History

The history of Rialto Poolroom

The United States experienced a “golden age” of pool halls in the early part of the 20th century. Portland, Oregon did not escape this craze. In June of 1918, on the corner of Park and Alder, the Rialto opened on the second floor of the building of the same name. The proprietor, J.J Parker, was “well known, and one of Portland’s most aggressive young businessmen,” and was described as having ”a rare sense of the retail possibilities of business property.” Parker had also established the Waldorf billiard hall in 1908 on SW Broadway and Washington.

The Rialto was designed as “a modern resort for gentlemen,” a lavish pool hall for Portland’s well-to-do to escape from their daily grind. With a marble stairway, a stenciled ceiling and Circassian walnut paneling, it was an opulent experience. Years later, a patron recalled that the old Rialto “was a place where businessmen would take three or four hours for lunch in the gentlemen’s club where you almost had to wear a tux.”

A 1918 advertisement proclaimed that, “The Rialto Billiard Parlors were built for every man in Portland who appreciates clean, high class games, where service to patrons is a business principle and everything possible is done for your convenience and comfort.” It was boasted that, “as an assembly of all that is most beautiful in woodwork, in decoration, in lighting, and in furnishing, it is doubtful if there is a Billiard Room equal to the Rialto anywhere in the United States.” The Oregonian conceded to the fact that the Rialto was the best-equipped billiard parlor in the country. “There is no question but what it will, in time, become a feature spot to be shown with pride to all who visit Portland.”

Customers at the Rialto would discover that “a full complement of the best brands of cigars, cigarettes and tobacco was to always be on hand,” and there was candy “available to those of sweeter inclination.” The lunch buffet was well regarded. The Rialto opened during Prohibition, so Henry Weinhard soft drinks, ices and other legal refreshments were available at the bar. Not that liquor was unavailable at the Rialto – several guests were arrested over the years, and gambling was always rife.

Amusements were Billiard, Pocket Billiard and English Billiard tables. The 10,000 square feet Rialto featured 12 standard billiard tables, 12 tables for pocket billiards, and four extra-large pocket billiard tables. Cork floors under the 28 tables provided a quieter environment for the players. There was space for over 600 spectators to observe the matches.

The Rialto quickly became a stop on the circuit for Northwest pool players, and hosted many championship matches. December of 1918 featured a bout between Seattle’s Ray Hogue and Portland’s favorite, Milo Condon. Famous cueists Welker Cochrane, Willie Hoppe and Charles Seaback of Astoria, New York all came to the Rialto to provide demonstrations. In November of 1921, Miss Frances Anderson, the world’s women’s billiard champion, displayed her “trick and fancy shots which drew applause from the large audience,” and was considered one of the cleverest seen in Portland. The centrality of the Rialto in the Portland pool scene continued for decades.

Years later, Bob Archer ran the Rialto. He was quite a cueist himself and was constantly placing high in the various competitions and tournaments hosted at his establishment. By the 1950s, Archer and the Rialto itself had become associated with organized crime and “on the take” city and county officials. The Rialto even played a role in the investigations conducted by the United States Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management (aka “the McClellan Committee”). The Rialto closed in the late 1950s.

In 1987, the Rialto came back on the scene, emerging as downtown’s “new billiard room,” at SW 4th and Alder. The name Rialto was chosen “in homage to Portland’s legendary pool room that opened in 1918.” Art McFadden, who had bought the Hotel Alder building in 1974, was the proprietor behind this parlor.

Ownership described this Rialto as “a classy, up-scale pool hall, not at all like the typical pool hall.” The new billiard hall was to harken back to the old Rialto. They said the pool hall “caters to an upper class of clientele. Primarily downtown business people who want a good place to eat and some entertainment but don’t want to go to bars. “ An early 1990’s business plan stated that, “The Rialto, incidentally, caters to a very high-class customer. Businessmen and women are more and more attracted to the game. No loitering, gambling or boisterous people are allowed. It is a very popular business in the neighborhood and is growing each year.”

However, when Art McFadden applied to get a liquor license at this location, two business associations and five neighboring businesses wrote to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission asking not to grant the license request. The main reason cited was the “criminal and disturbing behavior” associated with the Jack London Hotel, located above the Rialto (today’s Hotel Alder). The local businesses were concerned with the drug activity they had witnessed at the Jack London. Eventually the license was issued, and the Rialto became a premier Portland entertainment destination.

In 2011, General Manager Terry Robinett founded “The Jack London Bar” in a former off track betting room in the basement of the Rialto. The name paid homage to the author of White Fang, The Call of The Wild, and was also a hat tip to all of the residents of the former hotel above. The Jack London quickly became Portland’s favorite “art bar,” and offered eclectic live entertainment seven nights a week. In 2012, Playboy magazine named it as one of the best bars in America.

In December 2016, Art McFadden sold the Rialto to Frank Faillace and Manish Patel. After extensive remodeling (partially due to a small fire in the Hotel Alder), Portland’s storied billiard parlor was reopened in June 2017.

-Doug Kenck-Crispin

Resident Historian ORHistoy.com