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Gene Lew…a man of vision

Long before “The Color of Money” became the vanguard of a new “Pool is Cool” (or conventionally acceptable) era, there was a man with vision and unshakable conviction named Gene Lew. He was the fearless knight who, single-handily slayed many a political dragon to push the Canadian billiard industry into the 20th century. He was a trendsetter, the brilliant architect who drafted the blueprint for a new and improved billiard room. He was the reason why we as fans, businessmen/women and players, can light up a Virginia slim and say, “We’ve come a long way, baby!
Despite steamy temperatures, Lew was impeccably dressed; cool in smart, black trousers and a canary yellow silk shirt. Although I hadn’t seen Gene in a few years, I am hard pressed to find any signs of aging. Lew jokes, ”I’ve been called the Dick Clark of the Billiards Industry”, a clever tribute considering it also combines his two great passions: Music and Billiards. We delve into the depths of his professional background and it’s becomes apparent that the only manuscript larger than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is Lew’s resume. He began, desk-bound, in a few paper shuffling, clock punching, can’t-wait-for lunch, jobs.
“I knew I couldn’t last”, says Lew, laughing, “I’m a people person.” So off he went, in search of company’s that better supported his many many talents. This led him to various positions in sales and promotions. Eventually, he hooked up with Quality records, a label, who at the time, controlled 65% of the top charted records. Lew beg

Gene Lew with legendary Hank Ballard at Blues and Cues in Scarborough
Gene Lew with legendary Hank Ballard at Blues and Cues in Scarborough

In 1955, at age 11, Lew began collecting R&B records. Today, his collection is impressive and includes records such as an original and obscure Hank Ballard and the Midnighters pressing of “Sexy Ways”. This band was responsible for a song called “The twist”, which Chubby Checker would later make famous. So, how then did Lew make the transition from rhythm & blues to cues? “It was a fluke” says Lew, who was also introduced to snooker at a young age. Lew’s mother was English/Irish and his father. Chinese. Although the law kept under­ 18’s out of poolrooms, his father took him to a Chinese social club that had two snooker tables.
“This little guy wearing a green visor and biceps garters would come to your table, rack the balls for you and take your quarter for the game. You would keep score by counters on a wire suspended over the table and there was this lunch counter filled with all kinds of Oriental deserts like steamed buns and black jelly…”
When Lew was 12 years old a friend lured him over to Roncetti’s, which later became the Midtown. The Midtown was a typical, drab, old style pool room distinguished only by the class of players that gathered there. Lew was inspired by the likes of legendary George Chenier and Harvey Rothwell and by the time Times Square Billiards opened in the early 60’s, Lew’s game was ready to be tested. He met players like the roadwise Paul Thornley, who after his self-imposed sabbatical, was coming back to the game and looking for ways of keeping himself both sol vent and amused.
“Thornley used to lay awake at nights looking for ways to gaff people” says Lew, laughing and shaking his head in disbelief. “He used to take me off on the most ridiculous gaff bets. It was a joke! He would bet me that I could not make a ball sitting right over the pocket 50 times in a row without missing. Sure enough, my 48th shot, I’d miss.
He drove me crazy. One day he bet me that he could shot a ball off the table, hit the wall, run the length of the room and eventually carom a snooker ball placed on the floor in the corner of the room. Of course he did it. r think sometimes it was worth paying the money just to see his crazy shot.”
Le Spot
Le Spot

Lew lay awake at nights with his own ideas. Surely there had to be people just like him, who had a love for the game and for the players, but not necessarily the environment. Surely there could be a place that wasn’t grimy and redolent of smoke and cheap cleaning solution; that could offer something more palatable that microwave cheese burgers and Joe Lewis; that had descent washrooms and some sense of style. On his way home from the downtown rooms, Lew would pass by a place for an unoccupied space on Sheppard Ave. “I kept thinking how perfect this place would be.”
In 1978, Lew opened Le Spot Billiards and hired Cliff Thorburn who was two years away from winning the World Professional Snooker Championships, as his resident house pro. Le Spot quickly became, Le Spot to be. It boasted a comfortable restaurant bar to complement the playing area and offered what would become the legendary Monday night, 6 red handicap snooker tournaments that ran for 7 years never missing a night. Le Spot was a magnet that attracted top players from New York, Buffalo and Los Angeles. The Americans all agreed, that it was the nicest room that they had ever gone broke in.
Gene Lew with Cliff Thorburn
Gene Lew with Cliff Thorburn

There was only one draw back – Le Spot had a clock with no hands – Bowling alleys, according to the law, were a family-oriented business and allowed to remain open for 24 hours. Legally, billiard halls, were required to close down at 1:00 am. For eight years, Lew kept his room open all night, eventually attracting a fate slightly worse than death – The Toronto Metropolitan Licensing Commission!
With 40 Summons and the odd charge laid, most room owners would have gladly groaned under the weight of the inconvenience and conceded. Not Lew. Fully aware that the existing by-law was a breach of logic, Lew accepted the challenge. He began lobbying and sending letters to the Metropolitan Toronto Council’s Legislative and Licensing Committee whose understanding it was that only criminals and shady characters frequented poolrooms. He attended meetings in all six municipalities: Scarborough, East York, York, Etobicoke, North York and Toronto. He had to convince each municipality to says YES! to Metro Council in favour of allowing poolrooms in their areas to stay open for 24 hours.
It was an uphill battle, given a steeper incline by the Metropolitan Toronto Police. Just as Lew began making some headway, the Police sent notification to the Legislative and Licensing Committee – they disapproved of rooms remaining open because of too many problems. Allegedly, there had been 500 charges laid in “billiard halls” over
the year and comparatively very few in bowling alleys. Suddenly, Lew had all the credibility of an evangelist caught with a call girl.
Lew did some research only to discover that the Police, in their lofty report had called strip clubs, biker bars and any flea-bitten hole that owned a coin-op table a ”billiard hall”. The numbers decreased dramatically and Lew was able to continue accruing allies. He convinced enough of the council to vote in his favour and in 1985 the By-Law was amended. Rooms were put on trial for one year after which, problem-free, it became permanent.
In 1986, Lew sold Le Spot. A Hong Kong owner made him an offer he didn’t refuse. He signed a non-competition clause for 3 years, but he month after the agreement expired, Lew had his second room ready to go. In January, 1990 the first of 2 Blues and Cues opened. Twenty thousand square feet contained within four concrete walls and a floor, materialized into a breathtakingly beautiful club. It had more tables than any room had seen, 25 black lacquered pool tables with electric blue cloth and 9, tournament quality snooker tables. There was Honduras, mahogany and oak panelling, lush carpeting, custom lampshades over each table with the Blues and Cues logo perforated into galvanized metal. It was still a player’s room with attention paid to all of the necessary conditions such as; lighting, tables cloth, spacing between table, but with a character that could preach to the unconverted.
Legendary blues man Junior Wells launched the club and a full compliment of media, who generally approached billiards with an energetic apathy, attended and were genuinely delighted at how innovative, how different, how “cool” the place was.
Blues and CuesLight years ahead of its time, Blues and Cues rapidly set the trend to come – more American pocket billiards tables, Canadians had tried to emulate the British snooker scene for too long and with discouraging results. Lew had gained a great deal of insight from trying to promote snooker in Canada – no matter how hard he tried, on a mass scale, it just wouldn’t fly. He observed how frustrating the 6 x 12 tables could be for recreational players. Couples out on a date, would sink 3 balls through the course of the evening and leave dissatisfied, pool, owing to the smaller tables and larger pockets was allot more accessible, and accessibility was the key to changing the attitude towards the game.
As the pool room evolved into a club, Lew also recognized a need for increased amenities and embarked on his next ad venture – the antiquated liquor laws.
“If you had more than five billiard tables in any room, you couldn’t get the area licensed to serve alcohol.”  Once again, he began lobbying. He met with the chairman of the L.L.B.O.. A salvo of letters were directed towards their targets and in-1993, the liquor laws were amended to allow service in all main areas. What next, I ask vicariously” exhausted. Casino licensing. “I’ve already sent a letter to the local M..P.P. and the head of the gaming commission and the Mayor of Scarborough, whose going to say, Oh No, not Lew again.”
The gaming commission sanctions casino nights that run in hotels but excludes bars and restaurants and poolhalls to which Lew responds, “In addition to the main poolroom, I have a legitimate banquet facility in Blues and Cues, just like a hotel. There’s so much grey area and no clear guidelines.”
I stop Lew somewhere in this dizzying list of accomplishments and allow him to take a moments and reminisce. What was his proudest achievement? Lew stops and smiles. He has what must seem like two lives to review.” “Probably my proudest moment was the satisfaction of getting the by-law amended to allow rooms to stay open for 24 hours. When the Police were opposed, it all seemed like a lost cause. I ran into the Deputy Chief of Police who later congratulated me and admitted that I lobbied better than he did. What a tremendous feeling of achievement.”
But also, there is that fifty dollar bill that is framed in Lew’s office and hangs prominently beside the pictures of him with such luminaries as James Brown and Donna Summer. It’s signed Paul Thornley.”
Lew proudly recalls how after years of being gaffed by Paul Thornley he finally collected Paul’s cash. “I guess it’s the bulldog in me that doesn’t allow me to give up. I remember I was so proud, I made him sign it'”
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