In The Groove: Young People Fuel Resurgence At Downtown St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Courts

It's a balmy Friday evening and the courts are filling up as the music kicks on and college kids, families and young couples grab their cue sticks for a little friendly competition under the stars at the newly reinvented St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club.

Wait a minute – shuffleboard?  It's true.  This classic Florida game, once thought of as something restricted to the over 80, geriatric set, is experiencing a resurgence, at least here, at this historic landmark across from Mirror Lake in downtown St. Petersburg.  It's a vintage game that is slowly gaining converts among a whole new generation.

"It's fun, affordable, family friendly and easy to get hooked," says Christine Paige, a 39-year-old web developer and the club's current president. Friday evening games are free and open to the public from 7-11 p.m. Reservations are not required; just show up.  

In the background you can hear the distinctive sounds of the game – the swoosh as the clay discs go flying down the court and the sharp clink as you knock your opponents discs off the playing field. "The secret to winning is in the long strokes," says 25-year-old Alicia King, here with her husband Robert, a new graduate of Stetson Law School.  

For those who have never played the game, as well as those who might need a refresher, members are always on hand to demonstrate the strategy and explain the rules – basically the first team to score 75 points wins.  Teams of two to four people compete against each other using six-foot-long cue sticks with a hook on the end. The cue sticks are used to "shuffle" discs that look like small hockey pucks down a 52-foot concrete court. You have to stay within the lines and out of the kitchen, an area at the end of the court that will guarantee you a minus score.

At its heyday in the decades from the late 1920s to1960s, the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club had some 5,000 members. There were 110 courts and the adjacent covered stadium was packed with crowds watching weekly tournaments. The club was billed as the world's largest.  

"St. Pete was the original mother club, organized in 1924," says Mary Eldridge, a past president of the club. "We've been in continuous play here for 85 years."  

There was a time when the club was the center of the community with people spending all day dancing and playing games, from cards, chess and pool to lawn bowling and shuffleboard. All that ended in the late 1960s, as people moved out to the suburbs, lifestyles changed and shuffleboard went out of style.  

Over the ensuing years, membership in the St. Pete club dwindled. The distinctive rambling old clubhouse, a classic art deco Mediterranean building, began showing serious wear and tear. There was talk of tearing it down. Even so, the club continued to have a small, but fierce band of loyal followers. "Not a lot of people knew we were here," says Eldridge. "We were just under the radar screen."

Lining Up To Play

About five years ago, there was a revival of interest in the game and the historic landmark building, says Paige. As the fan base grew, especially among young professionals, the city decided to approve funding to fix the deteriorating club house, and to redo the courts, upgrade the lighting and repair the roof on the stadium.

Today the building's facelift has been completed and there are now a total of 73 courts, 40 of them lighted for evening play. Inside, groups of friends can play pool, chess and ping pong. A retro-looking 60s-era living room set, the kind with curved bamboo arms and flowered seat cushions, is pulled up in front of an outstanding stone fireplace.

Outside, plenty of courts were still available on a recent visit, but the evening was early.  "Just wait," says Paige. "Some nights every court is filled and we have people waiting to get on."

Earlier in the day, Heather Malcomb and Vicky Hart had texted their friend Heather Spink and invited her to join them for a game. "Are you serious, shuffleboard?" Spink texted back. Somehow Malcomb and Hart convinced her to give it a try.

Finding Your Groove

"I came here a couple of months ago for the first time," says Malcomb. "I was shocked to see how many young people were here.  The place was hopping." The three are now immersed in the game.  "It's deceptively harder than it looks," says Malcomb. "You have to find your groove."

While the public can only play on Friday evenings, members can play any day of the week they want. Membership is a bargain – just $20 a year for individuals and $40 for a family. Members get a key to the club house and can compete in club, state and national tournaments.

Interest in competition is growing, says Paige. In fact, the club is hosting Shuffleboard Tournament Boot Camp this summer.  It's free for members and $10 for non-members.

Janan Talafer is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer with a passion for swing dancing, tropical gardening and collecting shells.  She shares a home office with her faithful cat Milo and dog Bear. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.