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"Listening to History" has been reprinted with permission from The News & ObserverCopyright 1998-2008.


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Loretta Gunter: Always a Family Beach

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 8/10/2003. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Late on a recent Saturday night, the boardwalk at Carolina Beach, 15 miles south of Wilmington, was hopping. Beach music filled the night air. Children were playing gleefully in the arcades and grandmothers were playing bingo. Across from a dance club and bar, a Methodist church's puppet ministry was enthralling a crowd of youngsters. Evangelists, bar patrons and everybody else was lined up out the door at Britt's Donut Shop. It was a beautiful, dreamy evening on one of the state's last oceanfront boardwalks.

At the Surf Side Bar, where she has been the proprietor for 31 years, a stately 58-year-old, Loretta Gunter, shared a bag of doughnuts with me and told me about the history of the boardwalk. Standing by an MIA-POW banner and memorials to regulars who have died over the years, she could not hide her fury at the town's recent proposal to "clean up" the boardwalk and bring in more high-end development. One plan calls for replacing the boardwalk, including the Surf Side, with a parking deck.

"They're saying they want to make this a family beach," she told me. "It's always been a family beach."

Loretta Gunter. Photo by Chris Seward, 2003.In Loretta Gunter's words:
When I first started coming to Carolina Beach to spend any time at all was in 1962. We would go upstairs to The Plaza, the ballroom. It's called Club Tropics now. That's where the shag started, and I have seen the Zodiacs, the Buttercups, a lot of the great beach music bands there. At that time there was probably seating capacity for 500 to 1,000 people. I went up there and danced many a night until closing time. Many a night.

When I first opened the Surf Side in 1971, the boardwalk was rowdy. There were 22 bars. Twenty-two bars! There were a lot of Marines, a lot of guys from Fort Bragg. They kept things under control, but you know, we had a lot of people. At 9 o'clock in the morning, the bar was full. The guys would sit so they could watch the girls hit the beach. They got right there in the window. I mean, if you didn't get there early, you didn't get a seat.

I can tell you what was here back then. There was the rec hall on the corner. It was like a big pool hall but it also served food. That's where most of the teenagers hung. On the corner was the Landmark Restaurant, which it still is. Over on the left-hand side was a hotel, and they had a bar in it called the Wagon Wheel. On the corner here was a restaurant, and then there was a cotton candy stand, then Duffy's Pizza and the doughnut shop. Then there was Benway's. It was a variety store.

Next to that was Allan's Beach Wear, and on the corner of that was a T-shirt shop. As you go to The Plaza, downstairs was Elie's. It was a big bar, and they had go-go dancers. As you're coming back on this side, they had the ring-the-bell thing, and then there was the Haunted House. Next to it was the arcade, which still is the arcade. And coming back this way was Sam's Leather Shop and a snow cone place.

Then Mrs. Dale and Mr. Dale had all these little games like pick-a-duck, throw the darts, the basketball toss. On the other side was where the rides were. And then there was a bar, and then there was a bar, and then there was another bar, and the last bar was called The Last Chance. It was the last chance!

My favorite thing used to be to ride the chairlift to the end of the pier. It went out on the very edge of the pier and came back, and you got on it up here where there used to be rides. So you could hit the rides, go get on the chairlift, then come back down and walk on the pier.

When I first came here, the boardwalk was a very, very busy place. Used to, say for instance, Azalea Festival weekend, you had to have somebody on the door. You could let two in, two out, four in, four out. My crowd would be lined this way. Silver Dollar's crowd would be lined around Landmark's way, and that's the way you had to let them in. I've seen them stand in line two hours just to come hear a jukebox.

They didn't have all the hotels in Wilmington, so when everybody got through partying at the Azalea Festival, they had to come to Carolina Beach. There weren't enough rooms for everybody here either. They'd sleep right on the beach. You go out there and it looked like little whales. They'd be in their little sleeping bags and as far as you could see, you wouldn't see nothing but bodies.

I do a lot of birthday parties and wedding receptions, but I also do a lot of benefits. I'm half Cherokee and I lived above the reservation off and on through my childhood, and I know what poverty is. So when I see somebody that doesn't have any food or clothes, they're going to have some food and clothes if I have to go home and get them myself. The last benefit we did, Patty's, we did over $2,000.

Patty had cancer and no insurance. She would sit right there in that corner. She did not want to go the doctor for nothing. Trying to make her go to the doctor, I'd say just all kind of ugly things to her. But you know, she told me, she said, "You've called me a [expletive] many a time, but I know you cared." And when she was dying, I was the one she called. I was with her until the end. The very end.

We've had a lot to die that comes in here. See those pictures on the wall with the birds? Those all represent somebody that was here and died. Regulars. When we do a memorial service, we go down here to the gazebo or either the end of the pier. We'll get different people, like the girl Charlie that works for me -- she has a beautiful voice -- and she may sing, and then everybody will band together and they'll sing, and a pastor will do the service. At Patty's, we borrowed chairs from the fire department and we set them out in rows just like a chapel, then came back here.

On the boardwalk you meet all kinds of people, all walks of life -- the good ones, the bad ones, the neat ones, the shaggy ones. I have bikers that come in here. I've had the Hell's Angels in here. I've had the Outlaws in here. You'll see little buddies and their grandparents in here dancing some nights. You meet them all, but they're all people. I treat everybody like I want to be treated, and they do the same.

Most people don't want to mess with me anyway. I've been the bouncer 31 years and, honey, I always tell the guys, trust me, I can rumble. I can get down and dirty with the best of them. Don't let this little lady fool you.
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