THEPAVILION'S LAST HURRAH : Fighting to preserve a long-ago way oflife
AlthoughLola Courtney Sims lost her memories one by one, the Myrtle BeachPavilion never faded from her mind.
Dexter Blakelysaid his grandmother fought Alzheimer's for 15 years, but she neverfailed to recall rising high above the breezy Atlantic on the Ferriswheel with her young daughter Cecilia, or joyously spinning on thecarousel with Cecilia's own children a generation later.
A 21-year-oldvolunteer firefighter and native of Georgetown, Blakely said thePavilion has brought three generations of priceless memories to hisfamily — memories that could be duplicated nowhere else.
He had hoped toone day pass down recollections of bumper cars, Skee Ball, logflumes, cotton candy, haunted mansions, people watching and thehundred-year-old carousel to his own children.
That's why he washeartbroken by the March 9 announcement by Pavilion owner Burroughs& Chapin Co. Inc. of plans to close its 60-year-old amusementpark at the end of this summer.
But Blakely'ssadness soon gave way to anger. When he learned of a now-burgeoningonline petition to save the Pavilion, he contacted its creator, TrippCarter, and launched a paper petition effort.
A quick pass downFront Street in Georgetown yielded more than 200 signatures. He saidhe plans to take the effort across the Grand Strand and the state.
"My mom alwayssaid, 'Don't bite your tongue when you feel someone is doingsomething wrong,' " he said. "The Pavilion is Myrtle Beach. You takethe Pavilion away, Myrtle Beach will die in a sense."
In many ways,much of the gaudy, delightfully tacky Myrtle Beach of old is alreadydead — remade into an extravagant, sprawling resort town duringthe past decade by sawblade, bulldozer and steamroller. The town hassought to bury its kitschy, mom and pop roots and recast itself as ahigh-rise-laden, year-round destination — equal parts Vegas,Miami and Branson, Mo.
A great deal ofthis change came after a relatively quiet, 100-year-old familycompany known as Myrtle Beach Farms reinvented itself as Burroughs& Chapin in the early 1990s. In 1993 the company came under thedirectorship of hard-charging local businessman Doug Wendel. Withholdings of thousands of acres of prime Myrtle Beach forest, acompany that had previously been content to operate its profitablePavilion, mall and golf course suddenly decided to remake the face ofthe Grand Strand.
The company builtthe 1-million-square-foot Coastal Grande Mall and turned a vastwoodland into the 700-acre Broadway at the Beach complex. Whererickety deer stands recently overlooked a forest filled with foxsquirrels, red-cockaded woodpeckers and bears, the company is hard atwork on multimillion-dollar homes for its 2,500-acre Grande Dunesgolf resort.
Yet the fewsquare blocks around the Pavilion stand much as they did in the1950s. Tourists still flock to Peaches Corner or Marvin's for a corndog and wander slack-jawed through Ripley's Believe it or Not and thebewildering aisles of the 60-year-old Gay Dolphin Gift Cove. Aroundthe corner, the Bowery Bar still fills with bikers and country musicfans. Along Ocean Boulevard, teens still check each other out fromcruising cars or scream as they soar into the night sky aboard thePavilion's Rainbow.
Some of thesheen, though, has clearly worn off. At the Pavilion's northern edge,empty stores line 9th Avenue, while along Ocean Boulevard, tattooedand pierced teenagers browse the music-blaring aisles of lowbrowairbrush painting and gift stores. The iconic Mother Fletcher's Barnow stands empty at the corner of 8th Avenue.
According toBurroughs & Chapin spokesman Pat Dowling, time and traffic havepassed the Pavilion by. And while he has been moved by emotionalpleas he has seen online, he said it's time for a long-plannedupscale redevelopment of the Pavilion and the surrounding 300 cityacres to move forward.
"No one feelsmore emotion about this than the people at Burroughs & Chapin,"he said. "The Pavilion is what is Myrtle Beach is best known for asan icon. The Pavilion is our identifier and part of our culture andpsychology. But it's no longer true that people come to Myrtle Beachto see the Pavilion. If they did, I guarantee we would not beclosing."
Dowling points tothe more than 12 million visitors drawn to Broadway at the Beach lastyear. Despite being one of the few oceanfront amusement parks left onthe East Coast, Dowling said the Pavilion only drew around half amillion paying customers last year.
Visitation is nowsiphoned off by attractions from the Carolina Opry to BarefootLanding to Burroughs & Chapin's other ventures, such as MyrtleWaves. Dowling said the company had been heavily subsidizing Pavilionoperations, and it is difficult and expensive to maintain rides forseveral years.
But to MeredithCox and thousands of other online signers of the Save the MyrtleBeach Pavilion, these arguments hold little water. Originally fromMyrtle Beach, Cox now lives in Charleston and is a nurse at RoperHospital.
Like her parentsbefore her, Cox spent entire summers at the Pavilion.
"My friends and Istill get together today and ride the rides," she said. "I think thisis absolutely crazy. So many families continue to share memories withtheir children at the Pavilion. I don't understand how they could dothis. It's all about the money for Burroughs & Chapin, and itprobably always will be."
Cox and herhusband, Ashley, visited the Pavilion on their first date. ACharlestonian by birth, Ashley said that even his great-grandmothervisited the original 1920s-era Pavilion, when the only way to getthere from her home in Conway was by train. He said his father Tommy,today a Pentecostal minister in Georgetown, recently recalled dancingthe shag on visits to the Magic Attic, a teen nightclub still opentoday.
"Everybody inSouth Carolina has gone to the Pavilion," he said. "Even the'hoity-toities' in Charleston who want you to believe they only go toHilton Head — whether they like to admit it or not, they allwent to the Pavilion."
The Coxes andseveral others, including Myrtle Beach historian Jack Thompson andGay Dolphin owner Buz Plyler, said they doubted the Pavilion waslosing money. They and several misty-eyed families interviewed alongOcean Boulevard also said Burroughs & Chapin could generateincalculable good will and return family visits to Myrtle Beach bykeeping the Pavilion open.
Comparing hisvenerable store to the Pavilion, Plyler said, "Mine is a veryantiquated business. I have far too much American labor and far toomuch cost, but it's important to me that people here have a goodplace to work. It's been a great thing to be a positive part ofpeople's vacations for so many years."
Jack Thompson hasspent more than 50 years of his life within 1,000 yards of thePavilion. Working as the Pavilion's "Myrtle Beach Jail" photographerduring the 1950s, he was also a well-known local crooner,jitterbugger and shagger. He recently published the book "Memories ofMyrtle Beach," a photographic record of most of his 69 years.
Thompson said heplans to work with other area business owners and politicians toconsolidate petition work and appeal to Burroughs & Chapin toconsider at least saving and renovating the old Pavilion building.
"I'm one whobelieves that if they really paid attention to putting the Pavilionand amusement park back into tip-top shape, they could be busingpeople there from all over the Southeast," he said. "The Pavilion isfalling into disrepair, and it needs a little grease, so the numbersare falling. But they're not falling because people don't want to gothere."
Burroughs &Chapin has contracted Charleston architecture and planning firm LS3Pfor the long-stalled redevelopment of the Pavilion and surroundingarea. According to Vice President Tom Hund, no firm plans have beendrawn yet, and LS3P is conducting intensive research into a myriad ofpossibilities and issues.
"I think thisredevelopment is being done for all the right reasons, but it'shitting a historic nerve," Hund said. "I don't think it's about themoney. It's really time to think about what could go there if youcan't maintain what you have."
But the Blakelysand Coxes are not convinced. Should the Pavilion disappear, CeciliaBlakely said she would never patronize another Burroughs &Chapin-owned business.
On Friday, DexterBlakely learned that Tripp Carter, who started the original onlinepetition, had inspired a Murrells Inlet resident, Boz Martin, tofound a new Web site, www.savethembpavilion.com.
"We are going tokeep on with this petition going until our voice is heard," Blakelysaid.
"We are thepeople who made Burroughs & Chapin into the business that theyare," added his mother. "And the Pavilion is what made Burroughs& Chapin. They are ripping the heart and soul out of MyrtleBeach. There are so few places left today where you can say, 'Look,this was my favorite place when I was your age.' It's so wonderful tolook at the your child on a ride laughing, and think back on the timeyou had the same expression on your face at the same place. "
"It disgusts me,"said Ashley Cox. If they tear the Pavilion down, "my wife will cryevery time she drives by."
ON THE NET
For moreinformation on the Pavilion, go to: www.mbpavilion.com
Save the MyrtleBeach Pavilion: www.petitiononline.com/mbpav/petition.html
Burroughs andChapin's press release and documents on the closing:
For more voiceson the Pavilion's closing, go to www.charleston.net/webextras
Pavilion'slegacy: The Shag :Original building dates to the 1920s
Therehas been a Pavilion around the vicinity of 8th and 9th avenues inMyrtle Beach since the 1920s. The current beachfront building wasconstructed in 1948 after the previous structure burned.
Though Burroughs& Chapin points out that this is not the original Pavilion, tomany millions it might as well be. The building has served as a gamearcade, dance hall, vaudeville stage, concert venue and focal pointfor the town since its construction. The 1989 Phoebe Cates comedy"Shag" was set here.
The Pavilion'soutdoor patio was the site where South Carolina teens first dancedthe Jitterbug and later the Shag. Photographer and longtime Chamberof Commerce member Jack Thompson grew up dancing here as astarch-shirted teen. "I watched the Jitterbug change to the Shagbecause the Carolina boys were too egotistical to jump up and down,"he said. "They wanted to move side to side and be a little moresophisticated. So the purpose of the Shag was to dance like youweren't paying attention."
Though it hasbeen through many updates and iterations, there has been an amusementpark across the street from the Pavilion since 1950. While the parktoday has 49 rides, including the modern Hurricane roller coaster andpopular Hydrosurge, it also holds antique gems such as a 1912Herschell-Spillman carousel and Baden Band pipe organ that was firstexhibited at the World Exposition in Paris in 1900. Both have beentargeted for listing by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Pavilion isalso one of the few places in the country where you can have yourstomach churned aboard a vintage Scrambler or Tilt-A-Whirl within ablock of the ocean.
Burroughs &Chapin and the town of Myrtle Beach have sought to substantiallyredevelop some 300 acres of properties adjacent to the Pavilion forover five years. In 2004, Burroughs & Chapin and Myrtle Beach'sredevelopment agency contracted with a California developer to comeup with a redevelopment plan, but it never materialized.
After thatdeveloper stepped down, Burroughs & Chapin decided to moveforward on a mixed-use redevelopment with LS3P, a Charlestonarchitectural firm.
Though Burroughs& Chapin has been tight-lipped about plans and revenue forPavilion redevelopment, Thompson said the fully redeveloped Pavilionproperty would likely be worth well over $500 million.
Reach Chris Dixon email@example.com or (843) 745-5855.