Obituary: Luigi Umberto ‘Bert’ Demarco; ‘Godfather of snooker’ and founder of the Scottish Professional Snooker Association

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Born: 9 June, 1924, in Edinburgh. Died: 17 March, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 87.

The life of Bert Demarco, Scotland’s “godfather of snooker”, as even his own family called him, was a classic example of the way the sons and daughters of Italian immigrants not only integrated successfully into Scottish society but became prosperous leading citizens.

Blessed with a natural talent for that most British of games, snooker, Bert Demarco rose from relatively humble origins to become Scotland’s top player on the green baize and then made the transformation to being one of the country’s major leisure operators, with a series of venues that were much more than mere snooker halls.

Born Luigi Umberto but always known as Bert, Demarco was one of the many distinguished products of Holy Cross Academy in the port, others being arts impresario Richard Demarco – no relation – Sir Tom Farmer, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, and retired judge Lord John McCluskey.

Bert Demarco’s grandfather, Giuseppe Demarco, had immigrated to Scotland – he walked all the way – and his father Umberto Luigi was one of the original “ice cream barrow” men, who later gravitated to owning a cafe in Granton with a snooker parlour, the Jubilee, which opened in 1939.

Such establishments were off limits to children in those days, and indeed Bert did not play there officially until he was 18, though he could play on Sunday when the cafe was closed.

He rejoiced in telling the tale of how he learned to play snooker at the age of 12 while on vacation with cousins whose family owned a snooker room in Brechin – “and two of my teachers were girls and I had to stand on a box and use a short cue,” he would say delightedly.

The treatment of the Demarco family at the outbreak of the Second World War was common to many Italians, even those who, like Bert and his father, were born here. The family business was ransacked by anti-Italian demonstrators, and his father was interned, this despite Umberto Luigi Demarco having been a war hero with our then Allies, the Italians, in the First World War.

A certain Benito Mussolini was a corporal serving under Demarco senior, and Bert possessed a photograph of his father with the man who became Il Duce.

Umberto Demarco was soon released, while Bert volunteered for the RAF and served as a mechanic, driver and translator from 1942 to 1946 in Africa, Italy and Palestine, as it was then.

After his demob, Bert married his long-term sweetheart Maria Paoli, and the couple had three sons, Bert Jnr, Ramon and Don, who would later be part of the expanding family business. They married in 1947, the same year that Demarco was first “capped” as a Scotland snooker international, playing against England, Ireland and Wales.

In the late 1940s and 1950s through to the 1970s, Demarco’s prowess with a cue saw him win snooker and billiards championships galore, including the Scottish amateur snooker championship five times, his first win coming in 1950, and two further titles in the later Open era. He was also four times Scottish billiards champion and was seven times East of Scotland snooker champion.

In 1965, he won the Scottish championship again, ten years on from his previous victory. In both finals his opponent was Peter Spence of Cambuslang and his winning score of 6-1 was the same in both matches.

That victory brought an invitation to the world championship in Karachi, where future world professional champion, the late John Spencer, was one of his fellow contestants. At one stage Demarco was 3-1 up against Gary Owen, but the Englishman came back to win 6-3 and went on to win the title after beating Spencer.

The latter became a lifelong friend of Demarco, and Spencer used to enjoy telling the tale of how that happened after a joke was played on Demarco who was led to believe that the Karachi insect life was deadly, so that the Scot spent many hours slapping himself to kill imaginary threats. Demarco appreciated the joke, and there would be much humour over the years as he eventually turned professional in the 1970s and came up against the likes of Spencer, another friend Ray Reardon and Fred Davis, the brother of the legendary Joe. As late as 1983, Fred and Demarco were still competing against each other in tournaments.

By then Demarco, who had always run businesses such as taxi cabs and betting shops while playing snooker as an amateur, had opened, in 1975, his first snooker venue, the Angle Club in Morningside. This thrived as snooker became the biggest game around, due to the television coverage that made household names of Spencer, Reardon, and Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.

Though small by his later standards, the plush Angle Club demonstrated the shrewdness of Demarco who realised that snooker played in pleasant surroundings, rather than the smoky halls of old, would be a crowd pleaser.

So it proved, with two more Edinburgh venues, the Snooker and Squash Centre in Slateford Road, and his best-known establishment, Marco’s Leisure Centre in Grove Street, which once boasted more tables – around 65 – than any other snooker centre in Europe and was the first to have a non-smoking area.

With his sons working under his chairmanship, the family firm expanded to Glasgow, Livingston and Fort William as well as the Corn Exchange multi-sports and entertainment venue in Edinburgh, which features the World of Snooker hall.

Even as he was building his career and businesses, Demarco did a great deal of administrative and coaching work for snooker in Scotland.

He founded the Scottish Professional Snooker Association, and was honorary chairman of the East of Scotland Snooker Association for 25 years. He coached many Scots, including the young Stephen Hendry, and was also a tournament organiser and even a referee.

Demarco was also a patriot. For a newspaper profile he was once asked the favourite country he had visited, and he replied unhesitatingly: “Scotland.”

He also gave generously of his time and money to charity, and when Marco’s in Grove Street closed three years ago, he donated the snooker tables to local schools.

His death at the age of 87 after a stroke has left his family bereft, but they can be proud that Demarco made his mark on his native city and the land he loved.

Bert Demarco was predeceased by his wife Maria, but is survived by his elder sister Yolanda, his three sons, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

His funeral will take place at 11am on Tuesday 27 March, at St Kentigern’s RC Church, Parkgrove Avenue in Edinburgh.