This article has been adapted from Lost Charleston.
More information can be found in Do You Know Your Lowcounty?
in the Post and Courier.
Crowds flocked to Folly Beach’s first pavilion, built in 1925, to see such big band legends as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Nattily dressed couples twirled around the dance floor beneath a revolving crystal ball. Things got even better in the summer of 1931, when Charleston Mayor Thomas P. Stoney cut the ribbon in front of a jubilant crowd to reopen the renovated Atlantic Pavilion with its new pier, boardwalk and oceanfront hotel. Painted bright green, the open-air pavilion included a gaming arcade, soda shop, burger grill and other concessions. Sunbathers could shower and change in its bathhouse, and wooden ramps allowed cars to cross over the dunes and onto the beach.
Composer George Gershwin, spending several months at Folly in 1934 as he worked with DuBose Heyward on America’s first native opera, Porgy and Bess, judged beauty contests here. Newspaper accounts note more than 15,000 people celebrated July 4, 1937, listening to Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. Other legends of the decade played big band, swing and jazz: Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Fats Domino among them. The pavilion served as the center of Folly social life for the next 25 years before it burned in April 1957 in a conflagration so big it could be seen from downtown Charleston.
Within three years, a new Ocean Plaza was rebuilt on the site featuring 1,700 feet of boardwalk, a pier, Ferris wheel, roller coaster, carousel, bumper cars, bowling alley, roller skating rink, spinning swings, shops and concession stands for cotton candy, sno’ balls and ice cream. Each spring, the town put up a giant sign across Center Street from the pavilion proclaiming: “Welcome to Folly’s Playground!”
The new pavilion featured R&B, rock and roll, and beach music, to which couples performed the state dance, the shag. Its bands read like a Who’s Who of Music in America: Otis Redding, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, The Temptations, The Tams, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Swinging Medallions, The Shondells, The Drifters, The Rivieras, Pat Boone, Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, The Catalinas, Wolfman Jack, and later Grand Funk Railroad, The Marshall Tucker Band and Allman Brothers. The elegant dance attire of the 1930s was replaced with saddle oxfords, t-shirts and poodle skirts before giving way to bare feet and short shorts.
By the late ‘60s, coastal dynamics began causing Folly’s beach to erode rapidly, discouraging sunbathing, and cars were banned on the beach. Crowds began thinning out, and carnival rides disappearing, gone altogether by the end of the decade. Bands played less frequently. The pier was still used for community events and available for rent, but the magic was gone.
The pier and its buildings burned again in 1977. Though arson was suspected, no charges were ever filed. The pavilion was replaced by a Holiday Inn, marketed as Charleston’s only beachfront hotel. In 1995, a new fishing pier was completed near the original pavilion site. Several nights a year, after the fishermen have packed up their tackle for the day, the county parks commission hires a DJ to come out and play beach music, recalling days gone by.