Shuffleboard club revival reaches decade milestone

Founded by a group of determined volunteers, St. Pete Shuffle celebrates a decade of success.

click to enlarge Shuffleboard club revival reaches decade milestone - DANIEL VEINTIMILLA
Shuffleboard club revival reaches decade milestone

St. Pete Shuffle 10th Anniversary Party
Fri. April 10, 7-11 p.m., St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, 559 Mirror Lake Dr. N., St. Petersburg.

click to enlarge SHUFFLE SOUNDS: Accordionist Nick Boutwell will play at the 10th anniversary party. - ST. PETE SHUFFLE
SHUFFLE SOUNDS: Accordionist Nick Boutwell will play at the 10th anniversary party.
It’s a mild springtime Friday evening in downtown St. Petersburg, and the whoosh of multiple biscuits sliding down the green-painted planks of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club crescendos as more people come to play.

Twentysomethings, families and retirees gather every Friday evening at the Mirror Lake complex to participate in a sport that used to be strictly the realm of old folks. Children cavort on the lawn as shufflers compete on the courts. Inside the clubhouse, an Old Florida-style rec room houses a charming bamboo-framed floral sofa set, where teens gather to play chess and shoot pool.

The revival of the old-timey Florida pastime began 10 years ago this month with the emergence of the weekly event called St. Pete Shuffle. The club’s 72 playable shuffleboard courts on the northeastern edge of downtown St. Pete had been long neglected until an artist group called The Artillery, co-founded by Phillip Clark, saw an opportunity to bring life back to the picturesque, historic landmark by hosting art shows with bands on Friday nights.

click to enlarge COOL SWAG: Items for sale raise funds for the Shuffle. - DANIEL VEINTIMILLA
COOL SWAG: Items for sale raise funds for the Shuffle.
“We used to have bands to draw more people to the event,” recalls longtime volunteer and new St. Pete Shuffle president Carrie Waite. “Now we have too many players filling the courts to accommodate the bands.”

The history of the complex itself goes back more than 90 years ago to Connecticut jeweler Phineas T. Ives, who spearheaded efforts to bring shuffleboarding to St. Petersburg. He persuaded the city to build courts in Mirror Lake Park in 1923. A year later, six friends formed the St. Petersburg Mirror Lake Park Shuffleboard Club, and the first solely shuffleboard club in the world was born. It would become the largest of its kind, a major destination for shufflers with some 5,000 members during its peak years in the 1940s and ’50s. When interest in shuffleboard waned in the late 1960s and ’70s, the complex fell into disrepair. In 2009, the city helped restore it, spending $700,000 in repairs.

click to enlarge MEET MARKET: A vintage postcard touting the shuffleboard courts’ social side. - ST. PETE SHUFFLE
MEET MARKET: A vintage postcard touting the shuffleboard courts’ social side.

Other gaming clubs have gathered at the property over the years — the St. Petersburg Lawn Bowling Club, a chess club, and most recently, the St. Petersburg Bike Co-op have held court at the courts. This fall the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg will offer urban design classes in the club’s cue house.

In addition to shuffleboard nights, weddings, baby showers, and birthday party rentals take over the club each week. Recent events include the annual Tweed Ride, which drew a crowd of Roaring Twenties-costumed bike riders, despite an unusual late-February storm. Last November, Creative Loafing held its first Crafts & Drafts event at the club.

“After decades of decline, the past 10 years have been a steady growth,” said St. Pete Shuffle Executive Director Christine Page, who recently stepped down as president after serving six years. “I heard that by 2005 there were only 35 club members. Now we have 600 members. We’re open four days a week instead of just Friday nights. We have a weekly league night for club members with 140 players.”

click to enlarge GO TEAM: St. Pete Shuffle leaders past and present Jen Logan, Carrie Waite and Christine Page. - KIMBERLY YAU
GO TEAM: St. Pete Shuffle leaders past and present Jen Logan, Carrie Waite and Christine Page.
The founding St. Pete Shuffle group got the ball rolling, or rather the biscuit shuffling, quickly. “To start, the Friday nights didn’t require any money,” Page said, “but the group did need to get permission from then club president Mary Eldridge and the city. She was on board right away, realizing how this would attract new club members. Mary still shows up most Fridays to teach people how to play.”

St. Pete Shuffle Fridays are still a volunteer-driven effort, Page said. This week, the place is abuzz with preparations for the 10th Anniversary Party with music by accordionist Nick Boutwell and singer-songwriter Rebekah Pulley, and art by some of the artists who’ve been showing at Shuffle events over the past 10 years — Chad Mize and Clark (who designed the club’s first promo and recent anniversary ad illustration), Daniel Mrgan, Natty Moss Bond, Coralette Damme and several others.

“My favorite big event was the I Love St. Pete show in December 2005,” Page recounted. “It was the first large event organized after the Friday nights started. There was a chalk art contest on the worn-out courts — now restored! Rebekah Pulley played for the first time at the club that night. Eight hundred people came out for the art and music and shuffleboard. It was amazing.”

Founding member Chris Kelly recalled how shufflers came through for him in the early years when he walked around asking for contributions toward purchase of a new PA system. “I ended up in tears, because people were handing me $10, $20 and $50 bills. I was gobsmacked at how the community saw the event as their own, understood and supported what was possible.”

click to enlarge VISITING SHUFFLER: Laura Duch is used to paying up to $40 to play at the Brooklyn club. - DANIEL VEINTIMILLA
VISITING SHUFFLER: Laura Duch is used to paying up to $40 to play at the Brooklyn club.
Little did the St. Pete Shuffle founders know that they were going to influence entrepreneurs beyond state lines. Four years ago two Brooklynites in their early 40s — Jonathan Schnapp and Ashley Albert — visited Florida to judge a barbecue contest and made a point of visiting the St. Pete courts because they had fond memories of playing shuffleboard with their parents as children. “We were like, ‘Oh my God,’” Ms. Albert told The New York Times last year. “This the most magical place we’ve ever been to in our whole lives.” Inspired, the duo opened their own swanky version in Brooklyn, the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, a pristine venue with palm trees and food trucks that charges around $40 per hour.

During last Friday night’s Shuffle, New York visitor Laura Duch played the courts in a Mize-designed “Paris, London, Tokyo, St. Pete” shirt gifted from her sister. She mentioned that she’d frequented the Brooklyn club, and added, “I’m amazed that we get to do this for free.” 

Correction and clarification: CL did not include the names of all of the founding members of St. Pete Shuffle.  According to president Christine Page, the undertaking was a joint effort by Phillip Clark, Mary Eldridge, Chris Kelly, Kristy Knowles, and Chad Mize. Also, the club didn’t raise $100,000 for repairs. The city spent $700,000 on repairs in 2009.

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