.Westside Billiards’ Neon Lights

Restoring Old SJ One Sign at a Time

Last week, a huge party unfolded at Westside Billiards, proving the neon wilderness of San Carlos Street was alive and well.

Thanks to the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, 75 people packed the pool hall, devouring catered food and gobbling up raffle tickets for new collections of pins commemorating vintage San Jose signs. A ton of moola was raised to complete the restoration of the billiards sign out front. The paint and neon were already resurrected by Tom Colla and Kevin Chong.

The party was a raging success. Cal Foods at 28th and San Antonio provided delicious chili verde. Brandon Roos spun killer music, including “Hip Hug-Her” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, straight from the opening scene of Barfly—which was perfect, because certain pieces of midtown San Carlos Street, especially at nighttime, look straight outta Barfly, if you can just ignore all the ugly soulless condos now going up. 

Originally operated by Dick Mazza, Westside Billiards opened for business on May 14, 1953. That day, an ad in the San Jose Mercury described the joint as “San Jose’s newest relaxation spot for ladies and gentlemen.” 

A disclaimer then stated: “We have gone to considerable expense and traveled thousands of miles in bringing to YOU an ultra-modern club where you can relax and enjoy yourself in cool, congenial atmosphere…with the finest in equipment that money can buy.”

Featuring Brunswick billiard tables and fountains, West Side Billiards was set to “please the most fastidious.” The business included beer, magazines and a smoke shop, plus Pacific Coast Billiards Champion Jimmy Mills doing trick shots.

One year later, Mazza was busted for dope and eventually sold the building. A Merc story documented his arrest, along with his buddies, after marijuana and narcotics were found in their homes. 

By 1957, Mazza was bartending at the Trocadero at 288 S. Market. “Come in and say hello to your old friend…our new bartender Dick Mazza,” said the ad. The Trocadero was owned by John Dallas, who was mixed up in several bars at one moment or another, in particular, The Bears, one of the most notorious dives of all time, back when it was located at Alma and Almaden for about 50 years. In those days, every dive bar owner was only a few degrees of separation from every other dive bar owner. The gritty underbelly of San Jose was bustling. 

The regular downtown bustle was easy to research, as plenty of old photos revealed about 50 signs on every single block—yet another reason why the restoration of Westside Billiards was important. Last week, the place was all gussied up and the pool tables looked great.

As soon as I shuffled in, the current owners—George and Yvette Tsaboukos—showed me a button of Mazza himself playing pool at Westside Billiards. The history also included San Jose’s own Fast Eddie Pelkey, masterfully played by Paul Newman in the 1961 film, “The Hustler.” 

Ted Ramos, author of a book on San Jose gambling, then provided more history, via a rollicking slide show presentation on old-school card clubs, including one shot of Westside Billiards when the same neon sign included the words “card room” at the bottom, right where it now says “snooker.”

Ramos was not the only one to speak at the party. Heather David, who started the San Jose Signs project years ago, then gave her own slideshow, likewise documenting what much of the valley looked like when people still valued janky old buildings with character and before tasteless developers started smashing everything out of existence.

In the end, eating chili verde from Cal Foods with a plastic fork was sublime. The red salsa was sublime. The historical photos were sublime. Booker T. was sublime.

The only work left to be done on the neon sign was the starburst component and the eight ball, both of which remained unlit.

As the evening concluded, Brandon Roos continued spinning masterpieces and a huge raffle then commenced to raise money for the continued sign restoration. Raffle winners waltzed out with retro Stephen’s Meat Products t-shirts, a Manny’s Cellar placard and tons of pins and booklets. 

History is the future. All hail the neon wilderness.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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