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Shuffleboard courts are unlikely St. Pete hot spot

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 02:32 AM

At twilight on a breezy Friday with a hint of impending rain in the air, people begin arriving at the shuffleboard courts in downtown St. Petersburg.

The lights come on, and a mix of soft rock, pop and folk music flows from speakers posted around the 70-plus courts, home to the "World's Largest and Longest Running Shuffleboard Club."

Grabbing up cue sticks and discs are families with rambunctious kids, fresh-faced members of a church youth group, college-age daters and middle-aged double daters, a social club from a condo association and some senior-age friends and neighbors.

They come for the "Free Friday Night Shuffle."

Several bring coolers containing beer or wine. One lady clutches her pet Chihuahua in one hand and a shuffleboard stick in the other. Picnic fixings are spread on nearby tables.

This 88-year-old city-owned clubhouse and courts on Mirror Lake Drive has a 1960s retro feel to them. The place has another claim to fame: it was a backdrop for some scenes in the 1985 feel-good movie "Cocoon."

But this is not your grandfather's, or great-grandfather's shuffleboard experience.

The classic sport that has long symbolized a Florida pastime for retirees in their golden years has become a cool, fun thing to do here.

On this night, Bob Banker, 58, and his son Alec, 8, are in their sixth week of friendly Friday night competitions. "He's gotten better each time, so now he beats me," said Banker.

"We come here often, because at my age there's not a lot we can do together," he adds.

Admission and equipment are free. It's open to everyone from 7 to 11 p.m. Typically, 100 to 150 people turn out, said Christine Paige, president of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club.

"This is one of the few places where you can come on a Friday night and see an intergenerational mix of people having fun together," said Paige.

A band plays live music on the first Friday of each month from October through May.

As the night goes on, the courts fill with more dating couples and singles sharing some friendly competition. The rest of week, the courts are used by club members only. Membership is a just $20 a year for individuals and $40 for a family.

"I think the Friday night shuffle has done a lot to knock the stereotyped image of shuffleboard and show that it can be for everybody," Paige said.

Dating to the 1920s, the club has had as many as 5,000 members. It's down to 200. It is the home to state, regional and national tournaments. The free Friday Shuffle is in its seventh year.

Last year, the St. Petersburg City Council considered a proposal to invest $1.4 million to turn the clubhouse into a restaurant and the cue house into a bar, but the community rallied against it.

Even though many people in the St. Petersburg area know about the free Fridays, newcomers show up each week.

"Our friends told us about this, and we thought it would be something our four boys would like," said Shalisa Schiavello as she attempted to corral Tyler, Carson, Cooper and Jason (ages 3 to 11) and get them to select sticks.

"I haven't played shuffleboard since I was a kid," said Steven Schiavello. "It's one of those games that has been forgotten about. It's easy to learn, and you can be competitive."

Jim Gee, president of the Coquina Key Neighborhood Association, had rounded up about 20 residents of the condominium for a first-time outing. "We're expecting about eight couples, and if works out we might come back again," he said.

Paige and other members of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club are there to help first-timers with the rules of play.

The first team to score 75 points wins. Teams of two to four people compete against each other using six-foot-long cue sticks used to "shuffle" discs down a 52-foot concrete court. Scoring involves landing inside the lines of a large triangle.

"It was easy to pick up on, and it's fun to play with a group," said Kristin Nesslar, 18, who was there with a 20-member church group from Largo.

"We love that it's free, so we come here with friends," said Jed Mootsey, a 24-year-old photographer from St. Petersburg, who was on a date night with his wife Bethany.