Banner photo is of the exterior of the Orr Bros Billiard Academy, circa 1913, from the City of Toronto Archives.
Growing up, I had an oddball idea of adulthood – though I suppose most kids do. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’d steeped myself in old detective novels and film noir movies as a kid and they’d given me a kind of skewed idea of what passed for a good time once you’d shed your teens. As a result, I thought there’d be a lot of drinking Manhattans and hanging out in pool halls. Of course, it’s not impossible that there are people out there that do these things regularly, but it’s probably a good deal less common today than I’d expected it’d be.
Of course, strictly speaking, drinking Manhattans is the only thing you have to be an adult to do. And as a kid, I guess I believed the same was true of pool because I thought it was only ever played in smoky, poorly lit bars. The first I learned otherwise was when, at 13 or 14, I spent a week at a friend’s grandparents’ place in Cape Cod that had a pool table. As I picked up a cue for the first time I thought “This is ok? I’m allowed to do this?”
But in a way, my sense that pool was a vaguely-taboo, adult-thing wasn’t too wrong. Back home in Toronto, there were few spots where an innocent teen might go to play. More often than not, tables were found in dark bars, governed over by a band of regulars that made you feel like you’d crashed their private club. And for the most part, historically speaking, it’d always been this way.
It’s difficult to pin down the exact date that the game of billiards came to Toronto – I’d imagine it was hot on the heels of the establishment of the garrison at Fort York in the 1790s – but, thanks to the government’s zest for being paid duties, we know that there were a number of billiard tables in the city by 1810:
Despite their best efforts to lull you to sleep with the above blather, you’d be startled awake when you realized they were going to charge you £40 a year to own a table. I’d imagine that having to pay such a duty resulted in not a few tavern keepers throwing blankets over their tables and whistling innocently when an official-type came around. It may also have had something to do with the low numbers of billiard rooms listed in the first city directories. And by few, I mean none.
It’s not until 1850 that we find any hint that Torontonians might be enjoying the odd game of billiards – and even then, it’s a small one:
But in 1859, the lid came off (slowly) and the first billiard hall stood up to be counted:
Following Ackerman’s lead, others began to appear in print – chief amongst them, a man named James McGinn who went so far as to splash out with various ads:
Thanks to the magic of illustration, we can even see what the Golden City Billiard Parlor looked like, probably:
In 1866, billiard parlors were given a further boost when the Provincial Fair came to town. In honour of the occasion, the publisher McEvoy and Co put out a guide highlighting the best of everything the city had to offer. Unlike similar guides issued by the large hotels – which were, without fail, always stuffy and formal – the McEvoy and Co guide comes off as quite chatty. It also appears to have been compiled under the assumption that the reader wanted to have some real fun while in town – not just tour school and church grounds as the other guides suggested they do. Which is probably why of the five “Places of Amusement” featured billiard parlors accounted for three. Receiving top billing was James McGinn’s parlor:
But there were a couple other worthies:
By the way, McEvoy & Co were trying to be cute when they referred to George Brown of the Queen’s Hotel as “an honorable man,” “not a politician” and connected only with “petroleum ‘globes.’” They were going (awkwardly ) out of their way to say he was not the same George Brown who was editor of The Globe newspaper, opposed to Tory privilege and an abolitionist. … you know, all that dishonorable stuff.
Here’s a look at the Queen’s Hotel:
However, it’s McEvoy and Co’s third recommendation that is perhaps the most interesting:
What makes Riley and May so interesting is that, in addition to running one of the largest hotels in the city and a renowned billiard parlor, they also manufactured billiard tables themselves:
As for the men themselves, I can tell you that Riley was John B. Riley. And outside of the fact that he was a Mason – something anybody might’ve guessed – there’s very little information that’s survived him. Having said that, I think it’s safe to say that running the hotel end of the business was where his interest lay, and that everything billiards related was his partner’s. Because, boy, Samuel May sure left his mark all over the game…
A few years after this particular win, in 1867, Samuel May took all his billiard know-how and wrote a book on the game:
Here’s an illuminating passage:
Now, hold onto your hats: May didn’t just win championships and cure the chronically ill, he was also continuously looking to improve on billiard table design:
Yet another Samuel May design was patented in 1880 and this one made him the talk of the town. …Okay fine, the talk of people who talked about such things – in the town. Behold, May’s improved billiard cushion:
As excited as you no doubt are by this innovation, you can imagine the thrill it must’ve struck in the breast of all who enjoyed the game and who’d had to suffer under inferior cushions. No, seriously. Here’s Charles Pulham Mulvaney singing its praises:
“The cushion from end to end provides the same uniform elasticity, an evenness of speed and accuracy being secured by an ingenious and scientific combination of pure elastic rubber and the finest spring steel. What is the greatest characteristic of this invention, however, is that it is not subject to climactic influences, a feature the importance of which in a country like Canada cannot be exaggerated. Everyone knows the misery of playing on a dead, dull cushion; but let it be hot, cold, damp or dry, with the steel combination cushion there is no danger of such torture.” From Toronto Past and Present: A Handbook of the City, 1884.
Let me tell you, friends, we’ve all had it easy, pool-wise. I know I for one have always just taken it for granted that when I bank a ball, it’ll bounce back.
About the same time that May was patenting his cushion, he and John Riley parted ways. As far as I can tell, Riley held onto the Revere Hotel, while May got the billiard table factory. And what a factory it was:
Now that we know all about the levelers, cushions and hive-like factory, let’s have a look at what it was all about:
By this time, as you might imagine, a number of billiard parlors were popping up all across the city. Every hotel seemed to boast one and many of the better ones employed their own “billiard marker” – a man whose job it was to stand by and score games for the patrons.
However, though billiards were enjoyed by men from all walks of life, some began to associate them with an unsavory element and employers that enjoyed a sense of moral superiority began to throw their weight around in attempt to control their workers outside the workplace. And they were very successful …in driving their employees to less obvious places to indulge their love of the game:
And really, what better cover for a billiard-fiend than the Mechanic’s Institute?
Established in 1830, Toronto’s Mechanic’s Institute – like numerous others around the world – was built with the grand idea of providing an education to working men. Much like a library, it offered a collection of instructional and technical books which members could borrow, reading rooms where they could study, and hosted the occasional lecture. All of which, no doubt, was welcomed warmly by Toronto’s working class. But perhaps, not quite as warmly as when it opened its recreation rooms:
But, of course, not everyone wanted to become a member of the Institute or to visit a posh hotel to play pool, and so billiard parlors continued to crop up all across the city. Undoubtedly, many were dives but I imagine there were some pretty decent ones too. Here’s a look at a few of them through the years:
Though billiards are still played in and around the city today, there are some aspects of the game that have changed since its rise in old Toronto. For one thing, it’s almost always called “pool” – a name that came from it being played in a place where bets were “pooled” – as opposed to “billiards” which now seems reserved for those that take the game very seriously and are, not coincidentally, very good at it.*
Also, there aren’t nearly as many dedicated parlors or pool halls as there once were. Sure, you can still find tables in regular bars, but they’re not likely to advertise the fact the way they once did. One exception is the wonderful Rivoli where I sometimes played as a teen in the late ’90s. Another was the well regarded Academy of Spherical Arts in Liberty Village which operated out of a defunct billiard table factory. In addition to their enormous whiskey selection, they featured a number of beautiful antique tables to play on, including an original Samuel May model – the very one , in fact, illustrated earlier. But sadly, the Academy – like James McGinn’s Golden Palace, Riley and May’s Revere House and the Mechanics’ Institute – has closed its doors and is no more.
* Note: The terms ‘pool’ and ‘billiards’ can be confusing because they are both used to refer to table games in general – including snooker and carom – as well as specific games and table styles. I know this – please don’t write me angry letters for not being more specific.
On a personal note:
Recently, I mentioned to my mother that I was writing about old billiard halls and she said “Oh, your Uncle Omer used to run a pool hall in Port Colborne.” This came as a surprise to me – though it probably shouldn’t have, in retrospect.
My Uncle Omer, my mother’s older brother, was one of my great favourites. My first memory of him – I suppose I was five or six – was at a party where I was feeling out-of-place and shy. He reached into a pocket, took out a box of Smarties and gave them to me. Let me to tell you something – keys to my heart, right there. But beyond his ability to make chocolate magically appear, he was a loveable, warm man and a pretty remarkable character.
My parents often refer to him as “a Damon Runyon-type” and he truly was. He was a large man, always wore a fedora and was a regular at the racetrack. He often kept his right hand tucked in his pocket to hide the four fingers he was missing after a childhood accident while playing on some box cars. My dad remembers him being a great pool player and believes he was able to make the injured hand work to his benefit while playing.
About his running a pool hall, my mother said he’d always ask for the TV to be turned down because he’d have a headache from listening to the balls smack against each other all day. Of the hall itself, my mother remembers visiting once and hearing one of the patrons say “Dummy up, there’s a dame in here” when she walked in.
When Uncle Omer died a couple of days before my 12th birthday, my sister recalled that his wish was to have his ashes spread at the starting line of the racetrack. I believe it took some wrangling but, in the end, my mother made it happen. On the day of the memorial, there was a grand buffet in the racetrack’s dining room and an enormous number of his racing pals – a great bunch of characters themselves – came to pay their last respects. The final race was run in his honour and the winning horse was presented with a blanket emblazoned with the words “Omer’s Grand Finale.”
… So I guess, thinking back on it now, it’s possible that detective novels and old movies weren’t the only things to shape my idea of adulthood. They probably just seemed all the more real for having known my uncle.