History of Platform Tennis at The Town Club
Excerpt from THE TOWN CLUB, by Liza Tuttle, Published 2001
Paddle Tennis Comes and Goes
The almost completely unknown sport of paddle tennis, sometimes called platform tennis, made its debut at the Town Club in the early sixties, but didn't last long. In order to get members interested in the sport, an exhibition "by local experts" was arranged shortly after the courts and lighting were completed on January 10, 1961. This prototype court had round comers and was apparently mobile. While it was first set up in the Club's parking lot, it was later moved to a spot between the clubhouse and the railroad tracks. Interest sparked up for a time, and in the fall of 1961, new lighting was installed "in anticipation of a heavy season of spirited play." Paddles could be rented from the Club, and members were instructed to use their new or old tennis balls, unless they preferred to purchase regulation balls from the Club.
According to Ralph Inbusch, the problem with the court was that it was always full of snow and ice, and Joe didn't want to shovel it. Neither did any of the members. Whatever the problem, something didn't take with this new sport. In October 1964, a notice read: "For Sale, Paddle tennis court, Ask Joe for details.” Mr. Inbusch remembers that while he was president in 1968, the Club sold the court lights to Carlie Wilson and the court floorboards to Nic Ehr's Landscaping. Paddle tennis's day would have to wait a few years.
Paddle Tennis Comes to Stay
After the unsuccessful attempt to introduce paddle tennis to the Town Club in 1961, enthusiasts of the sport, led by Tom Wilson, tried again in 1973. By this time, many more were familiar with the game and eager to play. When the Town Club built its first two courts in 1973, there were three others to be found in the Milwaukee area. (Carlie Wilson, Tom's brother, had a court at his house, where many Town Club members learned to love the sport, and the Milwaukee Country Club had built two courts in 1972, the year before the Town Club built theirs). The sport was definitely catching on.
A grand opening and dedication of the courts was held on a Saturday morning in November 1973. Bloody Marys and lunch began at noon, after which the Club's tennis experts set to the courts for exhibition play. Club members were encouraged to get out and try the sport, but the response was not overwhelming in the first years after the courts were built. There were some problems. Removing snow and ice from the courts, was a hassle, especially for the first group of the day. Delays resulted, which backed up all reservations for the day. This was solved with the addition of heating elements under the flooring. Still, only a handful of permanent court times were reserved, and it took a few years for the sport to take hold.
But take hold it finally did. Paddle tennis became the thing to do in the winter. Mixers and scramblers and the annual Thanksgiving weekend "Turkey Open Tournament" within the Club provided fun entertainment in otherwise dreary winter months (winners were awarded a leftover Thanksgiving turkey carcass). For the more competitive players, men's and women's leagues were formed in the mid-seventies, and by the end of the decade, Town Club traveling teams were competing in tournaments all over the Midwest. The Town Club, along with the Milwaukee Country Club, hosted the Wisconsin Closed Platform Tennis Championships over a weekend in late spring. The weekend event featured a dinner dance at the Club on Saturday night with paddle tennis players from elsewhere in the state, particularly Neenah, Lake Delavan and Racine competing. For several years, the Town Club offered no warm, elevated place from which to view paddle tennis matches, so players became industrious on their own. "I'll never forget the first year we had an exhibition and we had a flatbed truck to watch from!" remembers Jim Bell. "That was the year Dick Squire, the father of paddle tennis, came from Connecticut to show members how to play. He wore a bowler hat and was quite a character." The truck he was referring to was Tom Wilson's Aero Welder stake truck." But that still left viewers out in the winter cold. ''Then Jack Broan came up with the idea of parking his Winnebago next to the courts, at least for special events," Bell continues. "We would leave the engine running so we could keep the heater on. We were lucky we weren't asphyxiated!" These makeshift arrangements had to suffice until 1979, when the Town Club constructed a fully equipped warming house, complete with washroom, fireplace, sink and small refrigerator.
Paddle tennis was embraced by a group of enthusiastic members who loved the game as well as its social aspects. By 1984, ninety percent of prime court time was booked on a permanent basis, with more than a hundred members playing regularly. A third court was added in 1984, and a fourth in 1996. Once the warming house was constructed, the social side of the game flourished. The paddle complex at the Town Club became a favorite venue for winter parties. In 1994, the warming house was extended ten feet to the north in order to add more space for entertaining and for a shower. These improvements made the Town Club a premier site for serious paddle competitions. In the 1994-5 season, the Town Club hosted its first American Platform Tennis Association Tournament, (APTA). A few years later, that tournament was officially awarded national ranking status by the APTA and has become a popular event for ranked paddle players from around the country. In 2001 that tournament continues to be held at the Town Club, where paddle tennis is a major competitive sport for some members. "Milwaukee has become a regular tour stop," says Bell who with his partner Andy Sawyer were the state paddle Champions for twelve years. Town Club members such as Dave Pelisek and Rich Silverthorn have done very well in the national tournaments.
"I can't imagine what winter would have been for the past thirty-two years without paddle tennis," says Bell. The game has a lot of appeal, he adds. Many Club members who had previously been involved in indoor tennis during the winter have given it up because they prefer to be outside. "It's a game you can play regardless of your age because you're not covering that much court," he says. "Yet it's still a very quick game. If you lose your reflexes, you're done. Power plays a role, but so does finesse.
In 2001, paddle tennis at the Town Club has its serious and fun sides. In addition to the tournaments and competitive league play, members can take their game to a higher level by attending sessions with a highly ranked paddle pro who comes up from Chicago once a week to offer tips to Town Club members. For levity, they can also attend the Friday night paddle mixers with special food and decoration themes. More than 230 members play paddle currently, and that number continues to grow.
Jim Bell is unabashed about what paddle tennis has done for the Town Club. "It's made it a twelve month club by giving the members something else to do in the winter besides have dinner there,” he says. "It added a new dimension that has assured the Town Club a full membership.”