Shuffleboard and St. Petersburg go together like peas and carrots. Though the game’s origins date back to the 13th century (when it was called Shove Board or Shovel Board), and it arrived in Florida via Daytona (where the first court was painted on a sidewalk in front of a riverfront hotel) no city is more identified with the game than St. Petersburg.
It’s here that the rules of shuffleboard were standardized in 1928. Here you’ll find the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame. And if you’ve ever wondered what to call that line that runs up the middle of a shuffleboard court, look no further than St. Pete’s own main drag: players worldwide call that line Central Avenue.
A Club’s Historic Milestone
Last night the symbiosis of shuffleboard and St. Petersburg celebrated a tremendous milestone: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, officially organized on January 24, 2024. The club toasted its birthday with champagne, cake, and speeches from City officials, club members, and the club’s Executive Director, Christine Page.
City Council member Gina Driscoll kicked things off by noting what a special place the Shuffleboard Club is. “It’s not about the building, or the courts, or the tournaments. It’s about the people, the community, and the relationships.” She added that “there aren’t a lot of places left in our city that are 100 years old!”
And she’s right.
The Club’s Rich Heritage and Evolution
It all started with a Connecticut jeweler with a name straight out of a Dickens novel: Phineas T. Ives. Having played shuffleboard on Florida’s east coast, he encouraged the City of St. Petersburg to build courts here, and the first two appeared in September 1923 in front of the current location of the Shuffleboard Club on Mirror Lake. By January, the game was so popular that six charter members organized the St. Petersburg Mirror Lake Park Shuffleboard Club, the first of its kind in the world (and eventually the largest!) They changed their name to the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club in 1932.
The game was enjoyed equally by men and women; it was said that you never heard of a “shuffleboard widow” because if the husband joined, the wife did too. The club grew rapidly, and in 1927 the City built a clubhouse, which was expanded twice to accommodate the club’s increasing membership, which reached 5,066 members in 1938. At that time the club featured 103 courts (they eventually peaked at 110.) In addition to accommodating its regular members, the club issued 8,000 daily playing privileges to non-members in a single year.
Facing Challenges and Embracing Change
Membership rose and fell in the decades after World War II, and the club’s facilities began to show their age. There was even a proposal that the city move the club in 1972 to create parking lots that could ease congestion around the government buildings on Mirror Lake (One indignant shuffleboard player told City Council that the idea made as much sense as the little boy who said “Father, father, get the hammer! There’s a fly on baby’s head.” An amused Council agreed, and never moved the Club.)
In what could be seen as an allegory for the Shuffleboard Club’s history, the 1985 movie Cocoon, about a group of aging retirees in St. Petersburg who are promised eternal youth by space aliens, used the courts as a movie set. By 2005 the club’s membership was at a nadir.
Revival Through Art and Community
The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club’s salvation came not from space aliens, but like so many other great things in St. Petersburg – from artists and preservationists, a group of whom banded together in 2005 to revive the sport. But they couldn’t have done it without the help of longtime member Mary Eldridge, who was serving as the President of the Shuffleboard Club after the previous president died at the age of 89. She had been working to hold the club together, but knew it needed an infusion; most of the handful of remaining members were in their 80s.
When asked at the anniversary event about her role in reviving the moribund club, Mary Eldridge said “I did whatever I thought we had to do in order to wait until the future came, because we had to have a new future. And it came!” she added with a grin. “And we opened the door and said, come on in!”
Eldridge is a link to the club’s past as well as its present and future. She first joined the club in 1965, coming to Florida from Upstate NY. After spending some time playing shuffleboard in Sebring, she heard that “anyone who wants to be any kind of a player has to go to St. Pete, so I came right over here and I saw the club and I was shocked by the number of courts and everything, and all the top players were here!”
After winning pretty much every shuffleboard title there was, she left for a few years to go to school, and when she returned in 1991 she was shocked by what she found. “When I left in 1976 the Club’s membership was 3,000. When I came back it was less than 1,000, maybe even less than 500. It was nothing like it had been. We still had a lot of state tournaments here, but we didn’t have the membership to support all that anymore.”
St. Pete Shuffle: A Community Renaissance
And then one day in 2005 a man named Chris Kelly walked in with his wife and two children and asked Mary if she minded if they played a bit. After having a good time with his family, Kelly said “you know, we’d like to try something here.” And a prescient Mary responded with “We were waiting for someone to come. We were waiting for the future to come here.”
And so they started the free Friday night games that came to be known as St. Pete Shuffle. There were 28 players on that first Friday night in the spring of 2005, and the event grew from there. The club focused on being welcoming, helping players learn, and making sure that everyone was enjoying themselves. After a few years, the Club was being celebrated in the media and imitated in cities around the country.
They now have several staff members, 150 private rental events a year, and the beloved Tweed Ride, sponsored by longtime members Tara and Doug Dozark of Cycle Brewing (who love the club so much they held their 2011 wedding here.) When asked what the club meant to them Tara responded “This place makes St. Pete special.” Doug agreed, “No one else has a historic shuffleboard club. Too many cities have the same generic features, but we have something special here.”
A Legacy for Future Generations
Before the champagne was popped and the cake cut at the anniversary event, Executive Director Christine Page reflected upon a visit several years ago from her 8-year-old cousin, Asher, who was captivated by the Shuffleboard Club. He asked Christine for the name of someone who had played here long ago, and Christine thought of a man named Henry Peterson, the club president in the early 1930s. Asher asked, “Do you think Henry’s watching over us?” And then Asher answered his own question: “I think he is. And I think he’s happy.”
Christine said she thinks of Asher’s comment often: “When the club is full of people and you can hear the laughter, and the discs, and the music, and everything. I think of it also when I’m by myself and it’s quiet and you can really feel the history. And I agree with Asher. I think the people who started this club would be really thrilled to see the club today. And to know that it’s actually being used in exactly the same way that it was started. Whether you are a competitive shuffleboard player, a recreational player, you just bring your family here for fun, or you come for social gatherings and parties….that’s exactly the way the club was founded and we’re still doing that today and I think that’s very special.”
Members in 2124 may one day wonder if Christine Page is looking down upon them as they dig up the time capsule that was buried at last night’s event. Featuring membership rosters, photos, and club memorabilia, along with lists of current top ten hits and bestsellers, the capsule will provide future shufflers a glimpse into a unique and enduring tradition that is as beloved in 2024 as it was in 1924.