Every feature article about the historic St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club reads the same: It’s Friday night. Young people guzzle beers, bob their heads to upbeat music, and flirt with the attractive stranger next to them. No, they’re not at a bar or club; they’re at a shuffleboard club in St. Petersburg, Florida, a city long associated with retirees. Wait, what? Yep, the game typically associated with octogenarians has experienced a rebirth…
And it’s true, the club attracts a younger crowd when it opens its doors for free play on Fridays from 7 to 11 (young families and the middle-aged were also well represented when I last visited earlier this month). But the club is more than just a singles joint.
Formed on January 24, 1924, the St. Pete Shuffleboard Club bills itself as the largest in the world. It has 65 courts–32 of which are under the vintage light fixtures–and seven structures that date from 1927 to 1948. A 1994 USA Today article called it the Yankee Stadium of shuffleboard courts. Scenes from the movie “Cocoon” were shot there.
The club’s membership eclipsed 8,000 shortly after World War II. But over time shuffleboard’s popularity plummeted; the club had only about 100 members by 2005 and was at risk of closure. By then, St. Petersburg no longer wanted to be known as just a retirement haven and sought to attract a younger, creative class of people. The city-owned shuffleboard complex, on the other hand, was a dilapidated reminder of St. Pete’s image as death’s waiting room.
Ironically, it was a group of the very people St. Pete sought to lure who took an interest in the shuffleboard club. In spring 2005, the group of young artists, known as the Artillery, took up the game. For this crowd, shuffleboard fit into their nonconformist lifestyle in the same way they took a liking to PBR beer, cutoff jean shorts, and Gilded Age-era facial hair. But more than that, shuffleboard proved to be a fun way to socialize. They joined preservationists to play Friday night games in spring 2005, known as St. Pete Shuffle. Each week, they attracted more and more people to the courts. The New York Times even wrote about the phenomenon. Because of the attention, in 2008 the club received $150,000 in sorely needed repairs.
Crowds continue to pack the courts Friday nights for St. Pete Shuffle, and the club is here to stay. Last year, it launched a kids league, and it hosts a variety of non-shuffleboard events. People have even gotten married there. Despite its popularity, in 2011 the St. Petersburg City Council considered a $1.4 million proposal to turn the cue house/clubhouse into a bar/restaurant. Club members and other residents successfully rallied against it; they didn’t want the club’s historic ambiance ruined and their Friday night games put at risk.
Communities often spend a lot of money, time, and effort to distinguish themselves. But many times they need only to look to the past for the attributes that make them unique. St. Petersburg realized this recently when its historic shuffleboard club was dusted off. The city didn’t need to launch a public art campaign or construct a brand new downtown pier (ahem) to set themselves apart. They simply needed the right group of people to recognize the club’s value as a municipal focal point unlike any other in the world.