Local man remembers The Palace as 'the grandest theater on the east coast'
It won’t be long before the light green dome on U.S. 17 disappears for good.
Nationally famous musicians and comedians left crowds delighted there, and the Radio City Rockettes sparkled under the cupola. But the 2,700-seat Palace Theatre, one of the largest and most ambitious performance spaces in the Myrtle Beach area, will soon come tumbling down.
“According to [the owners], it was the grandest theater from New York, along the East Coast, to Miami. It was elegant,” said Mike Mabrey, who had a roughly 20-year career as a lead usher and manager at the Palace. “Of course, looking at it now, it’s just really heartbreaking.”
In October, the Palace was damaged in Hurricane Matthew, which blew off part of a wall facing U.S. 17. Since then, it sat without a covering in all weather. A long guessing game preceded the announcement this month that the Palace will be demolished, as some customers said they had a difficult time getting refunds for tickets bought in advance. Landowner Chapin Co. took control of the building in March.
The Sun News could not reach Jay Lodge of Spirit Productions USA, which most recently operated the theater, by phone or at the company’s local office.
The structure could be demolished as soon as April 25, according to a permit from the Department Health and Environmental Control. The process still requires a permit from the city of Myrtle Beach.
The theater leaves behind a decades-long legacy of experimentation in the Myrtle Beach theater market, presenting itself as a space for top-billed acts, hosting a presidential debate and transforming into a home for house shows and tour groups.
In addition to working there for almost the entire time the theater operated, Mabrey has carefully cataloged schedules, reviews, articles and memos from the Palace – a library of mementos showing what was once a centerpiece of Myrtle Beach entertainment.
Kenny Rogers played the opening week, and for the next five years, the Palace drew a slew of top-tier acts: George Carlin, Chris Rock, Barry Manilow, Ray Charles and Frankie Valli, among others. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy played a show hailed by a reviewer from The Sun News at the time.
The reviewer quoted Foxworthy saying: “You could blindfold rednecks and they’d find Myrtle Beach.”
The theater also charged top dollar for its shows, and initially, seemed to distinguish itself in the market at the top end of performance spaces. Prices in 1996 capped around $42 (roughly $65 in 2017). Starting in 1996, the Palace brought an annual act that charged some of its highest fees: a Christmas show that ran for six weeks, featuring the Radio City Rockettes.
But that relationship ended after 2000. That year was marked by some controversy, as general manager Richard Akins abruptly left the facility in August, and some shows were summarily canceled.
The Sun News would later report on a lawsuit in which the building’s builder and owner, John Q. Hammons, claimed Akins had broken his contract and improperly funneled $150,000 out of a theater bank account.
By the end of the year, no schedule for 2001 had been announced.
Mabrey also remembered a smaller mishap that marked the end of the Rockettes’ run in 2000.
“The last show of the finale, the intermission, the curtain couldn’t raise. Of course we had a full house in there,” Mabrey said. “We worked 45 minutes trying to fix it.”
There was no second act that night.
“They had to refund money,” Mabrey said.
A tough market
The Palace was one of a few theaters to survive into the new century after a boom of performance spaces saturated Myrtle Beach in the mid-90s.
Myrtle Beach Councilman Randal Wallace worked at several theaters in the Fantasy Harbour area around 2000, all of which have since closed. He eventually worked part-time at the Palace for some of its larger shows in 2007 and 2008.
“It’s sad for me to see the Palace go,” Wallace said. “The theater business has faded … the writing got on the wall by 1999 or 2000 that the business was fading.”
Wallace used to greet tour buses of visitors at the theaters in Fantasy Harbour. He said that demographic – older travelers who preferred to travel by motor coach and stop in at several performances on vacation – used to be crucial for theaters that relied on house shows.
But just as theaters were popping up, Wallace said, many of those visitors were aging out of the tourism market.
Bob Wood, manager of the Alabama Theatre in North Myrtle Beach, said he still sees a significant amount of traffic from tours, which could stop at as many as three or four shows in one outing. But the house show has changed from the theater’s opening.
“When we first opened 25 years ago, people have aged 25 years since then. The entertainment world changed, and we just changed with it,” he said.
Calvin Gilmore, the owner and operator of the Carolina Opry, said the tour bus segment of his business is lessening and that the theater’s Myrtle Beach Performing Arts concert series has drawn a variety of ages.
“The traditional motor coach industry is definitely smaller than it used to be as the makeup of the group industry is changing, but non-group patrons have always made up the majority of our ticket buyers,” Gilmore wrote in a text message to The Sun News.
Shifting to new shows
In 2001, the Palace experienced significant change in its shows, as it welcomed Spirit of the Dance – a variety show built around Irish dance from British producer David King. The front of the building was also briefly branded with the name of the show. It premiered in 2001, and King bought the theater in 2003.
In the next few years, several musicals, including “Evita” and “Les Miserables” toured through the space. Top entertainers, however, were less common. The Sun News reported in 2001 that some of the biggest shows had not been profitable.
“The Carolina Opry has just started to bring celebrities the last couple of years and Alabama, they kind of took up the slack after we quit having the celebrities,” Mabrey said. “But we’ve had a few over the years, since [the early days].”
The theater continued to draw crowds, but in 2006, it was listed for sale in the Charleston Regional Business Journal for $18.95 million. Staff at the theater also went through a round of layoffs that year, according to documents from Mabrey.
A deal was never struck, and King continued to own the theater until this year.
The Palace still gained some notoriety in 2008, hosting a CNN-broadcast Democratic presidential debate featuring then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. A large sand sculpture was built in the parking lot for politicos and other attendees to file by as they entered the space.
“They were here for a couple of weeks getting set up and we went through all of the security with everybody,” Mabrey said.
A few months after the debate, Mabrey tried to retire – but he continued to work on and off at the Palace until 2015. He still regularly meets with friends he made at the theater.
‘A good excuse’
The Palace has sustained damage before. In 1998, after Hurricane Bonnie, the same wall was torn off the building as in last year’s storm, leaving a similar gaping hole facing U.S. 17.
But when that storm hit in August, the theater was up and running again by September, according to staff memos collected by Mabrey.
Claudia Davis works for Diamond Tours, one of the largest motor coach groups in the country, and used to work at the Palace. She said that the Palace’s Christmas show and summer house show had been well-attended recently, but that the structure had declined before it was ever hit by the storm.
“I think as far as the building itself, I think they just didn’t want to put any more money into it to maintain it,” Davis, who is also Mabrey’s daughter, said. “I think they gave up on the building.”
Gilmore, whose theater was one of the Palace’s biggest competitors, said that the enterprise was “doomed from the start.”
“The hurricane damage was a good excuse to throw in the towel,” he said.
The Chapin Co. previously leased the land under the theater to the building’s owners, company chairman Claude Epps said. But now, the company has taken control of the building and will complete the demolition in the coming weeks.
He said there are no plans as to what will happen to the land, which was assessed at $4.9 million for tax purposes in 2016.
“It will hopefully be developed, but we just don’t know what the highest and best use of that land will be,” Epps said.