There was a time when walking into a pool hall or pool room, as they were called, was frowned upon and possibly fraught with trouble. Parents, especially, warned their teenage sons to stay away, which often would only push them closer to the front door.

In the Broadway production of "The Music Man," a line from a song described a pool hall as "a gateway to laziness, gambling, smoking and philandering." Today, are all of those vices are still applicable? At least not all under the same roof.

Every town or community had one or two of these places. And every one of those places had their share of personalities that owned their own cue sticks and welcomed any action.

In North Charleston, Tucker's was the place most good players would congregate. In downtown Charleston, Laurie's offered that perfect ambiance of fluorescent lights above a green-felted table that took on an unfiltered haze courtesy of the Camels and Lucky Strikes.

Movies such as "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money" lionized that time and place. The players, with nicknames including Minnesota Fats, Fast Eddie and Cue Ball Kelly, also added to the history and mystery of it all. Minnesota Fats' real name was Rudolf Wanderone and his tombstone says simply, "St. Peter, rack 'em up."

Call your pocket

There still are places to shoot pool, but the conditions are decidedly different. In most of these places, there's no smoke. Smokers still shoot pool, but the smoking is done outside.

At Players Place in West Ashley, men and women gather to shoot on teams and play in leagues four nights a week.

There are players from all backgrounds, job descriptions, ages and skill levels: accountants, mechanics, lawyers, retired military, construction workers, teachers, chefs, carpet installers, surfers, weight lifters, private investigators, office workers, shooters in wheelchairs, computer repairmen and one newspaper columnist.

There are 25 tables, a friendly wait staff and a couple of huge TVs. Music does not come from a jukebox but via satellite radio.

Behind the eight ball

Last year, 35 million people played pool across the country. Most of them played in leagues, just like those at Players Place. Today, these places are more likely to be called billiard parlors. Calling it a pool room sounds too crass, and plus, they're not mere rooms.

The largest in the country is in Virginia Beach. It's called Q-Master and encompasses 25,000 square feet and 70 tables. Mr. Cue in Atlanta bills itself as the busiest in the nation. It also enforces a dress code that says no tank tops, bandanas and sagging pants.

How do you not like those house rules?

Time was, a pool room hot dog was the menu mainstay. Today, offerings from the kitchen include wings, pizza, nachos or even char-grilled chicken salad.

Adult beverages also are available. Some players make shots, others drink 'em.

While a few of the personalities have disappeared, there are still characters just a bank shot away. Most are there for the competition and the camaraderie and there's an abundance of both.

Some of the romance of those old pool rooms is gone. But many of the sounds are still there: the crack of the cue ball on a tight rack, the squeak of the chalk on the cue tip, the laughter along with the moans and groans when a ball that should've dropped doesn't.

The game still requires a sharp eye, a steady hand and an air of confidence to make a shot. If there's pool in the afterlife, maybe Minnesota Fats' epitaph still succinctly echoes all shooters' sentiments by declaring "St. Peter, rack 'em up!"

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com