The first meeting of the Manhattan Beach Badminton Club took place at the home of Doug Todd on Sept. 2, 1936.
By then, the assembled group had already started searching for a place to play. They settled on the second floor of the Marine Avenue Pavilion, a wood-frame bathhouse on the beach that opened in 1922.
Once a social gathering place, the two-story structure had become somewhat dilapidated by this time. The avid players forged an agreement to use the top floor of the bathhouse, which had been used as a dance hall, for badminton matches.
But the 15-foot ceiling was not nearly high enough to accommodate the game. Rules had to be adopted to account for shuttlecocks hitting the ceiling during play, which happened frequently.
The new club’s members met regularly — and eventually decided to raise money to build their own badminton facility. While casting about for ways to do that, they came up with an idea, possibly from watching the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals of the day: Putting on a show!
They staged a musical comedy, “April Follies,” at the Pier Avenue School in Hermosa Beach for several weekends. Club members handled all of the production’s details, from costumes to advertising and ticket sales.
The club raised enough money from the production – about $2,000 – to buy seven connected parcels of land in the then-desolate inland area of Manhattan Beach, known at the time as “the back country.” The lots were selling for $200 each at the time. (Lots on the strand cost $1,200.)
By 1940, construction had begun on the new clubhouse, on 18th Street near Ardmore Avenue, and its courts opened for play in 1941. (Coincidentally, the Marine Avenue bathhouse burned down that year and had to be demolished.)
In addition to building the club, the members also paid for the construction of part of 18th Street, from Ardmore up to the club. The roadway did not exist before the club was built.
This surge in interest in badminton was not just a local phenomenon.
The sport’s first club had formed in New York City in 1878. The sport initially became popular among British officers who had served in India during the 19th century. Its name comes from a British estate, the Duke of Beaufort’s Badminton House in Gloucestershire.
Badminton became popular among the Hollywood elite during the 1930s, numbering such luminaries as James Cagney, Bette Davis, Boris Karloff, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks among its players.
After the US entered World War II in 1941, the US Army took over the Manhattan Beach club. It was used as officers’ quarters and an entertainment center for the troops, those stationed nearby at Live Oak Park and at the artillery battery installed on 19th Street to protect the coastline from invaders.
In November 1943, when the threat of invasion lessened, the Army returned the facility to club members.
Although it’s often fallaciously regarded as being as lightweight as its rackets and birdies by those who’ve only dabbled in the game in their backyards, competitive badminton takes both remarkable hand-to-eye coordination and top physical conditioning.
The sport enjoys tremendous popularity in Asia and Europe, and it officially became part of the Summer Olympics during the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain. To date, no American has medaled in badminton in the Olympics.
But its American devotees remain hooked on the game.
As players grew in strength and skill, the once-ample 30-foot ceilings at the Manhattan Beach Badminton Club have been judged by some to be too low for the venue to host top-flight international competitions.
That didn’t keep the club from hosting the final Olympic Badminton qualifying tournament in the United States before the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics in 2016, with the world’s top 65 players from 21 countries competing to become eligible.
The building has been modernized and remodeled over the years. In 1951, its popular swimming pool was added. During the 1960s, a lounge and outdoor kitchen were built, and special wooden flooring that was easier on players’ legs was installed. Its exterior has been updated and accessibility ramps put in place.
In 1974, the club asked the Manhattan Beach City Council for a permit to expand its facilities. Neighbors raised objections, citing potential noise and traffic problems if the club was allowed to add two more courts, and the permit was denied.
The club eventually added the courts, however, and the facility now has five. But a restriction, which the council added later, limits the club to 250 members, resulting in potential new members being put on a sometimes-long waiting list.
Despite its status as one of only a handful of venues in Southern California completely dedicated to badminton play, the generic-looking Manhattan Beach Badminton Club building isn’t widely known; it often gets mistaken for the phone company or a Southern California Edison substation. But to its members, it’s home to a game they love.
Sources: Beach Reporter archives. Daily Breeze archives. Easy Reader archives. Los Angeles Times archives. Manhattan Beach Badminton Club website. “Manhattan Beach Badminton Club & The Road to Rio,” The South Bay Show podcast, Jan. 28, 2016. “United States Badminton History,” by the United States Badminton Association, Washington Post website. A Walk Beside the Sea: A History of Manhattan Beach, by Jan Dennis, Janstan Studio, 1987.