Myrtle Beach Memories: Whatever Happened to . . .

for Weekly SurgeMay 7, 2009 

So you’re heading over the U.S. 501 bridge into Myrtle Beach for your first Bike Week in many years.

First of all, strap on your helmet. You have to do that in the city limits these days. And get ready – this isn’t your mama’s Grand Strand anymore. And it certainly isn’t the one you probably knew.

You look over to the right, searching for familiar landmarks such as Waccamaw Pottery and the more recent Fantasy Harbour.

Instead, you almost lay the bike down right on the highway because there is no more Waccamaw Pottery, and a huge multi-loop roller coaster juts into the sky behind what used to be that landmark shopping center.

Don’t feel stupid. Culture shock is common these days around here.

If you haven’t been to the Grand Strand in several years – especially if it’s been more than five or 10 – you’re just plain not going to recognize the place.

As development has surged in the past 20 years, dozens of well-known attractions, hotels, shopping venues, restaurants and watering holes have disappeared. Well-known personalities have left the airwaves, and former landmarks have been bulldozed to give way to high-rise condos, housing developments and huge shopping-entertainment complexes like Broadway at the Beach. (Did you think there were still trees along U.S. 17 Bypass? You have been away too long.)

Were you one of thousands of kids who used to go watch the big blue-and-orange bulbs on the Myrtle Square Mall clock change? Gone.

Do you fondly remember riding the Corkscrew Coaster or the Hurricane at the Pavilion? No more. Did you party into the wee hours as a college student at spots like Mother Fletcher’s? That place only survives in legions of foggy memories and through the thousands of T-shirts it sold through the years to people from all over the planet. (Don’t believe it? In past years, people have spotted Mother Fletcher’s shirts on pub-goers in Ireland and kids in New Guinea.)

Even the skyline isn’t the same anymore. People who remember when hotels such as the Breakers, the Yachtsman and – later on – The Patricia Grand were the tallest things in town won’t quite know what to make of a new ocean view that is frequently blocked by towering high-rise hotel and condominium complexes that huddle along the shore from Surfside Beach to North Myrtle Beach. Next to the boxier, simpler high rises of yesteryear, they resemble nothing more than tropical-colored versions of the city Minas Tirith from the “Lord of the Rings” flicks.

With all this change, a lot of people are looking for the Grand Strand they used to know. Thanks to Web sites and a recently opened museum exhibit, some of the memories can be relived.

On April 30, Myrtle Beach photographer Jack L. Thompson opened an exhibit, “The Wonder Years: Myrtle Beach Photographs from the ’50s and ’60s” at the Franklin G. Burroughs – Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum. The exhibit truly will send Myrtle Beach fans into the way-back machine, with images of everything from Ocean Boulevard as it was during the era to Fat Harold’s Original Pad on Main Street in North Myrtle Beach.

One of the best-known Thompson photo subjects is the old Ocean Forest Hotel, the original luxury high-rise that rose 10 stories over the beach near 59th Avenue North  in Myrtle Beach. The Ocean Forest featured a 10-story “wedding cake” tower and served a high-end clientele from its opening in 1930 until it closed and was torn down in September 1974. Some long-time locals still mourn that day as the end of the last vestiges of attempts at “old-time” elegance in Myrtle Beach, and some say it upset folks so badly that it spawned a preservation effort to save old buildings like the Myrtle Beach Train Depot.

People interested in photos of more recent Grand Strand days-gone-by can check out Myrtle Beach Remembered, a Web site run by Raleigh, N.C., resident Wayne Aiken who spent much of his youth in Myrtle Beach. The site features photos and commentary on a variety of long-gone landmarks from the past 30 years, including ’70s mainstays such as Sports World roller rink and the original Water Boggan waterslide (back in the day when you slid down butt-bruising cement chutes on little foam mats, not the fiberglass high-tech parks of today), and ill-fated theme parks such as Pirateland and Magic Harbor.

We took our own look back at recent Grand Strand history and offer a brief primer for folks who may be scratching their heads and asking “What ever happened to…” some of the people and places they remember from way-back-when in Myrtle. We include some more recent history, because with the rate of change around here, a month ago can seem like old news:

• “Banana Jack” Murphy. A radio mainstay in Horry County for 20 years. Murphy arrived in Myrtle Beach in 1989 to take over the morning show at WKZQ-FM (Rock 96.1 ). Murphy’s distinctive, quirky and often edgy personality quickly made the show a hit with listeners. In 2001, he took the “Banana Jack” persona over to WYAV (Wave 104.1), to replace Howard Stern, and continued to be a hit. He completely changed gears in 2007 when the radio station went to a syndicated program in the morning, “The Free Beer & Hot Wings Show.”  He and wife Barbara Krumm formed Banana Jack Murphy Productions LLC. One of their first ventures was to purchase WLSC 1240 AM in Loris. Murphy has gone from hard rock to true small-town radio – the station features live performances by Loris area choirs and artists, broadcasts area football games and features specialty programming such as “The Bargain Barn.”
 
• Diane DeVaughn-Stokes. If you owned a TV and lived along the Strand between 1985-2008, it would have been almost impossible to miss this local broadcast personality and her talk show, “Southern Style,” which aired on Time Warner Cable’s local channel. The show was a venue for everything from local theater personalities and beauty queens to Strand area non-profit organizations. Pretty much everybody who was anybody in Myrtle Beach graced Stokes’ set at some point during the show’s 23.5-year run. It was cancelled in 2008, but she is still a major presence around Myrtle Beach. DeVaughn-Stokes said she is still running Stages Video, the company she runs with husband Chuck Stokes, and the two have branched out into historical documentaries and a TV series they plan to pitch, “What’s Cooking Carolina,” which would focus on cuisine grown right here in the Palmetto State. She is also still active in local theater, and occasionally writes for small publications in the area.

• The Drag.  This Myrtle Beach-based band became one of the few Strand area acts to be signed by a national label when they were picked up by Island Records in 1995. The Drag’s five members produced a lush, multi-layered style of rock music that borrowed heavily from Britpop influences of the era (think Oasis and The Verve, but with a darker, more psychedelic side) but was definitely original and unlike anything that has come out of the Strand music scene before or since. The group’s first album, “Satellites Beaming Back at You” was released in 1996 by Island but sadly, like many other bands signed during the feeding frenzy of the mid ’90s, didn’t really go anywhere. The band members have continued to occasionally release new music together the past few years. On April 11, they played a reunion show to a sell-out crowd at Droopy’s in Myrtle Beach.

• The Freaky Tiki. Starting around 2000, this Ocean Boulevard club did its best to become the even-wilder heir apparent to the Mother Fletcher’s party tradition. Located at 708A N. Ocean Blvd, the place catered to late-night, college-age crowds and hosted truly wild wet T-shirt contests where nudity was a regular occurrence. Area motels complained about droves of drunk and disorderly kids flocking around the place, and it was closed by temporary injunction in 2005. When the club’s alcohol license for 2006 was denied, it closed for good. A new “Tiki” opened as part of the Afterdeck entertainment complex at 9717 N. Kings Highway, around Restaurant Row, and existed under that name in 2008. The Tiki has now been absorbed into the Afterdeck complex and the room will re-open in June for the “foam” dance parties that have become its signature.
 
• Hard Rock Park. Meant to be the “major theme park” successor to the Pavilion, this music-themed attraction opened in spring 2008 to mixed reviews. Unfortunately, the owners and investors picked the onset of one of the worst recessions in history to open their park, and huge projected crowds of 30,000 visitors a day never materialized. The $400 million park closed and filed for bankruptcy protection in September, and sold at auction in February. It is slated to re-open May 23 with the slightly unusual name “Freestyle Music Park,” meant to pay tribute to a wide variety of musical genres. 

• Mark McBride. McBride was a young gun in his mid-30s when he was elected Mayor of Myrtle Beach in 1998. During his two terms (he lost to current mayor  John Rhodes in 2006),McBride became as well-known for his run-ins with city council members and often controversial opinions as he did for his governing style. In 1998, his opposition to the S.C. Gay Pride festival being held in Myrtle Beach drew sharp criticism. The so-called “cleaning up” of the area around Ocean Boulevard was one of his pet causes, and he also weighed in on development schemes he didn’t favor. McBride twice tried to pursue a further political career with unsuccessful runs for the S.C. senate as a Republican in 2004 and an independent petition candidate in 2008. He currently lives in Conway with his wife and three kids, and runs OSM Consulting and Governmental Affairs in Myrtle Beach.

• Mother Fletcher’s. Originally located at 406 Eighth Ave. N., this legendary nightclub hosted many a wet T-shirt contest and fueled two generations worth of hangovers before it finally closed in 2004. Its original location backed right up on the Myrtle Beach Pavilion, and it moved to 710 N. Ocean Blvd. when the Pavilion expanded in the late ’90s. The club’s owners were evicted in 2004 and the club was torn down in early 2007.

• Myrtle Square Mall. Once the flagship mall in Myrtle Beach, this shopping venue was located smack in the middle of the city. When it opened in 1975, it quickly became a must-visit landmark for Myrtle locals and tourists alike. If you were a kid growing up in South Carolina, you recognized two parental commands: “Meet me at the rocket” from the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, and “Meet me under the clock,” which meant the huge lighted clock in the center of Myrtle Square Mall. Back in the day, the mall’s best known attractions also included the Magic Cavern arcade and one of the area’s first food courts. The Mall continued to thrive until business flagged in the late ’90s, and owners Burroughs & Chapin closed it for good in 2005. The last parts of the mall were bulldozed in June 2006, and the huge gaping hole it left behind is dwarfed only by the one at the former site of …

• The Myrtle Beach Pavilion, the landmark downtown amusement park which delighted beachgoers for 50 years, but was shuttered by  Burroughs & Chapin because of declining revenues in 2006. They also tore down the signature oceanfront Pavilion building. The vintage calliope organ, the carousel and some other Pavilion memorabilia still survive in the Pavilion Nostalgia Park near the Hampton Inn at Broadway at the Beach. The former Pavilion site, however, sits empty. Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce sources confirm that no plans have yet been announced for either the mall or Pavilion sites.

• The Purple Gator. One of the biggest live music and party destinations around Myrtle Beach from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s, the Gator played host to a huge variety of live acts, ranging from George Clinton and Marilyn Manson to hip hop shows by Digable Planets and Coolio, classic rock acts like Kansas and retro acts such as K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Between 1991 and 1993, the Gator regularly hosted popular Columbia band Hootie and the Blowfish for twice-monthly, regularly sold-out concerts that often lasted into the wee hours. “Hootie nights” were THE place to be during those years, but they ended after the band got signed to Atlantic Records and “Cracked Rear View” took off. The Gator closed in 1994, and the venue went through a variety of incarnations, including The Social Room and The Head Room, but never recovered its glory days. The former Gator sits at the back of the Magnolia Plaza shopping center off Restaurant Row and has been empty for the past nine years.

• Rock Burger. From the early ’80s through the mid ’90s, this bar was a hangout of choice for people who liked their music loud and kept vampire hours. Originally located at 1107 N. Ocean Blvd., it was one of the favorite after-hours venues for locals, and was where everybody headed after other bars closed or concerts ended. Rock Burger also frequently hosted live local and regional bands. The original location closed after 1995. A second incarnation opened in July 2005 at 16th Avenue North and Kings Highway, but it was closed by 2006.

• Sandpiper’s. This bar, located off U.S. 17 Bypass near Murrells Inlet, was a popular live music venue from the early to late ’90s. It was deceptive, because from the outside it looked like a weather-beaten Lowcountry-style house. Sandpiper’s boasted two comfortable screen porches and had a beach volleyball court in the back, but it was best known for booking national acts into this ultra-intimate, slightly unusual venue. ‘90s alternative favorites Paula Cole and Jeffrey Gaines played there, Kevn Kinney stopped by frequently, and by far the most legendary performance there was a 1998 appearance by Bo Diddley. Sandpiper’s unfortunately closed after 2000, and the building is now a farmer’s market.
 
• Smi-Dre’s. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, this bar was a highly popular watering hole and live music venue located on 61st Avenue North. It was one of the early Strand live music spots that regularly featured Hootie and the Blowfish in the days before Darius Rucker and the boys hit it big. Smi-Dre’s disappeared in the late ’90s and the site is now occupied by Luigi’s Italian Trattoria. 

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