It was the home of firsts for so many who visited or lived in Myrtle Beach: first dances, first kisses, first roller coaster rides and first jobs.
Teenagers shagged in the Magic Attic, and visitors with iron stomachs rode the Corkscrew. The Myrtle Beach Pavilion, an amusement park opened in 1948 and closed in 2006, was a destination that stood out among the many beach towns along the East Coast.
Ten years later, the Pavilion, called the “beating heart of Myrtle Beach” by Mayor John Rhodes, is a 12-acre grassy lot.
“That was one of the saddest days of my life,” said Egerton Burroughs, the director emeritus of the company that owns the site, Burroughs and Chapin. “It broke my heart, but it’s a business and the business model changed. The downtown area is still struggling and having problems with many different things.
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“I think it’s going to take a lot of work to rebuild the downtown.”
Burroughs, who went from working in the park to chair of the company’s board by time the Pavilion closed, said that park management tried a new roller coaster, ride improvements and other tweaks to improve business in the years before the park closed. Burroughs and Chapin declined to comment for this story.
In 2000, the park even put up a fence and began charging admission, an unpopular move. The original Pavilion, however, has not faded from the memories of its scores of visitors, and the idea of a central draw in Myrtle Beach’s downtown area has not faded from the minds of local officials. But as many remember the decades of fond trips to the park, the 12-acre lot in the middle of downtown poses an opportunity that has left many in Myrtle Beach frustrated.
That was one of the saddest days of my life.
Egerton Burroughs, director emeritus of Burroughs and Chapin
“It’s not a small problem, it’s a big problem that covers an awful lot of land, and it’s going to take a lot of thought,” Burroughs said. “It would have to be a public-private enterprise.”
‘The Grinch’ closes the Pavilion
Myrtle Beach photographer Jack Thompson’s studio faces Nance Plaza, directly across from the old Pavilion site. Though Thompson laments the loss of the amusement park, its demolition means Nance Plaza now has a direct view of the ocean.
Thompson came to town in 1951 at age 13, and his very first job as a professional photographer was at the Pavilion, taking shots of teenagers behind the bars of the “Myrtle Beach Jail” background and young women draped over a half-moon that said “Ms. Myrtle Beach.”
As he flipped through shots of the park’s jukebox, framed in milky pastels and the many colorful horses of the park’s carousel, Thompson said many were confused when the closing was announced, because many thought the Pavilion’s business was still strong.
“Why would they kill mother goose while she was still laying golden eggs?” he said.
Why would they kill mother goose while she was still laying golden eggs?
Photographer Jack Thompson
Thompson paused on one picture, taken as the main building in the park was being demolished in 2007. Unlike almost all other photos in Thompson’s shop, in this shot, he was in the frame, watching a demolition machine rip into the roof.
“The caption under that picture, and this was made December 21 — it was made around Christmas Eve — and I said, ‘The Grinch at Christmas destroys the heartbeat of Myrtle Beach,’” Thompson said.
Many referred to the park as the city’s heart. When the Pavilion closed in 2006, Broadway at the Beach, the entertainment, dining and shopping complex anchored by a Hard Rock Cafe, was open, but the Skywheel and boardwalk were not.
Buz Plyler, owner of the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, said the closing was stressful for some local businesses.
“The word was that it was not doing well,” Plyler said. “You could see and count the number of people on the deck of the roller coaster, and it was a real good indication of how good business was doing at the time, and to me, it still looked like it was doing very, very well and it hadn’t dropped off.”
Plyler said the first year after the park was closed, his business dipped 6 percent. But after that, he said, every single year has seen a gain in revenue from the year before.
“Now the traffic is actually maybe (50 percent) more than it was in the best year of the Pavilion,” he said. “It is more split in that the boardwalk has been a tremendous attraction. Half the people (that come in) are on the boardwalk, or more, and the other half are on the street.”
Rhodes said the boardwalk has been helpful, and that Broadway at the Beach remains popular, but the attractions only are “limbs,” neither one presenting the centralized appeal the Pavilion did.
“It took something out of us in this city. It was like a part of life being pulled out,” Rhodes said. “We haven’t really been able to have that true transplant again in that location. We’re working on it, we’re working on trying to have other areas in the system that will create another great heart, and I’m looking for that to grow somewhere.”
City without leverage
Many city officials grew up around the Pavilion. Councilman Wayne Gray worked there in his first job from 1986 to 1990, but long before that, he was visiting the park.
“I think I may have had my first kiss there on the Ferris Wheel,” Gray said. “I can still envision and feel moments when I was 6, 7, 8, years old, going to ride the rides there and sitting on the Ferris Wheel with cotton candy in my hand and getting to the peak. That salt air breeze would blow on you.
“I don’t know how many people experienced that, and those are moments in time that I’ll never lose, or never forget.”
Councilman Randal Wallace was a fan of the more thrilling rides at the park, and remembered school dances in the Magic Attic, which was then a teen club. (Attractions at the Pavilion never sold alcohol, Burroughs said.)
“It was something that had been here as long as Myrtle Beach had been here, really,” Wallace said.
The Pavilion site, however, continues to shadow the city’s development discussions.
On Sept. 20, Myrtle Beach City Council met for a wide-ranging discussion on the city’s goals, but one subject continued to bubble up in conversation — how to revitalize the downtown.
During that meeting, Gray suggested the city could reclaim some blighted areas and convert them into parking, parks or public space — anything to make the plots more appealing for private investment.
However, city officials said, the same is not possible for the 12-acre Pavilion site.
“Yeah, we’d like to own it,” Gray told The Sun News after that meeting.
“We just can’t afford it,” the mayor added.
Rhodes also said that the city had not specifically tried to buy the land, but was aware of what it could cost. Years ago, he said, he saw a plan that might have put a high-rise hotel, pier and Ferris wheel on the land, but Rhodes said he had not heard any recent building plans.
“We never had any plans of any prominent large project there,” said Burroughs, who does not currently have voting power on Burroughs and Chapin’s board.
He also said the most beneficial thing for the land could be a master plan, similar to the large infrastructure investments and broad planning that went into The Market Common.
“I think you’re going to have to see a lot of things done between the Pavilion area and Family Kingdom,” he said. “I think you’re going to need to see a lot of new construction, different businesses. It’s not a very friendly place for families and all down there right now.”
The problem, however, can devolve into a chicken-and-egg situation. Gray said the empty site itself may be deterring development elsewhere in the downtown area.
“I don’t believe that there’s any leverage that the city has,” Gray said.
Memories live on
Jessy Bevins said her family visited the Grand Strand every year for 20 years. The park, she said, was always her favorite part.
Then the family took a break in their Myrtle Beach visits — but it was only when Bevins and her husband decided to come back to the area and she was researching ticket prices that she realized the park had been closed.
“I was devastated! I still am in a way,” she wrote in a message to The Sun News. “I made it a point to walk by where the Pavilion had been located, and to see an empty, vacant lot (sitting) where the heart of Myrtle Beach used to be was really saddening.”
Many others online support bringing the park back. Over 20,000 people have now liked a Facebook page called “Bring Back the Myrtle Beach Pavilion.” People from across the country send in photos of the old rides and attractions; one featured a person who had a scene of the park tattooed on their forearm.
Wallace said he often hears people talk about the Pavilion fondly and did in the waning days of the park, too. However, when he asked visitors to the area the last time they had been to the site, many had not attended since they were children.
“My best memories of it were probably when I was a little kid,” he added.
Many attractions from the Pavilion, including its carousel and the organ that was featured at the 1908 World’s Fair, now reside in The Pavilion Park, part of Broadway at the Beach.
“(Burroughs and Chapin) catch a lot of flack, but they do preserve the history that they have,” Wallace said. “I appreciate that.”
The oceanside and the sea air, however, remain with the 12-acre lot next to Ninth Avenue North.