances in Miller commercials were all shared with other of the so-called Miller Lite All-Stars (obviously all retired jocks, except for him). Some, but not all, of the All-Stars were also called upon for personal appearances, at trade shows and the like, and Steve Mizerak was clearly among the most successful of these. Not only was he still active and highly proficient at his specialty, but he could take it with him, doing the same trick-shot routine that made him famous, along with some corny patter approved by Miller, while pretty girls in fishnet hose retrieved the balls from the pockets. Apparently the patter included references to his helpers; at one show in Miller's own hometown, somebody officially objected to one or more of those comments as sexist. Miller, having approved and been fully aware of the comments, saved face and covered corporate ass by letting Mizerak go. We know the rest.
But more contemporarily, advertising usually butchers pool. One pleasant surprise was seen in the mid-'90s, when another brewery, Anheuser-Busch, was wooing the younger end of the legal-drinking spectrum with a series of spots in which people challenged one another at trivia in various settings. One such setting was a poolroom, and I especially appreciated that the spot's producers had gone out of their way to find young actors who could actually play, at least to the extent of displaying credible stances, strokes and results. Yet in a recent spot for Bud Light, two halfwits actually placed open bottles on a table rail - can there be any greater gaffe? - a move approved by at least a dozen people. And a current print ad for cigarettes not only rends the game utterly meaningless, but doesn't even match up object balls from the same set.
It would be great to see pool, and poolrooms, advertising themselves legitimately again. But that would necessarily include an economy, and especially a mass perception of the game, that simply do not exist at the moment and may never. Pool is nothing that its players need to be reminded to do. Maybe it's better that way.