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Buzz Me, Willard!

By Marc Jennings

There was a time in the early part of the Twentieth Century in this country when Temperance was a movement. Temperance proponents advocated outlawing of the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquor. The Anti-Saloon League, founded in Oberlin, Ohio in 1893 to promote Temperance, grew to be a powerful nationwide organization that was instrumental in enacting the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, “Prohibition”, which took effect in January, 1920. The Temperance movement maintained that liquor was a morally corrupting influence that destroyed individuals and families, and contributed to crime.

We all kind of know how that turned out from the movies, but I want to talk for a minute about something that got mixed up with the whole Temperance movement. As a result of this campaign, there were certain establishments that gained an unsavory reputation as places that “decent” people didn’t go, due to the disreputable activities that went on within. One of those establishments that came to be disdained among decent people was the humble “pool hall”; where, it is true, gambling, drinking, swearing and other morally degenerate activity took place.

By the time the Class of 1966 entered the hallowed halls of Fairview, the pool hall had lost much of its stigma, as had the manufacture, transportation and sale of liquor (except on Sunday). Playing pool, by then, was generally considered a sport of skill played for amusement, and pool tables were found in the homes of many “decent” people. One of the homes that contained a pool table was the Scott Kelso Hacienda, 2808 Forest Grove Ave.

I met Scott early in our freshman year at FHS and liked him right away. He had gone to Cornell Heights Elementary along with his buddy, Jim Swanson. He was “different” in a likeable way and it wasn’t long before Scott invited several of his new and old friends over to his house to hang out, and maybe play a little pool.

Scott’s pool table was in the basement of his nice ranch home. The basement was fixed up as a “rec” room, nothing fancy, but nice. There was a fireplace in the main room where the pool table was, but I don’t think there was ever a fire in it. Later, after we adopted Scott’s basement as a favorite place to go, the fireplace got quite a collection of cigarette butts. Scott smoked like most of us did then, but he never bought any cigarettes. I think he smoked because we did, not because he enjoyed it. When no one had any cigarettes, Scott would say, “It’s the depression” and grab a not-entirely-smoked butt from the fireplace.

Scott’s basement was second only to Dave Todd’s basement as a favorite place to go for our group of friends. But it was mostly freshman and sophomore years that we went to Scott’s a lot. Not that we stopped going there, just not as much our junior and senior years. We went to Dave Todd’s house every single day, right after school, I think of our entire high school career. Well, maybe not every day, but I can’t remember many times when we didn’t. His mom worked at Kroger and would bring home cases of the little six ounce bottles of coke for us and we would all have one, every day. It makes me embarrassed now to think we never offered to pay, or to volunteer doing some chores, or something, to return their hospitality. Over four years, they must have spent a tidy sum to keep our thirst quenched. Like most parents, the Todd’s would rather have had us in their basement drinking a coke than out getting into mischief.

Anyway, not surprisingly, Scott was a pretty good pool player. He even had one of those “custom” two-piece pool cues that is carried in a case and is screwed together to play, like in the Paul Newman movie, The Hustler, with Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. In fact, Scott used to repeat dialogue from the movie as he played:

Minnesota Fats: “Well, kid, I didn’t leave you much.”
Fast Eddy Felson: “You left me enough, fat man.”

Dave Todd was a good player as well. And there were others who played a good game. We all enjoyed it, although we did not wager on games. I’m sure the only reason we didn’t is because we never had any money. We played 8 ball and 9 ball, sometimes straight pool. As we got better, we really enjoyed playing a game as we talked about school and girls. We had a good time at Scott’s and it was in his basement early our sophomore year that I admitted I had contracted a severe case of Darlene Glaze-itus. For some reason, Scott tried to talk me out of my infatuation with Darlene, although I’m sure he would deny it now.

One day at school word came that a pool hall had opened on Salem. Since we had really gotten in to the game, this was pretty exciting news. This meant we could all play at the same time rather than waiting for a turn at the table. At the end of the day, after a coke at Dave Todd’s house, we walked down to Salem to check this place out. It was located in a somewhat seedy storefront building between Tennyson and Victoria, within spitting distance of Frisch’s across the street. Inside it was a large open room full of brand new pool tables with racks of cues on the wall and just a rest room in the back. In front near the door was a glass counter with a cash register. You would pay for a table and play to your heart’s content. I don’t recall what the charge was, but it was affordable, even for us perennially broke high school students.

This was pretty nice and we started going there a good bit. It seemed some of us could always be found there clicking those billiard balls. I remember, like it was yesterday, Dave Todd bent over the table to make a shot, his longish red, straight hair falling down in his eyes. And Scott’s intensity—he always played seriously. There were other characters that frequented the place including Pat Colley. Pat had black hair kept neatly in place with the help of some Brylcream, I imagine. He was a heavy guy and could have been Minnesota Fats himself. Pat was a very good player and he always showed up with his own pool cue, a sign, usually, that the player was serious.

When I announced one day I was going up to the pool hall, my Father had a negative reaction and questioned me about the place. It was clear he hadn’t entirely lost the perception of pool halls as an undesirable place to hang out. There was also occasional talk of “incidents” at the pool hall. Minor vandalism, a fight, threats. It was not a big deal but just enough to subtly change your view of the place. Still we went, and we enjoyed playing pool there.

However, there must have been something about the pool hall that was going downhill from its original purpose as a place to have fun and play pool, because one day, when we attempted to go in we were met by a crude wall that extended the width of the building just two feet inside the front door. In the center of the wall was a nondescript door and it was locked. We knocked on the door and an old guy came and opened the door. He told us the pool hall was now a private club and you had to be a member to come in. How much were memberships, we asked? I think it was a dollar, or some other fairly insignificant sum. We paid and became members of the pool hall private club. This should have been a sign that it was time to move on.

This private club didn’t have membership cards, or member keys, or ID cards or anything like that. The locked door had an electrical mechanism on it whereby the guy at the cash register could push a button and the lock would buzz open. The guy at the cash register was the same one who told us about this being a club. He was an old guy and you could tell life hadn’t been too kind to him. He may have been a recovering alcoholic, that’s what he looked and acted like. He didn’t work a shift, he was always there; day or night, weekdays or weekends. And, his name was Willard.

So, to gain entrance to our exclusive, private pool club, we would open the glass front door and halfway through yell, “Buzz me, Willard!” The buzzer would buzz and we would walk in. Willard never checked ID’s and although he must have come to recognize some of us, you couldn’t tell if he did or not. Basically, I think he just assumed that if someone knew the passwords, which were: “Buzz me, Willard”, that they must be a member and he would open the door. The membership fee was apparently good for life since there was no system for renewals and no records of who the members were.

Even as a high school student I began to understand that hanging out at any business that would install such a cockamamie system and put Willard in charge of it was not going to be the crucial element for acceptance to Harvard or Yale, so to speak. So, my visits to the pool hall began to be less frequent. When I did go, the place seemed to get seedier each time. Finally, I paid my last visit although I didn’t realize it at the time.

Many years later, when back in Dayton for a visit and driving down Salem, I noticed the pool hall was, incredibly, still there. A feeling came over me that if I had stopped to enter the place, Willard would still be there waiting to buzz a charter member in for a game of 9 ball.