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What is the Boardwalk?

Ben Steelman

A beachfront entertainment complex between Harper Avenue and Cape Fear Boulevard, the Boardwalk has been a Carolina Beach landmark since the early 1900s. Oldtimers will say the Boardwalk hit its prime in the 1950s and early ’60s, before the carnival rides migrated to Jubilee Park at the north end of Carolina Beach, but the Boardwalk continues to draw thousands of visitors each summer (and a smaller trickle of year-round patrons).

Although South Carolinians dispute that claim, locals boast that the “Shag” was invented at local dance halls in the late 1940s, after regulars like “Chicken” Hicks and Jim Hannah snuck over to Seabreeze (the nearby black resort during the segregation era) to check out the new steps in the “juke joints” there. In 1946, Hicks and Hannah put “race” records (i.e. with African-American performers) in a jukebox at the Tijuana Inn, which may have laid the foundations for “beach music.” Shagging supposedly made its debut in 1946 (or 1948; sources differ) at the Boardwalk’s Ocean Plaza Ballroom (demolished in 2005).

(In his book “Shagging in the Carolinas,” however, John Hooks notes that references to “Shag Dance” contests appeared in local papers as early as 1932. He theorizes that the dance originated at Wilmington’s 1920s “Feast of the Pirates” celebration, as a mutation from the Charleston and Varsity Drag.)

According to local historian Daniel Ray Norris, the Boardwalk dates from the early 1900s. An early landmark was The Carolina Moon, a dance pavilion (designed by Henry A. Bonitz, the same architect who designed Lumina at Wrightsville Beach) that opened on May 1, 1911. With 13,000 feet of floor space, it was billed as the largest ballroom south of Washington, D.C. The facility also boasted a bowling alley, a 14-foot veranda that stretched around the entire building and a modern acetylene lighting system. The Carolina Moon was destroyed, along with the Bame Hotel and two solid blocks of Boardwalk businesses, in a massive fire on Sept. 19, 1940.

The Boardwalk was back in business, though, by July 1941, under the billing “The South’s Miracle Beach.” Vintage postcards show its arcades and walkways filled with GIs during World War II. (Many came up from the anti-aircraft training station at Fort Fisher.) Signature businesses included a number of bingo parlors (lending their name to the cottage industry of “beach bingo”), souvenir stands, photo studios, carnival-style bame booths (ring toss, shooting galleries, baksetball tosses, ball-throws, etc., usually with stuffed animals as prizes), a bumper-car track that survived into the 21st century, hot dog and burger stands (the most famous of these, The Landmark, survived until 2005), and ice cream parlors.

One of the longest lasting businesses is Britt’s Donuts, founded in 1939 by the Britt and Wright families and taken over in 1974 by Bobby and Maxine Nivens. With its secret glaze recipe, Britt’s has drawn generations of doughnut fanciers from as far away as the Piedmont.

The Boardwalk also supported a number of more mainstream businesses, Norris noted, including an A&P grocery, The Wave theater and the Royal Palm Hotel (later renamed the Hotel Astor and destroyed by fire in 2005.) In the rock era, the Ocean Plaza drew live performances by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Chubby Checker.

Until the early 1960s, the Boardwalk was actually made of wood (later replaced with concrete). Visitors could actually see the beach from the Boardwalk before the berm was erected.

Amusement rides, including Ferris Wheels and carousels, were erected on or near the Boardwalk by the mid-1930s. In 1954, Sea Shore Amusements, operated by the Ferris family, took over the Boardwalk concessions, offering two (count ’em) Ferris wheels, the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Octopus and the Moon Rocket, not to mention a mini-golf course. Another attraction was the Skyliner, a chair lift that swept riders out over the water at the nearby Fishermen’s Steel Pier.

Most of the rides were evicted in the mid-1970s when the real estate on which they were based changed ownership. The Boardwalk continued to draw visitors, though, with two waterslides, go-karts, the bumper cars (rumored to be the second oldest of their kind on the East Coast) and the mini-golf.

The departure of the rides, however, changed the tone of the Boardwalk, making it less of a “family” attraction. After cashing in by screening “Jaws” virtually non-stop for two seasons, The Wave turned to “adult” film fare before closing for good. In the 1980s and ’90s, a number of bars and night clubs (notably the notorious Longbranch) moved into the complex. A string of notorious murders in the 1990s seemed to dampen business in the district.

Area merchants formed a Boardwalk Preservation Association in 2004, but not much came of its efforts — due to lack of municipal support, according to leaders. Atittudes changed, though, and in 2008, with funding from the Town of Carolina Beach and the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, a new volunteer group, “Boardwalk Makeover,” was founded to spruce up the area and make it more tourist-friendly. Among its more visible projects were the landscaping of the berm and the addition of flower planters along the Boardwalk.

The opening of the Courtyard by Marriott an plans for more new high-rise anchor hotels, including a 90-room Fairfield Inn, were expected to give Boardwalk business a jump-start. In the spring of 2009, plans were even being hatched to erect new amusement rides on nearby vacant lots.

Popular Boardwalk events include the Carolina Beach Music Festival, held each June, the Fourth of July street dance and fireworks display and weekly gazebo concerts during June, July and August.

The Boardwalk can be said to begin at 1 Cape Fear Boulevard, Carolina Beach [Map this].

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3 Responses to “ What is the Boardwalk?”

  1. On June 27, 2013 at 3:50 pm Frank Bean wrote:

    I grew up in Winston-Salem. But my aunt lived in Wilmington. I have spent many happy days at Carolina Beach boardwalk back in the 50’s. I haven’t been to Carolina Beach since 1966 when my son was born. I really miss it, and hope to get back soon. I do so remember the ferris wheel, the octpus, the tilta whirl and most especially the moon rocket ride. It was quite unique for it’s day. And not to mention my favorite store Beanway’s! Where else could you find such an assortment of unique items to please a young boy!

    Thanks for the article on Carolina Beach boardwalk it sure brought back some warm memories.

  2. On September 6, 2014 at 8:37 pm Sarah smith Mendoza wrote:

    You failed to leave out,Jackson Groceries , my mothers
    Moms, father owned, across from MACKS// (Ruby Jackson)
    , also My Grandfather was Cliff Smith. He & papa smith ,his father
    Owned & operated, THE LANDMARK restaurant , since The
    30’s…. After my grandad Smith died, my father, James Richard
    Smith & Uncle took over…. Then gave it up , yes @ 1995…
    Too much riff-
    Sarah Smith Mendoza

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