Coming on the cusp of Pride Month and on the crest of Independence Day, the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) community in Myrtle Beach is being re-branded. Once the Holy Grail of the Super Block/5 Points zone of downtown Myrtle Beach, the nightlife venues of the gay community have witnessed dramatic changes in the last couple of years. Almost two years to the date of its debut, Pulse Ultra Club has become the last gay bar standing.
When Pulse opened in July of 2012, it brought a new vibe to the gay community. The club was sleeker, trendier and brought a little bit of the South Beach-West Hollywood club scene feel to Myrtle Beach. Who would have guessed that two years later it would be the sole club to openly carry the rainbow banner forward into our ever expanding resort town? Micki Strickland’s beloved Rainbow House closed after 15 years of service to the community as she decided to enjoy a much-deserved retirement. Club Traxx apparently joined some sort of religious cult, entered gay conversion therapy and became a straight bar and Time Out!, a 20-year plus institution was felled by a fire. Act of God or natural selection? You decide.
But that’s not the point of this story.
Pulse has now exited the Super Block for even trendier digs on South Kings Highway close to the Front Gate of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. There has always been a vision to expand the bar and to add more amenities but one of the drawbacks to the old location was the limited space. Local ordinances also prohibited adding features such as a sidewalk café and enhanced signage on the front of the building. So owners Ken Phillips and Frank Bush decided that if they were going to be true to their vision for Pulse, it was time to move ahead.
So with this development, what does it mean for the LGBTQ community in general? Is it changing? Waning? Assimilating? Or simply moving on to greener pastures? Since I am never short on opinions, I decided to go directly to the members of this community to get their views on where we are as a demographic in Myrtle Beach and where we go from here.
Local 20-something Pulse patron Brett Beech believes the move is definitely a giant step forward for the community: “I think the gay lifestyle moving out of there is the best for our community. Too many things happen down there and it’s not the best location or the safest. The new location is right down from the Market Common and feels like it’s a central location for anyone who wants to go. Sure, it’s a bit south but the atmosphere is amazing and I feel much safer there then I did at 5 Points.”
Curtis Slade, owner of CSI Interiors in Myrtle Beach tends to agree with the safety concerns felt by many of the clientele who have been visiting Pulse since the very beginning. “Over the years with businesses closing in the area and crime increasing, people are not feeling safe in the area anymore. Personally, my car has been broken into, I've seen many fights, shootings at a bar across the street, so forth and so on, and the feelings of safety that I once had, no longer exist” says Slade.
However, some new businesses have moved in, and more are on the way, such as Levelz Bar and Grill on Ninth Avenue N., Pure Ultra Ultra Club (where Pulse was) and Global Ultra Lounge, on the same block on Main Street.
And Rik Dikinson, president of Encore Video Productions on Main Street and co-chair of the 5 Points Business Association, disagrees with the assessment that the district is crime-ridden.
“We moved Encore Video Productions here 17 years ago and have only had one petty theft incident where someone took some extension cords,” he said via e-mail. “Even when the Mission was our neighbor we had no problems. We have worked hard to watch out for each other's businesses and the city has put us on their Business Crime Watch program with extra patrols. 5Points Business Association is the next step in keeping the area secured.”
Still, that sentiment about personal safety seems to be echoed by others that I spoke with as well. Chris Stephens, who headed up Myrtle Beach Pride and The Center Project stated: “Out of the Super Block? Of course! With Rainbow closing and the demise of Time Out!, Pulse Ultra Club has become the local watering hole, the owners have been true to their patrons, so I'm sure wherever they choose to go, the crowd will follow, be it the Super Block or 27th Avenue South.”
In fact, out of the many people who responded on the location change, both directly and on Facebook, there was only one response that was not positive. In the spirit of fairness, we feel compelled share that view. A reader named Tony Mitchell stated the new location is “lacking the energy” of the original Pulse and is not happy about the move. “The community is asking why they moved from such a beautiful place to this place. It’s nice but they just tried to bring the old location to this spot and it is a bad attempt. It feels outdated and is lacking the energy of the old location. Most people will not say it to their face but most everyone likes the old Pulse location better. We hope they hear us and move back. That was such a beautiful place and so much fun and we hope they move back ASAP,” wrote Mitchell in an e-mail sent to Surge. “This place will fail.”
I’m not sure what energy this is that may be missing. It could be the sprinting from one’s car to avoid becoming a crime victim or possibly the obstacle course of tweakers attempting to hustle you for cash and get into your car (this happened to me several times) on the way out of the old club. But change is difficult for some folks and we have to realize and appreciate that.
While Pulse may have been the last gay club to enter the Myrtle Beach area, it is by no means a random by-product of an outside business investor looking to get rich on the back of tourists. It is the dream of a local couple with deep roots in the community as a whole. Phillips and Bush are the proprietors and visionaries who created and designed the Pulse experience.
The club is dubbed “the heartbeat of the gay community” and that is about as accurate as a description can get. The Phillips-Bush team has a long history in the LGBTQ community of Myrtle Beach and for years were a part of the Time Out! family. Understanding the needs of the local LGBTQ community and being genuinely connected to its members has allowed them to create a successful club that offers a little bit of something to everyone.
Touring the new facility located at 2701 South Kings Highway, you are immediately impressed by the size. The club now occupies the former home of Daisy Duke’s Country Saloon, which is about 8,000-square-feet of uptown cool. Ample parking is also a welcomed addition for many of the club goers. Navigating the streets and parking lots around 5 Points definitely presented patrons with more than a few challenges.
The overall ambience is true to the original Pulse vision but the bar has definitely been raised. Because of the spacious interior, the club now has a bit of an industrial alternative feel. Since opening in the new location on June 12, there has been an overall excitement within the gay community about the new Pulse. While still in the early stages, expansion plans are already underway to develop the outside bar along with a private patio and deck. These were two of the features Phillips and Bush wanted to bring to the original location and now they will become a reality.
That welcoming and supportive atmosphere seems to be a theme for others who enjoy the club as well. Trey Simmons says that when he visits the club, “I'm there to have a good time being surrounded by numerous people I love. It's always been a fun atmosphere for me. I've met some incredible people since stepping into the gay community.”
Assimilation is another issue that comes to the forefront with any demographic in our country that makes strides in equality. It is certainly no secret that many members of the straight community have found Pulse to be a welcoming venue for their celebrations as well. Hospitality is definitely one of the things that we do very well.
Jeff Jarnigan, who heads up the Takeover North Myrtle Beach LGBTQ Happy noted, “The downside of equality is homogenization or assimilation. For many years we looked toward gay establishments and events as a refuge. As equality marches forward, that refuge is potentially no longer needed.”
With local universities providing a steady stream of college students and the beach being an extremely popular tourist destination, the club has become a popular destination for many rites of passage such as birthday parties for newly-minted 21-year-olds and a completely judgment-free zone for bachelorette parties who want a memorable night on the town.
Also, as you would expect in a club where a dance party is a standard part of the weekly entertainment offerings, there is an upgraded sound system and light show. I think it just makes a club seem like home when you can feel the beat of the music as soon as you get out of your car. There is a VIP Lounge perfectly positioned just to the right of the impressive stage and dance floor and thanks to the expanded video system, every table and bar stool now has a great view of the main attraction.
According to owner Phillips, “The youth continue to love to dance. I don’t think that will ever change. There also continues to be a fascination and attraction of drag queens. We get many bachelorette parties for our shows.”
The local gay community also shows no signs of tiring of one of its main staples of entertainment: the drag show.
Since the beginning, Pulse has promoted and provided top level talent and that will definitely continue. Breonna Tenae, Entertainment Director for Pulse and CEO and President of Tenae Entertainment will continue on in her role. This includes consistently bringing in top talent such as Tia Douglas, Morgan Richards, Imani Tate and Paris DeeVine. If you’re not a Diva aficionado, those names are just a few of the regular royalty who grace the Pulse stage every week.
But Jarnigan also adds, “I think the gay community is always going to migrate to the place they can congregate - we like being around ‘PLUs- People Like Us.’ I’m just thankful that we still have a place to do just that in the Myrtle Beach area.”
Terry Livingston, organizer of the LGBTQ First Friday Happy Hour and the Takeover Grand Strand Events, seemed to underscore the idea that there is definitely progress being made in the area of LGBTQ groups being accepted wherever they congregate. “We have noticed a growing gay community in the Grand Strand area. And a first for us is having so many gay friends who are in long-term committed relationships. For us, we find acceptance in all restaurants and bars in Myrtle Beach.”
There is also a strong consensus within the LGBTQ community that Pulse is very much a place that provides something for everyone. It is not simply a dance club or a place to drink.
The club, much like the community, is multi-faceted.
“The allure of the club here is very ‘Cheers.’ I feel welcomed; the bartenders know me; I can be myself, hold hands with my boyfriend in public and not worry about being judged by anyone,” says patron Brett Beech. “It’s a comforting place to be. Someone is always there to put a smile on your face. The owners of the new Pulse are some lifetime friends I've met and have just developed a bond with, as well as many other staff members. It’s a place to call your home away from home.”
The transition to a new location for Pulse could not be timed more perfectly if the owners had planned it in cooperation with the Myrtle Beach City Council. On June 10, the city passed the most comprehensive human rights protection ordinance in the state, covering the LGBTQ community. That changed everything. It’s almost as if this could mark the revitalization of the gay community in Myrtle Beach, one that no longer has a Pride celebration or gay community center. Perhaps this should be viewed as the perfect opportunity for us to move forward. Other extremely successful communities like South Beach, Fla. and West Hollywood, Calif. have built great successes on extremely similar foundations.
As my realtor friends will tell you, everything is about location, location, location. I think the new Pulse is an excellent opportunity to expand upon what the bar offers to both the gay and straight communities.
As Myrtle Beach continues to expand, I think the LGBTQ community will be an important factor in selling the city as world-class in every way. We definitely have a place at the table now and I think that the new Pulse can lead the charge to revitalization. A successful community is exactly like a successful bar. It offers something for everyone and places value on every one who passes through its doors.
“We are a safe place where everyone is free to be themselves,” says Phillips. “Bullying is not allowed. We are one large family. We tend to take care of our own.”
Clark Vereen served as historian, fact-checker and liaison in compiling this report.