Pavilion’s closing makes way for a new kind of Myrtle Beach
MYRTLE BEACH — A riot of neon color bounces off the humid summer evening sky above the Pavilion, this din of overwhelming overstimulation where everyone and everything screams, “Notice me!”
We are moths here: The brightest light wins the aimless affection of our schizophrenic attention span.
The audacious weight guessers within the amusement park and the clack! clack! of air hockey inside the arcade speak a unique dialogue.
Outside the entrance, along the Strip, airbrushes swoosh out a spray of bright pink and baby blue: “I Trashed (blank, blank) Hotel Summer 2006!”
The guy with abs especially sculpted for this weekend revs his lime-green Kawasaki on Ocean Boulevard, a Pied Piper’s song beckoning a young woman to hop on back and cruise the Strip.
For so long, this has been the center of gravity of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina’s cubic zirconia jewel of the vacationing working class.
It’s changing, Myrtle Beach is. Marching forward, perhaps. For better or for worse, depending on our point of view and the history we bring with us.
Owners Burroughs & Chapin will close the Pavilion at the end of September after 58 years of operation. The closing symbolizes Myrtle Beach’s transformation from redneck Riviera into a more diverse and sophisticated vacation destination.
Left in the darkness, in a way, are our children and our children’s children and the children we once were.
Left behind are memories of Myrtle Beach’s only monument to its history, galvanized by roller coasters and summertime flings and funnel cakes and pinball machines and shag dances.
Cassandra Graham has made a supply run to her car, with her 2-year-old son, Justin, asleep in her arms. There are two more hours left in this day trip to the Pavilion her family took from their home in Kingstree.
Beginning at age 13, the 38-year-old mother spent her summer afternoons at the Pavilion while waiting on the bus to Kingstree after a day’s work at a motel. “We’d sit down at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and wander around the Pavilion until the bus came,” she says. “It’s just not going to be the same.”
She fills the parking meter and heads back in.
Across Ocean Boulevard on the boardwalk overlooking the beach, Todd Presser rests on a bench with his 10-year-old son, Derek.
They’ve bought the commemorative “Farewell Season” cup. Derek has consumed the Pavilion for the day (or it has consumed him). He comes every day during the week his family vacations here. The sounds of arcade games mix with the ocean breeze in a smooth cocktail of beachiness.
The handles to the wooden, pinball-like baseball games that are a staple of the Pavilion and the arcades that have mimicked it are worn from years of fathers sweating tirelessly to win a prize for their little ones.
The magic number to score a prize is 28 runs, as it has been for decades.
“I used to play those same baseball games he’s playing,” says Presser, 41, who has come from Kentucky to Myrtle Beach from childhood through fatherhood. “That’s why I bring him here now. It’s a landmark for me. This is my childhood.”
A rain shower sets in. The beachgoers wading in the Atlantic bring their wet, rolled-up jeans inland to the Pavilion. This is where they’ve always fled to.
“It hurts so bad to see them closing it down,” says Brenda Johnson of Ware Shoals, who took her children to the Pavilion years ago and will take her 2-year-old grandson, Jonathan, one last time this Labor Day. “It’s like losing a part of our family. I looked forward to seeing my grandchildren get to play there.”
Myrtle Beach is not much for history. What little it has had in slightly more than 100 years of existence has been razed and replaced by the bigger and the better ó paving the way for 13 million visitors each year.
The last icon that came close to representing Myrtle Beach ó the Ocean Forest Hotel ó was torn down in 1974. The hotel was the creation of Greenville textile magnate John Woodside, who in 1926 bought miles of beachfront property in a grand design for an upscale Myrtle Beach.
Woodside lost his beachfront land (to current owner of the 11-acre Pavilion, Burroughs & Chapin) and his hotel along with his entire fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.
The textile mills played a crucial role in the development of Myrtle Beach as a blue-collar playground, says Walter Edgar, a South Carolina historian and author.
The mills would shut down for weeks at a time during the summer and workers would head to the beach.
A number of mills bought places for their workers to stay (Spring Mills’ Springmaid Beach resort still exists). And at the center of all this respite for hard manual labor was the Pavilion.
The first Pavilion building ó an annex of Myrtle Beach’s first hotel, the Seaside Inn (now demolished) ó burned in 1920 and was replaced in 1925 by another wooden building, which also burned.
The current Pavilion building ó oceanfront on Ocean Boulevard and Eighth and Ninth avenues north ó was erected in 1948. Its World War II-like, reinforced concrete structure helped it withstand Hurricane Hazel in 1954, when most of Myrtle Beach was destroyed.
The Pavilion building and its music and dance club played an important role in the development of music culture in South Carolina. Generations have danced the shag to beach music at the Magic Attic and later rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop when it became simply the Attic.
In 1948, Burroughs & Chapin ó still today the owner of thousands of acres of land along Myrtle Beach and the pre-eminent force in shaping the area ó cut a deal with the Husted brothers’ traveling carnival to stay put, and the Pavilion Amusement Park was born.
“Come nighttime, you’d drift down to the Pavilion,” says Joe Chambers, of Pelzer, who recalls how keeping his baby sister while his brothers wandered the Pavilion actually helped him meet more girls.
Later, as a young adult in the early 1970s, he played drums in the Royal Scotsmen Band at the Magic Attic (which back then, he says, seemed to Carolina musicians to be almost as big a deal as playing Madison Square Garden).
“Everybody would get so involved in the rides and having so much fun that it was easy to make a friend,” he says. “Some of those rides like The Scrambler would sling you around, and if you could get a girl on that ride, you could get close to them and have an excuse for it.”
“Time has sort of passed the Pavilion by,” says Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “When the Pavilion opened, Elvis was a teenager and Lucille Ball was a new TV star. Today’s generation looks for more than roller coasters and paddle boats.”
And, Dean says, Myrtle Beach “has grown well beyond its original identity as a redneck Riviera.”
The area around the Pavilion (not necessarily the Pavilion itself) has reached a saturation point of unique ó arguably unsavory ó culture. Beachwear shops carry shirts with silhouettes of strippers and the words “I Support Single Moms,” and the words yelled from those cars cruising the Strip aren’t always wholesome.
Whether that’s part of the kitschy charm or a reason to go somewhere else on vacation is a matter of taste and of debate.
Several stores have closed over the years as sales figures have declined. The Strip is still packed on a summer night, but as Dean says, “many visitors see the downtown as a place to roam but not a place to spend.”
At one point, the Pavilion attracted more than 1 million visitors a year, but began to see marked declines about five years ago, says Tim Ruedy, a Burroughs & Chapin executive.
He wouldn’t share specific numbers for comparison.
More entertainment offerings such as Broadway at the Beach and the upcoming Hard Rock theme park, consumer expectations and changing demographics are responsible for attendance dropping to the point that the Pavilion no longer supports itself financially, Ruedy says.
Burroughs & Chapin hasn’t come up with a final plan for what will happen after the Pavilion is closed, so has yet to share any specifics, Ruedy says. Whatever is developed will attempt to attract year-round business instead of the largely seasonal traffic now.
Buz Plyler, owner of another Myrtle Beach icon, the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove near the Pavilion, says the future of not only his store but the very culture of Myrtle Beach hinges on what Burroughs & Chapin ultimately does.
“There’s no question there’s going to be societal change,” says Plyler, whose family has owned the Gay Dolphin for 61 years. “If the newer place is too much like current developments, it will be too homogenized. People will not think of Myrtle Beach as being different than any other place.”
Burroughs & Chapin’s plans will focus on compatibility and public access, Ruedy says. It will, however, incorporate elements that will attract more high-end tastes, such as fine dining that Ruedy says doesn’t exist now.
The company likely will preserve elements of the Pavilion’s culture and history ó like the amusement park’s 1912 vintage carousel and its German-made organ that first appeared at the World Expo in Paris in 1900.
“Iconic elements are a part of the thinking,” he says, “and I am certain in one way, shape or form that Burroughs & Chapin will make sure those elements are included. It’s always easy to say that you could do another high-rise and fill it out, but is that really what’s important to the development of the city of Myrtle Beach? I don’t think so.”
The carousel spins and the Frog Hopper lady blows her whistle.
A boy uses his 25 Skee-Ball tickets for a tiny parachute man.
A steady bass line from the bombastic car sound systems cruising the Strip underpins it all.
The rain has stopped. The water droplets create a thousand neon prisms
Each bids its farewell.