Lou was a pool God. In the early 1970’s he ran through everybody. He played fast. He was charismatic. He was the 1973 World’s Straight Pool Champion. He ran 150 balls and out against Allen Hopkins in twenty-one minutes in that same year. Or was it against Frank Mcgown in 1969? Some say it was against Johnny Ervolino in New York City. Cheyenne Pete swore Lou did it to him at Paramount Billiards in Long Beach, California.
Pool existed then in the spoken word, in conflicting eye witness accounts, enthusiastic fabrications, in downright lies. All things were fugitive and posterity was a scrapbook your daughter made. Only fragments have come through. Lou and his generation of great players exist in lore. American men. Guys who fought in, or avoided fighting in, wars; guys who had jobs and brought up families; guys who needed extra cash and played jam up pool. They bloomed late. After them the beautiful game of straight pool died.
I knew Lou. He became a friend and mentor. As a teenage pool player I had two heroes. Lou was one.
In 1970 my Dad and I went to the World’s Straight Pool Championships at the fabled Elks Building, an Art Deco Masterpiece near Macarthur Park in downtown L.A. In the practice room we saw a man warming up. My Dad saw a bald man in a sharkskin suit, chatting and running balls. My Dad was a Cold War engineer. He designed missiles. He lived in Pomona and had bills to pay. He didn’t see the obvious. This Lou Butera was a magical being. Ball after ball. Rack after rack this creature, almost in passing, revealed to me the known laws of the physical world.
Maybe it was an optical trick of the lighting or the sheen from the sharkskin suit but I swear he was cloaked in an aura. We watched his match. He won. We went back the next day. On the way from our car to the Elk’s Building we stopped in at a grocery store for Cokes. In line behind us at the check out stand, with a bag full of groceries, was the magical being. As I pondered how it is that something other-worldly needed a sack of groceries, “Machine Gun” Lou Butera introduced himself to my Dad and asked me if I was a player (at that point a wildly optimistic word for what I was). I was too awed to respond.
I kinda never lost that around him. I learned much from this kind hearted, generous man. In a happy circumstance of owning a Pool Room I get to put myself next to him on our wall of beautiful portraits. As I still try to fathom this game I practice on Table 1, I look over at him and can’t help but smile.