What if Charleston had gotten a Dirty Myrtle makeover? 

East Bay Strip

Upper King Street bustles with the constant din of live music from a hundred party bars, the smell of strip clubs, and the distant rumble of the roller coasters.

Photo illustration by Scott Suchy

Upper King Street bustles with the constant din of live music from a hundred party bars, the smell of strip clubs, and the distant rumble of the roller coasters.

It was a brief mention — 30 seconds on the CBS Evening News, narrated by Walter Cronkite himself — but the effect was electric. Myrtle Beach realtor William Hussey was in preliminary talks with authorities in Paris to buy the Eiffel Tower and bring it to Myrtle Beach. The date: Jan. 21, 1974.

The next day, Hussey was quoted by United Press International: "Fifteen or 20 years ago, I would have considered myself straitjacket material, but they took the London Bridge and moved it over here brick by brick. I don't think moving the Eiffel Tower here would be any more difficult.

"A lot of people are trying to get [the tower], from what I understand," Hussey added, "but I think we have a good chance to get it."

Hussey admitted he had no idea what it would cost to buy, dismantle, and ship the tower to Myrtle Beach, but he had taken the preliminary step of contacting the Federal Aviation Administration to get approval for erecting it so close to the Myrtle Beach airport.

In all of these early reports, French authorities were quick to deny that the iconic Paris landmark was for sale. Of course, those denials were part of an elaborate kabuki dance on both sides of the Atlantic to mask negotiations between the French government and business and political leaders in South Carolina. It would be another 10 weeks of rumor and speculation before French officials stepped forward to announce that the Eiffel Tower had in fact been sold to a consortium of Myrtle Beach business interests and would soon make its way to a new home across the Atlantic.

The sale price was a modest $26 million. Then came the task of deconstructing the behemoth, removing 2.5 million rivets to separate 1,800 pieces of wrought iron, numbering and packing each piece individually, and transporting them on a small fleet of ships to the Grand Strand of South Carolina. This is where the cost ballooned, eventually doubling to more than $220 million. But in January 1978 — four years after the first rumors had trickled out of Paris — the reconstructed and rechristened Grand Strand Tower stood beside the Intracoastal Waterway, overlooking downtown Myrtle Beach, where vast fields of corn and tomatoes had grown less than a decade earlier.

The official Myrtle Beach debut of the tower was an 11-day international extravaganza, running from July 4 (American Independence Day) to July 14 (French Independence Day). President Jimmy Carter and French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing met beneath the tower to exchange toasts and pledge renewed friendship and cooperation. Also on hand, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The French press gushed that the tower was France's greatest gift to America since the Statue of Liberty. Conservative commentator William F. Buckley groused that it wasn't exactly a gift, and the people of Myrtle Beach had the receipt to prove it. "If the French people had any grace at all," he wrote in a typically dyspeptic column, "they would have given it to us as a down payment for our sacrifices on their behalf during World War II. What is it about the French?"

The fifth day of the festivities featured the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with a guest appearance by former conductor Leonard Bernstein, performing the world premiere of Aaron Copland's "Myrtle Beach Spring," commissioned for the occasion.

As news of the 11-day celebration filled the media and the magnitude of the event swelled, private planes started landing at Myrtle Beach International Airport, disgorging the rich and famous for a few days of reflected glory. Norman Mailer, Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Ted Kennedy, Joe Namath, Frank Sinatra, Bette Middler, and Gore Vidal were some of the grand folk who came to see and be seen. Before it was over, the international celebration of culture and good will descended into what the press called the Eiffel Trifle, or "spring break for the over-40 crowd," as late-night comic Johnny Carson quipped.

But the big party had some immediate payoffs. One of those in attendance for the premiere of "Myrtle Beach Spring" was philanthropist Paul Mellon, who was chagrined at having to sit in the Myrtle Beach High School auditorium to hear the great composer's work. Mellon pledged to create a foundation to build and maintain a world-class performance hall in Myrtle Beach that would attract the finest orchestras in the world. Work began within three years.

Next came the Louvre Museum in Paris, looking for a site for its long-planned North America extension. "The Louvre and the Tower have always been together in France," gushed a museum board member. "Now we will be together in America."

It was not long before several of Paris' leading chefs were surveilling the Grand Strand and planting their flags. They were followed by chefs from New York, San Francisco, Rome, and all points between. In 1984, Gourmet magazine dedicated an entire issue to "The New Taste of the New Myrtle Beach."

With the "new taste" of Myrtle Beach came a new market. The famous blue-collar resort suddenly found itself awash in foreign guests, museum and opera aficionados. Foreign voices filled restaurants and hotel lobbies. Billboards along U.S. 17 heralded Pavarotti in the Myrtle Beach premiere of Tosca at the new Mellon Center for the Performing Arts.

Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce officials could not contain their glee — no matter how hard they tried. On the one hand, they were hesitant to throw out 60 years of marketing and image development. And they didn't want to alienate millions of loyal vacationers who had come to the beach town for generations. On the other hand, one chamber official said off the record, "We can [deleted] culture mavens from New York and Europe or we can [deleted] Hell's Angels and spring breakers. Who would you rather sit next to in a restaurant?"

The old down-scale vacation market responded predictably. They wrote angry letters to the local paper. They even staged a couple of feeble demonstrations in front of City Hall. But mostly they just stayed away. By the mid-1980s, the demographic was clearly changing. An important sign that things were not as they used to be was the announcement by the Burroughs & Chapin Company that the old Pavilion Amusement Park was closing after the 1984 season. The legendary park had entertained millions of people since it opened in 1948, but now the land would be cleared, the old rides sold at auction or scrapped.

"It will be a sad day," a B&C spokesman said in making the announcement, "but times change and Burroughs & Chapin must change. This used to be a hot dogs-and-cotton candy town. Now people want Chablis and brie." The old Pavilion site would become home to an Omni Hotel and a Paul Prudhomme restaurant.

Meanwhile, a hundred miles down the coast, things were not going so well in Charleston. The old port city looked grimy and rundown. People said the town was still recovering from the Civil War.

Joe Riley was elected mayor in 1975, promising to turn Charleston into the world's No. 1 tourist destination. Now in his second term, Riley had little to show but big talk and lots of architectural renderings. He had brought several national retailers to King Street. They lasted a few years and moved on. On a given day you could see more sailors from the Navy Yard downtown than tourists.

One memorable night in 1980, Mayor Riley went before City Council to announce that he was changing directions. "The truth is," he said, "history doesn't sell. If it did, we would be the richest city in America because we have so much damn history. But we can't give it away.

"You want to know what sells? T-shirts sell. Beer bongs sell. Shot glasses with little Confederate flags on them sell. And they're going to put Charleston back on the map. Trust me."

Against overwhelming opposition, Riley moved ahead with his plan to recast the face of Charleston. In the process he turned East Bay Street into a wildly popular strip of T-shirt and souvenir stores, arcades and pizza shops.

Riley next went after Gaillard Auditorium, the huge hall on Calhoun Street that had never been filled. But Riley had the answer. "Show me a woman with big hair and big tits, and I'll show you a packed house every night," he told a stunned council. He then announced that his staff had just signed Dolly Parton to a season at the Gaillard. It was a huge success. Within a couple of years there were country music theaters popping up around Marion Square and Concord Street.

In 1984, Riley declared that all Charleston was lacking was an amusement park. "Our very own Coney Island right here on the peninsula," he said.

"But who can afford to buy all those rides and equipment?" a council member asked.

"Don't worry," Riley said. "I'll take care of that."

And so it happened that the Pavilion Amusement Park left Myrtle Beach and came to White Point Garden — the roller coaster, the log flume, the famous Herschell-Spillman carousel, everything.

Now called Rebel Yell Park, the rides look out over beautiful Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter. On Friday nights during the summer, throngs of Confederate reenactors descend on the park for the huge 10 o'clock fireworks show over the harbor, celebrating the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The neo-Confederates cheer and march up and down the Battery into the early hours of the morning.

Riley's grand plan worked. Today, Charleston's the No. 1 tourist destination in America, and the mayor who made it happen is regarded as a man of genius and vision. And Myrtle Beach basks smugly in its reputation as Tanglewood South.

Will Moredock is the author of Banana Republic Revisited: 75 Years of Madness, Mayhem & Minigolf in Myrtle Beach.


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