'It was our Disney World:' Remembering the Myrtle Beach Pavilion

Published: Jun. 15, 2017 at 3:10 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 15, 2017 at 5:45 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - The jukebox and the jitterbug. The Ferris wheel and the Flying Wallendas. The carousel and the Comet. They were all parts of the allure of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion.

While the 11 acres in the heart of downtown Myrtle Beach between Eighth and Ninth avenues north was recently crowded with thousands of people enjoying the Carolina Country Music Fest, it's back now to being mostly an open field with a few zip lines running across it.

But for nearly 60 years, this land held the Pavilion—an essential part of many families' annual vacations to the Grand Strand.

The Pavilion as most people remember it opened in 1948 after several other iterations were torn down or destroyed by fire. It was part amusement park, part arcade, and part music and dance venue.

Long-time local photographer Jack Thompson ran away from his home in Greenville, S.C. in 1951 when he was 13. He hitchhiked to Myrtle Beach and remembers being immediately enchanted by the Pavilion.

"Oh, the lights were going and it looked like what we — it was the forerunner to Disney World. It was our Disney World," Thompson said. "And it was late in the afternoon, and the music was going and the band, old organ down in the amusement park was playing like a circus."

Within his first hour in Myrtle Beach, the newspaper editor's son found a job at the amusement park that would lead to his life's work.

"When I ran in the Pavilion," Thompson said during a recent interview, "I smelled photographic chemicals. And that was my heart's desire, and from that day on, I became a professional photographer."

The Burroughs and Chapin Company owns the land where the Pavilion used to sit, and it was early developers with the same company who built the Pavilion.

"Mr. Edward Burroughs, who was one of the senior Burroughs executives, who helped design and build the last Pavilion, the former Pavilion, he had strict rules around the property, that it was a family-oriented playground," Thompson said. "There would be no alcohol allowed on the property, the amusement park as well as the Pavilion. When the Pavilion was built and opened in 1948, little did he know, and little did we know, that the whole world would be coming."

Dino Thompson has owned businesses in the Grand Strand for decades, including Cagneys and Flamingo Grill. He grew up around the corner from the Pavilion in downtown Myrtle Beach where his parents ran the Kozy Korner restaurant.

Thompson, who is not related to Jack Thompson, said he spent many summer nights there as a child.

"We knew all the carnies. If you had a nickel you could ride anything, you had a nickel you could buy anything.  Well they had the Round Up, that thing that you stand up and goes, they had the bumper cars, they had a Ferris wheel. They had an excuse for a little roller coaster. It was a small one called The Wild Mouse. They even had a stinky pony ride where you sat on ponies which really smelled bad and they had a lot of kiddie little rides, boat rides and stuff," Dino Thompson said.

In the late '40s and early '50s, Myrtle Beach was just beginning to be the tourist mecca it is today. The Pavilion hosted a lot of locals in those days.

Jack Thompson remembered how the park catered to those locals.

"On Sunday, knowing that our visitors would be mostly from Horry County and after church, nothing opened until twelve o'clock on Sunday," Thompson said. "And I can see 'em now. And I've got pictures of the families parking the car and walking across the street in their church clothes and the kids doing cartwheels to get into the Pavilion. And it was a wonderful family fun."

The Pavilion is also cited by some as the birthplace of South Carolina's state dance: the shag.

"And the shag!" Jack Thompson said. "The Pavilion was the highlight. All the teenagers would gather around the Myrtle Beach Pavilion and out on the patio, the jukebox, and dance the night away."

Both Jack and Dino Thompson remember watching people at the Pavilion dance the jitterbug and swing, which were precursors to shagging.

"One of the major attractions growing up at the Pavilion were the Jitter Bugs," Dino Thompson said. "They were cats. They had peg pants and skinny belts and little side pockets ... but it's an exhilarating fun dance. But I mean you have to be pretty limber and pretty athletic to do it. Well maybe, yeah even better, 16. Later on, you know, when the guys got to be 25 and 30 and they weren't exercising that much, they had to slow it down and it became the shag. You know they call it the lazy man's jitterbug, which is a great term for it."

"Shagging was really a big thing at the Pavilion," Jack Thompson recollects. "But I must say, because of the coming of age of the dancers and the new way the Shag evolved, the girls did the dancing and the guys just kind of didn't pay attention. You let the girl move her feet and you just guide her along, nonchalant. So that was the epitome of the shag dance."

When Burroughs and Chapin announced in 2006 that the Pavilion would close at the end of the summer, a public outcry was raised. Still, the rides were dismantled one by one, the arcade games removed, the Magic Attic torn down, the site of thousands of memories piled up like so much rubble

"We lost the Pavilion," Jack Thompson said. "The Pavilion was the heartthrob. She was the golden goose who was still laying golden eggs. And everyone who came here came to run down to the Pavilion."

Dino Thompson says the experience of visiting the Pavilion is irreplaceable.

"That was a rite of passage. You walked a mile to the Pavilion, you took your kids there, then your kids took their kids there and their kids would take their kids and now that's over, so it's sad. It's sad," he said. "Millions of people have a great Pavilion story and we all went in there and took a picture of being in jail, so it's sad it's gone and nothing you can do about it now. I don't think they are ever going to build the Pavilion back I don't think."

WMBF reached out to Burroughs and Chapin about the future of the property, but a spokesperson said they didn't have any comment.

Mark Kruea, spokesman for Myrtle Beach, said the city would "like to see a mixed-use project that furthers redevelopment efforts in that area and fits in with the family-friendly theme."

"We'd expect to see some combination of transient accommodations (hotel/condotel), retail, restaurants and perhaps some amusements, along with some dedicated public space for events and activities," Kruea said. "Not quite a city unto itself, but given the size of the property, a multitude of uses that would play well off of each other and spur adjacent redevelopment projects in the area."

While the roller coasters may be dismantled and the beach music no longer wafting through the rafters of the old Pavilion, the memory of families laughing together, children running from one ride to another and the fun of a simpler time will always remain.

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