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Shuffleboard Shoved Aside for Art's Sake

Land use: In sign of game's fading popularity, Laguna Beach's public courts will be replaced by sculpture garden.

November 13, 1998|BONNIE HARRIS HAYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The shuffleboard courts perched above the Pacific Ocean--once pristine and popular, their emerald surfaces as slick as a freshly waxed floor--have buckled and sprouted weeds. There are no waiting lists to play anymore, or crowds of curious spectators squeezed onto metal benches underneath the palm trees.

Only four people, four stubborn shuffleboard buffs who have sent disks floating across the Laguna Beach courts for 30 years, still use the facility at Heisler Park on a regular basis--every Saturday to be exact. They faithfully tend to its maintenance, as much as a quartet of senior citizens can, anyway.

"It's been part of our lives for so long, playing this game," said Willis Leach, 83, who lives on nearby Jasmine Street and takes a stroll to the courts almost every morning, just to look out on the ocean and remember the exact day he held a shuffleboard cue for the very first time, in that very same spot, and fell in love with a game that no longer draws the impassioned interest it once did among senior citizens.

This week, the Laguna Beach City Council voted unanimously to spend $100,000 to remove all eight of the 45-year-old courts and replace them with a grassy park and sculpture garden. The move comes after years of trying--and failing--to entice more players to the shuffleboard site, proof, some say, of a change in the recreational preferences of today's more active older adults.

"It's dying, is what it is," Leach said of the sport that once boasted 20,000 registered club members statewide but now barely claims 4,000. "It's dying and all the courts are dying right along with it. I'm dying too."

There have been closures elsewhere, including San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Long Beach and La Jolla in San Diego County. The gradual disappearance of public shuffleboard courts is occurring nationwide, according to the officers of various state and national clubs.

Of course, the sport that has typically drawn in older Americans is still hot in many retirement communities. Leisure World in Laguna Hills and Seal Beach, for example, have hundreds of die-hard players who host national tournaments each year. But shuffleboard is increasingly losing out to a host of other competing interests available to senior citizens.

"Seniors are busier and more active than ever these days," said Johnny Blum, president of the American Shuffleboard Assn. "They are involved in a whole slew of other activities. Their social lives don't revolve around the shuffleboard court anymore."

In Laguna Beach, interest in the game dropped precipitously in the 1980s and has continued to fall ever since. City officials said they want to make better use of the Heisler Park property by opening it up for all residents to enjoy.

"Things change," said Jan Sattler, a member of the Laguna Beach Arts Commission. "Use [of the courts] has dwindled to the point where it's almost nonexistent. We have an opportunity to do something very special, to create a people space for the residents that is different from what's there."

Where cracked concrete and an aging chain-link fence now stand, city officials picture a verdant patch of land where people can enjoy the views of sea and sky, whether it's watching surfers below or gazing at Catalina Island. And instead of plain old park benches and picnic tables--which they worry would attract messy weekend barbecuers--they want "interactive sculptures," meaning works of art that people can sit on.

"It's the most beautiful site in Laguna," said Sian Poeschl, the city's arts coordinator. "It seems to be a crime that this is a fenced-off area that the public can't use."

Leach and the three other officers of the Laguna Beach Shuffleboard Club--the four are also its only active members--said they can hardly blame the city for the decision. Only a few of the courts are even fit for a game these days, and they average only one or two "walk-ins" a month.

Even so, they were heartbroken over the looming loss Thursday, when three of the usual four played an impromptu game on their favorite terrazzo-topped court and celebrated their tradition yet again.

"We're just a bunch of old friends trying to stay together," said Harry Wayne, 83, squinting down the court to see if his gliding red disk would stop within scoring range. "This is the only recreation we really have."

Never has the group doubted the value of this property, positioned on a bluff along the Pacific Coast Highway. A swatch of concrete surrounded by a landscaped park, the shuffleboard courts offer generous views of what city officials call one of the most picturesque sites on the California coast.

"It isn't just playing the game," said Eleanor Stoughton, the club's 79-year-old president. "It's playing it here, where we always have, in this beautiful place, that we love so much."

Also contributing to this report was Times correspondent Steve Carney.

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