ST. PETERSBURG — There’s the guy cradling a tower of pizza boxes, trying to find his friend who brought the beer among a sea of concrete courts. A mom teaching her daughter how to hold a cue and a sweaty couple on their first date Googling “how to play shuffleboard.” A whole gaggle of competitive regulars speaking a language all their own: knocking biscuits (discs) into the kitchen (an area where 10 points are deducted) with tangs (the big sticks).
This is the scene during a typical Friday night at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, which turns 100 in January. When the festivities kick off with the 40th World Shuffleboard Championship later this month, there will be a lot to celebrate.
Shuffleboard itself has been as much of a St. Pete symbol as pelicans and sunshine. The green and white outdoor club on the edge of Mirror Lake, which touts itself as the world’s largest and oldest, is a big part of the reason why.
But the fact that the activity feels cool and youthful here — shocking travel writers from The Washington Post to National Geographic — is no accident. When the club almost collapsed in the 1990s, its president embarked on a mission to welcome the community in. That led to a shuffleboard renaissance in St. Pete.
Here’s how shuffleboard started here — and survived.
The first versions of shuffleboard stretch back to a tabletop game played with coins in 15th century Europe.
“The story goes that it was so popular in England that King Henry VIII banned it,” a St. Petersburg Times writer noted in the 1990s. “Because he was worried his warriors were spending too much time ‘shovel-boarding’ and not enough perfecting their archery skills.”
Outdoor shuffleboard — different from the tabletop version — appeared later as a deck game on cruise ships. In 1913, it was first documented on land at the Lyndhurst Hotel in Daytona Beach.
The sport came to St. Pete in the early 1920s, when Connecticut jeweler Phineas T. Ives visited and urged the city to build two courts. Shortly after that, the St. Petersburg Mirror Lake Shuffleboard Club was officially created in January 1924. Annual dues cost 25 cents.
There were only six members when the club was founded, but several hundred joined by the end of the first season, said executive director Christine Page during a history talk this summer. The club added more courts, eventually peaking at over 110. Membership quickly started to multiply.
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In the early 1900s, St. Petersburg was known as a “health city,” a sleepy town where the sick and elderly would go to convalesce in the sun. Then the city hired its first public relations guru, John Lodwick, to transform its reputation into a “sunny playground.”
“Lodwick devised a plan to make St. Petersburg the headquarters for a myriad of sports competitions,” wrote historian Nevin Sitler in his thesis, Selling St. Petersburg: John Lodwick and the promotion of a Florida paradise. “Tossing a tag line of ‘World Championship’ on activities such as shuffleboard, horseshoes, chess, and lawn bowling, the city appeared in sports and society pages in newspapers nationwide.”
As more tourists flocked to try their hand at shuffleboard, other venues added courts of their own. But the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club remained the largest — and the place where history was made.
In 1928, the Florida Shuffleboard Association was formed at the St. Pete club, and game rules were standardized. The association also determined court dimensions: 52 feet long, 39 feet from baseline to baseline, 6 feet wide. The National Shuffleboard Association later was created at the club in the early 1930s and started to host competitions there.
As more tourists and snowbirds fell in love with the game during their travels to St. Petersburg, they started to spread the news back home. It prompted a wave of new courts and clubs to be built across the country.
“We are the most important place in the world for shuffleboard,” Page said.
A shuffling sensation
Membership dipped during World War II, but picked back up in the late 1940s and ’50s, peaking at over 8,500 during the 1946-1947 season. The St. Petersburg Times even had a writer dedicated to covering local shuffleboard happenings.
Some folks moved to town just to be near the bustling atmosphere. Next door was the lawn bowling club. Across the street, folks danced to big-band performances at the Coliseum.
The shuffleboard club also offered pool, cards, bingo and dances of its own. And as one woman told the Times back then, it was as respectable a place to find a husband as church.
“In the club’s two ballrooms, the rustle of crinoline and the smell of sweet perfume would fill the air as couples crowded the floor every Saturday and Tuesday night,” one St. Petersburg Times reporter wrote.
Outside, folks waited in long lines as security guards scanned the courts, making sure no one sneaked in an extra game. According to the Times archive, players were limited to three games in a row.
By the early 1970s, there would come a proposal to use the property as a parking lot and move the club, but that never came to pass. The International Shuffleboard Association was formed at the club in 1979. In the mid-1980s, Ron Howard used the courts as a filming location for his film “Cocoon.”
The city designated the club (including the courts and buildings) as a historic landmark in 1994. But by that point, club membership had plummeted. More condominiums and mobile home parks had started offering onsite courts to residents for free use.
When a Miami Herald reporter traveled to the club in the early ‘90s to check out its National Shuffleboard Hall of Fame, he encountered just a handful of the 200 or so members — “all elderly.”
“Send us more players,” one begged him. “Young ones.”
A retro revival
After Mary Eldridge took over as club president in the late ’90s, she put a sign on her desk that said: “Evolve or dissolve.”
The shuffleboard champion, who moved to St. Pete as a young woman just to join the club in 1965, was determined to save the landmark.
“There may be 8 billion people in the world,” she would say, ”but we will spread shuffleboard one person at a time.”
Eldridge tried several things over the years, but the initiative that stuck came in 2005. That’s when historic preservation advocate Chris Kelly submitted the idea to open the club for free play on Friday nights. Kelly and Eldridge teamed up with a local artists collective called the Artillery, led by Phillip Clark and Chad Mize.
Every Friday night, someone would plug in their iPod to blast Lou Reed or Arcade Fire. Others brought their own beer. Suddenly, there would be a party going.
“It’s like, kitschy beyond kitschy. It’s uber-kitsch,” Clark told the Times in 2005. “It’s this weird, seemingly old person’s sport. But it’s just dying to have someone come in and freshen it up.”
The tradition gained a steady following among the city’s 20- and 30-somethings. The Artillery hosted art shows and live bands on the courts — until it became too crowded with all of the people who showed up to play.
Many became members or volunteered to help paint and clean things up. The popularity led to an infusion of funds for more repairs and a wave of positive national press.
As a 2017 article published by The Ringer put it, “shuffleboard is cool now.”
Today, the club has over 2,600 members and still draws a steady crowd on Friday nights (although it now costs $10 for nonmembers to play). The property has become a popular venue for weddings, baby showers and engagement photo shoots.
Just as tourists brought the sport back home nearly a century ago, history repeated itself.
New Yorker Jonathan Schnapp grew up playing shuffleboard with his grandparents at their West Palm retirement community. When he visited St. Pete’s club on a Friday night in 2011, he was instantly transported back in time.
He decided to open a shuffleboard spot in Brooklyn with business partner Ashley Albert — not just a gimmick, but a real club like St. Pete’s.
“Everybody who comes to our club gets a lesson on the play, and no one walks on the court,” said Schnapp. “We’re playing the game for real. ... We’re not just hipsters getting drunk, pretending like we’re doing something ironic.”
The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club now has locations in Brooklyn and Chicago’s trendy Wicker Park neighborhood, decked out with light-up palm trees and felt pennants advertising vintage Florida tourist traps. The name is inspired by Schnapp’s holidays with his grandparents, with a heavy dose of Pinellas County charm.
“Whenever anybody from St. Pete comes, they’re a VIP at our place,” he said. “We’ve got a drink named after Christine Page, and the Mirror Lake pina colada.”
Schnapp will be back at in St. Pete soon for the last full week of October. That’s when the International Shuffleboard Association will host its annual tournament at the St. Pete Shuffleboard Club for the first time in a decade. The finale party on Friday, Oct. 27, doubles as a kickoff for the club’s centennial celebration.
“It really is focused on the global community, even more so than who’s winning. There’s no prize money,” he said. “I mean, everybody would love to win, but this is really about the love of the game and, in this case, a celebration of the Mirror Lake club.”
If you go
The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club is at 559 Mirror Lake Drive N., St. Petersburg. Annual memberships cost $50 for individuals and $90 for families and include free shuffleboard, members-only events, discounts on merchandise and the ability to rent the club. For more information, visit stpeteshuffle.com.
Daily access for members runs from 5 a.m. to midnight. Open hours (free to members and kids, $10 for nonmembers) are 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7 to 10 p.m. Fridays and 9 a.m. to noon Sundays.
The International Shuffleboard Association’s 40th World Championship takes place from Oct. 22 to 27. Competitors hail from Austria, Brazil, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. The tournament concludes with a free party from 7 to 10 p.m. on Oct. 27, featuring cake, a DJ and galactic shuffleboard. For a full schedule, visit 2023-isa-championship.com/schedule.html.
Information from Times archives was used in this report.