Word of the day: Pickleball
1. An indoor or outdoor game that is played on a level court with short-handled paddles and a perforated plastic ball volleyed over a low net by two players or pairs of players.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Pickleball. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved September 4, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pickleball
Two full free days of blues, jazz and pickleball resulted in a quirky conglomeration of festivals held in downtown Hot Springs’s Bridge Street Live Entertainment District over the weekend. But quirky is right in-line with how the Spa City likes to celebrate. In this case, it was celebrating the return of the annual Blues and Jazz Fest, as well as the inaugural The Big Pickle — The World's Greatest Pickleball Festival.
On one side of the district there was a stage set up next to Region's Bank for the Hot Springs Jazz Society to host an array of jazz musicians for Jazz Fest the first part of Friday and Saturday. On the other side of the district there was a stage set up near Hill Wheatley Plaza for Blues Fest performers to entertain the second part of the days. Everything in between was pickleball, pickleball, pickleball. So much pickleball, in fact, that it's still going on in the district today.
Bill Solleder, marketing director for Visit Hot Springs, which is the entity who hosted the Blues Fest this year, is who had that idea to merge the three festivals in the district.
"Blues and jazz have always happened (the same weekend)," Solleder said. "When Pickleball wanted to do something, I made the suggestion, 'Why don't you do Labor Day, then we'll have blues on this end, jazz on that end, and then pickleball in between?'"
Having hosted the Bridge Street Live Concert Series in June, which were the first events held since the district was established, Solleder was excited to note that this weekend of festivals is the first time nearly the entire district has been used at once.
As for VHS hosting the Blues Fest this year, that is a result of the Spa City Blues Society, the nonprofit that has historically put on the event, recently dissolving.
"This wasn't going happen, so Visit Hot Springs took it on just to make sure it happened," Solleder said. "... I think it's great. This is a tremendous crowd, I think the people that were normally part of the Blues Society and Blues Fest, and had been coming for decades, were disheartened for a second there that it wasn't going to happen, and elated that it was still going to happen."
He noted that VHS does not plan to continue hosting Blues Fest, but that they plan to find another entity to take it on for the years to come.
Kate Tully, coordinator of The Big Pickle and co-owner of Vulcan IQ Pickleball, was pleased with the turnout of their inaugural festival, and said it's an introduction of the sport to the Hot Springs community.
"Even when we were setting up, it was really cool how many people were like, ‘What is happening?’ and they had all these curious looks," Tully said. "And even some of them said, ‘OK, this is a festival, right? What kind of festival? What’s pickleball?’"
She described Hot Springs as becoming a mecca for pickleball.
"Hot Springs is becoming this really cool place for pickleball because you’ve got Vulcan, which is one of the top paddle brands in the whole industry. … Hot Springs Health and Fitness just put in five brand new pickleball courts. … They had their opening Thursday night, and they had tons of people coming in, going, ‘This is so cool.’"
And although registration was required to partake in the festival's tournament, Tully said there was a demo court setup by the Blues Fest stage that was specifically for anyone who was curious and wanted to try it.
"We had staff over there with paddles and balls, and they were explaining kind of how the game went, and we saw a lot of players that were like, ‘Wow, this is really fun,’" she said. "And it’s just one of those things where once you pick up a paddle and get on a court, most people are hooked. It’s complex, it has lots of strategy … if you want to really advance and compete, but also if you just have your family; grandparents, grandkids, guys, girls, it doesn’t matter.
"It takes you five minutes to get on a court and learn enough to have a good time."
Tully said there is nothing like this festival in the world of pickleball, and they plan on continuing it and growing it in Hot Springs for the years to come.