“How billiards in America gained a new form of social prominence ”;
History, with all of its dust covered words and pictures, is most often appreciated more by those that contribute to its notable pages. In American culture, historical documentation of billiards (all cue games) reflects little evidence of it ever reaching and maintaining its pinnacle of social benefit. Nor does its industry display the cleverness to understand it. Aside from marketing ploys, once turned over to public enterprise hundreds of years ago, billiards has since been given little recognition of public elegance and even less consideration as a viable contributor to America’s more fashionable social functions.
To see billiards as the social hub of an elegant Wedding Reception or entertaining guests attending Christenings to Retirement Parties would be as uncommon to billiards, as would the paintings of Raphael or Rembrandt hanging on the walls of pool halls. Why has this level of billiards social enhancement seldom been encouraged and more importantly, achieved with any longevity? Aloofness, seldom breeds invention, and precious few visionaries. Lacking public recognition and its financial support as an organized professional sport, the growth and destiny of billiards in America has been controlled to a large extent, not by outside sponsorship, but rather by its own media and internal management. The public side of billiards itself emerged from a rather contained social background. Realizing this, it becomes obvious why its social status and related marketing has been confined within the limited parameters of simply various forms of pool halls, billiard balls and alcohols.
By the recent publication of a book recording the history of Chicago, The Illinois Billiard Club was reminded of its contributions of social benefit far exceeding merely those it’s given the game of billiards. The following is a summary of some 30 years of historically documented pioneering contributions by the IBC of far more importance than simply a game. But rather its positive impact on the subject in which the game was first intended all levels of society itself. Nearly three decades have come and gone since the IBC first began hosting private parties and banquets that service man’s most memorable celebrations of life. Ranging from wedding receptions to retirement banquets. The following story has been written as a reminder of how far billiards in America has traveled over the past 30 years. While at the same time through the IBC’s example, create public awareness of how much farther billiards has yet to go, before the game itself fully services humankind’s more complete and highest levels of social evolution.
“People say the nicest things”;
By Jim Parker
If one city in the United States was considered synonymous with the game of billiards, it’s Chicago Illinois. Unlike billiards of today there was a time in America, billiards (all cue games,) was considered a popular professional sport, in addition to today’s status as an amateur and social pass-time. The person largely responsible for the initial growth of billiards in the third largest city in the nation was an energetic young man by the name of Mr. Thomas Foley, the father and dean of Chicago billiards.
In 1865 Foley won the first recorded billiard championship in Illinois. The money-stake in all matches was $250 a side. The following year Foley invested his winnings in the opening of his own Chicago billiard room. He didn't get his moneys worth. For two scorching days beginning on October 8, 1871, Tom and the rest of Chicago watched as the “fire devils”; and their whirling pockets of gas, hot air and flames, took their buildings and dreams in the Great Chicago fire.
This didn't stop Foley, he simply reopened in another location. Again, he was later rousted by another inferno. This time it was believed the fire was caused by a malfunction in the buildings central heating system ... an unattended potbelly stove! Tom, as any great professional billiard player would, saw these set-backs merely as bad rolls. When Foley opened his next room however, he insisted on something he hadn't considered in the past, a brick building!
And so it was. A new sign was hung at 423-429 S. Wabash Avenue. It read: “Thomas Foley-The Dean of Billiards, est. 1866.”; Up to and including this day, Thomas Foley went on to become the longest surviving champion billiard proprietor in the recorded history of Chicago billiards. While the eruption of a potbelly stove and the inferno flames of the great Chicago fire couldn't stop Tom’s yearly high run ... our nation’s great depression did. Foley’s closed in the late 1920’s.
For some 25 years after Foley’s closing the windy city maintained billiards reputation as a professional sport. While national and world tournaments were beginning to fall-off, billiards, nonetheless managed to hold the attention of Chicago sports writers. By the mid 1950’s with both the passing and retirement of the games professional heroes, this one-time game of kings fell into a tailspin and crashed into obscurity. Various new organizations sprung up to aid in building the games popularity and all failed. By the close of the 1960’s, billiards popularity in America had fallen into the bedrock depths of its own slate quarries. A game that for its first 75 years in America kept pace with other sports, now realized popularity and financial despair to the point of a car-wash during a thunderstorm.
By 1973 the mighty mid-west billiard metropolis that at one time actively supported some 600 billiard tables in its downtown area alone, now had less than two dozen carom billiard tables still in use within the entire city and outlying suburbs. I know this as fact. In 1974, before investing time, energy and money in a dying industry, I sought out extensively to learn who, what and why was responsible for killing it. After relocating twice to avoid extinction, by the end of the 1970’s, some 14 of the remaining carom billiard tables also disappeared with the closing of Bob Siegel’s, Bensingers Billiards. Both a man and a billiard room with hearts and personalities as big and friendly as the city they once served.
An entirely new concept to American billiards was introduced in the mid 1970’s with the founding of what has proven to be the oldest, individually owned, funded and actively operated private billiard club in the United States. The Illinois Billiard Club was founded in Chicago in 1975 and with it began a perennial flow of fresh billiard boosting ideas along with the inner energy and self-financing to support both.
The IBC shunned the traditional operational habits of failing billiard facilities. Included within a long list of billiard industry firsts, the club made it known it had set-out to put fashionable character into the game, by keeping the unfashionable characters out. When operating as a private club, its astonishing what charging a few hundred dollars for annual dues can do to help boost the integrity level of a billiard facilities clientele. The club’s focus was on promoting to the general public, a more professional, historical, social and elegant side of billiards. The IBC believed billiards is first and above all, a people’s game, all people. Not simply those associated with its blemished past, but rather the thousands avoiding it, because of its negative past. It was obvious by lack of a more affluent clientele and general popularity, if the public side of billiards in America was to even begin redeeming itself in the eyes of society, it had to first take a bath, clean behind its ears, get a haircut and grow-up. Grow-up to the point of showing respect for both itself and the public’s more positive social cultures that had hundreds of years earlier, given birth to the game in the first place.
The clubs next step in popularizing the game was through the mass media, not billiards inner media. Even today, what limited circulation billiards inner media might have is profoundly important to the games current fans. Yet in terms of developing new recruits and expanding billiards borders, this minuscule link of communication is near meaningless. To reestablish the games public rating as even a minor sport, which it had long since lost, the club began hosting both local and national tournaments. In 1976 after establishing a line of contacts within the news media, the efforts of the IBC encouraged the re-listing of billiard tournament results in the sports section of Chicago newspapers. The private clubs trend setting efforts proven contagious. By the close of the IBC’s second year others began following its lead with the opening of new rooms within the Chicago land area. While not private or tastefully decorated, nonetheless, the few that opened appeared to have serious intentions of helping reestablish billiards as a front line source of competitive and social entertainment.
On February 2, 1981 the club made a major marketing breakthrough. By its invitation to an IBC tournament it had linked together with the release of a major motion picture, “The Baltimore Bullet,”; Chicago’s legendary sports writer, Bill Gleason, reported his inspiring billiard related story on the front sports page of the Chicago Sun Times. The first major Chicago newspaper in some 29 years to give billiards a front-page listing.
The next billiard first and major breakthrough came in 1983. This time it came in the form of social interest to the readers of the fashionable Chicago Magazine. In celebration of Chicago’s 150th birthday, the Chicago Magazine published a commemorative issue. After the magazine selected the best 150 various businesses in Chicago, The Illinois Billiard Club was named the best of the best and given first listing. Now, at long last the game of billiards was able to stand up, shake the dirt off its trousers and be recognized by society as more than just the all too-typical, back-alley pool hall.
The following years brought a long series of first-time concepts to Chicago and the game of billiards. Chicago land newspapers and magazines began speaking out loud and clear, year after year. They continually sang praises regarding the little Southside club and its ever-blooming variety of upscale billiard activities. On January 12, 1986, the front page of the Sunday edition of the Chicago Southtown Economist blasted news of Hollywood’s return to the IBC. This time by request of film director Martin Scorsese. While there were dozens of sites used for filming cinema dress-up and make-believe, there was one location in Chicago that the award winning director sought-out and called upon for learning and studying the real thing.
With its stylish background and reputation of pioneering professional billiard championships in America, the IBC was the logical choice to recruit players, host auditions, train actors and provide a home for the Hollywood director to study and map-out his Chicago film, “The Color of Money.”; A motion picture that launched the highest popularity rating and longest-running explosion of amateur billiard activity in the history of American billiards.
The next series of first-time for billiards in Chicago came in 1987. The Chicago Review Press and their “Sweet Home Chicago”; guidebook, decided it was time that the IBC style of billiards should be included within their guidebook’s pages of Chicago’s most sought out locations. The Press established another first for billiards when listing The Illinois Billiard Club with other prominent Chicago facilities. Again in 1988, the IBC found itself in a second Chicago guide to the city, the “I Love Chicago Guide. ”; Published by Collier Books. In 1989 came the release of Chicago Magazine’s third guide to Chicago. With a revised an updated edition for 1989, “Guide to Chicago,”; the Chicago Magazine began featuring billiards for the first time also when recognizing The Illinois Billiard Club in their guide’s sports section.
On February 5, 1989, the series of first-time for billiards continued when the club found itself in full living color covering the entire front-page of the Chicago Daily Southtown’s magazine section. Again on February 22, 1989, an additional 500,000 readers saw another full, front-page colored illustration of the IBC. This time the club was featured in the “Extra”; magazine section of the daily Southtown Economist. Both cases were followed with some 2,000-word stories regarding the IBC and billiards popularity upswing within the Chicago land area.
By 1990, the entire mid-west saw billiards reach its unprecedented social peak. For the first time ever in the recorded history of Chicago, billiards was featured alongside both Chicago’s and the State of Illinois’ most prominent public and private organizations, businesses, cultural and historical facilities. Authored by Catherine Cox, Reader Books published the first edition of the Chicago Special Occasion Sourcebook. The Illinois Billiard Club was asked for its permission to be included along with other prominent Chicago facilities ranging from the Art Institute of Chicago to the cities luxurious Whitehall Hotel. The Chicago Special Occasion Sourcebook was republished in 1992 and again in 1994 it followed the IBC to its new home in the ever-blooming village of Willow Springs IL.
On Sunday May 2, 1993 The Chicago Tribune published Anna Marie Kukec’s some 2,500-word front-page story and colored pictorial documentation regarding the history and philosophy of the IBC. Kukec’s story not only reported the club’s past impact on the growth of upscale billiards in America, but another futuristic concept it introduced to society as well. Bonnie’s Dining & Banquets, million-dollar plus, banquet facility. A fashionable, one-of-a kind facility, that while celebrating life’s most memorable moments, ranging from wedding receptions to retirement parties, also offers its guests the optional use of the private Illinois Billiard Clubs antique billiard room. A room that reeks with elegance and the historical charm of its 15th century game. The same game that today while attending private functions hosted at Bonnie’s can now benefit the social interests of today’s more fashionable, 21st century society.
With the private clubs relocation to its present home in Willow Springs some 12 years ago, one might imagine the writers, reporters and journalists that record and report the events of their third largest city in the United States, would surely have forgotten about their little billiard club once located on West 71st Street. Yet recently when visiting one of this authors favorite places, a Borders bookstore, he happened across a new addition to the stores collection of literary treasures. A 2001 publication recording the history of his endeared Chicago. Titled: Images of America, Chicago Lawn / Marquette Manor, authored by Kathleen J. Headley. Settled back in a plush chair with a fresh cup of coffee, this author began reading each and every page that by text and pictorial documentation traced his families Chicago heritage back to the 19th century.
Mid-way through his memories of a time gone-by, he was overwhelmed when discovering what prompted him to write this little story. Published ever so neatly within the center pages of this new journal recording the history of Chicago, was a story and photograph historically documenting his Illinois Billiard Club. How ironic! The final analysis of the labors of his wife Bonnie and he had been carried into the new millennium and have now become an indelible page of Chicago’s history through the efforts of the very writers, journalists and news reporters he’s long since admired. A tribute of such enormous measure by the public documentation of his and his wife’s relationship to the betterment of the very city that once provided a home, education, friends, and the financial and spiritual benefits for them and their families five generations of Chicagoans.
During our life’s journey, most all of us come to learn that one person alone can only labor at their dreams with the hope of success. When in the proof of reality and to an overwhelming extent, our level of success is established and measured through those we also learn to call our friends. Knowing this as fact, with my most heartfelt intentions I would like to tell the world: “To all the legions of friends, often referred to as writers, reporters and journalists, that have been responsible for the beautiful words and pictures you’ve so graciously extended for all too many years to remember, my wife Bonnie “Thanks You,”; our families “Thank You”; and I “Thank You”;.
Jim Parker, president
The Illinois Billiard Club