Susie Burnett Jones Remembers

[Editor:  8/6/15 – August, 2015 Wrightsville Magazine featured: ‘Gilbert’s Sno-balls by Gil Burnett as told by Henry Burnett. 

“Let’s go back 70-some years to the Great Depression.  Let’s go to 1937. Carolina Beach.  I was 12 years old, and I was a carnival boy.”

It’s a great article about surviving on the Carolina Beach boardwalk.]

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In Feb, 2014, we ran an excerpt from John Hook’s interview of Jim Hannah.  In reply Susie Burnett Jones has sent the following:

My father, John Henry Burnett of Burgaw, began investing in Carolina Beach in 1911; and in 1936 he built a six-bedroom cottage at 404 Carolina Beach Ave, North.

Until World War II the beach had two distinct groups of people: the summer folks and the year round residents, of which there were very few. At that time those living at the beach year round included business owners and their employees, commercial fishermen (the Freemans and the Winners) and those associated with the church and the elementary school. We were summer folks, and, like many others, moved to the beach in May of every year and returned home in late August. Of course, many rented houses or rooms, usually for two weeks, as we did before building our cottage.

Ocean Plaza - 1940s

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In the 1930’s downtown Carolina Beach, referred to as “the boardwalk,” was an entertainment mecca for young people throughout the Piedmont and Eastern North Carolina.

Cliff Smith’s Green Lantern, and the Carolina Moon next door, were known throughout the state as the “places to be” for young dancers and “wannabes.” The Big Apple, the Little Apple and the Jitterbug kept their wooden floors red-hot every summer night.

There was little or no crime. High school and college boys were allowed to “thumb” down by their parents, sleeping anywhere they could. All was well.

On Sept. 19, 1940 the boardwalk burned to the ground. The original pavilion and good solid beach-front hang-outs were replaced by small, poorly constructed buildings.

Pearl Harbor brought the end of an era. Soldiers and sailors from around the world now crowded the boardwalk mingling with shipyard workers, military police, summer visitors and permanent residents. Beer was bought and sold in every nook and cranny. The war changed the atmosphere of our wonderful family beach, where formerly beer had been only mildly visible after dark.

After the war Mr. Gene Reynolds from Greensboro built the Ocean Plaza building on a location where he owned outside bowling alleys. The new building was modern and glamorous. Mr. Reynolds’s objective was to re-create a more sophisticated beach environment. The restaurant was on the ground floor. The second floor was a ballroom with several sets of French doors opening onto a long balcony over-looking the boardwalk. The third floor was a penthouse apartment for the use of the manager. During the time that the Ocean Plaza was under construction, I was away in college.

In the early spring of 1949 I heard that the Ocean Plaza ballroom had a new manager, a radio personality from Wallace, John (?). He was auditioning for a vocalist to sing with the band he had hired for the summer, that was made up of musicians from the Duke Ambassadors and the Stormy Weathers of UNC.

'Stormy Weather' at Ocean Plaza

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The band would be called Stormy Weathers because the Weathers brothers, Jimmy on piano and Bynum on bass, were the leaders.

I had planned to spend the summer at Daddy’s house at the beach and having sung with several bands, decided to audition for the Ocean Plaza job. I knew that Daddy would keep an eye on me whatever I did.

I owned a wire recorder for recording and critiquing my singing, so I sent a spool with recordings for my songs to John. Shortly thereafter he called me to come to the beach for an interview. He lived on the third floor penthouse of the Ocean Plaza, and had a relatively new wife from Waccamaw. Their living room was furnished with glamorous white sectional sofas. His wife was lovely and refined. He told me that he wanted to hire a vocalist with whom she would be compatible.

Competing with Wrightsville Beach for summer vacationers and college kids, John’s goal was to make the Ocean Plaza ballroom a sophisticated club in which men would wear coats and ties or dinner jackets and women would wear cocktail dresses. All employees would be music students recruited by his wife’s brother, David Grey, a music major from UNC.

Everyone hired was musical … the waiters, bartenders, ticket handlers, etc. Waiters would take turns coming up to the mike to sing. I was the vocalist and the only girl. The job was tailor-made for summer fun and meaningful summer work. Everything went like clockwork. We were all happy college kids and most of us hung out all day on the beach in front of the Burnett cottage under Daddy’s supervision, and were surrounded by music at night. Utopia!

About a week after opening we were booked to be guests on John’s radio show in Wallace. Jimmy Weathers, who was slow and easy-going, was driving one of three cars full of musicians. We got started late and almost missed the 2 p.m. broadcast, running into the station just before the red “on the air” light came on. I don’t remember the program, except that one of the songs I sang was “Zippity Doo Dah.”

Late Saturday on the second week of our employment the boys in the band went up to the penthouse to receive their checks. No one was there. The next day it became apparent that John had skipped town with his wife. No one knew why, or anything about their whereabouts. It’s still a mystery.

What a dilemma. We all huddled on Sunday afternoon. No one wanted to leave the beach, but there was no money to keep the Ocean Plaza operating. After agonizing for hours some decided to leave. The rest of us determined that we would take over the Ocean Plaza Ballroom and run it ourselves for the rest of the summer.

There were eight in the band, four singing waiters, a bartender, a box office person and me. We served only soft drinks and grilled cheese sandwiches. I was the vocalist and also managed the business. From our receipts we first paid the rent and our few bills and then divided the balance among ourselves. Everything was in cash. We were successful.

Bop City featuring, Jimmy Cavallo, was across the boardwalk, its entrance about 50 feet from the front door of the Ocean Plaza. The two very different types of music came together like cymbals. … Jimmy Cavallo’s saxophone on “How High the Moon” and the Stormy Weathers “You’re Just too Marvelous” with the full band. Bobby Haas and a couple of others played at both places. Tommy Teabeaux and his trombone came by the Ocean Plaza one night and joined the Stormy Weathers for several numbers.

The ballroom closed at midnight when we would lock the door and jam for another hour. Daddy kept a close eye on us all, and in August we all went back to our respective schools, leaving the pinnacle season in the Ocean Plaza ballroom’s history. Every person involved says to this day that it was the greatest summer of their lives.

When the Moon Stood Still

Click: Book Description

PS:   Milton Bliss, a singing waiter, became head of the Music Department at NC State. Jimmy Weathers became a professional pianist in Atlanta, and on one occasion was complimented on his playing by Frank Sinatra. Bynum Weathers got his PhD and became a teacher and composer. I went to New York where I performed in and sang two solos in the off-Broadway musical “Dakota.”

 [Want to read more of Susie’s stories about the “good old days?” Our gift shop has copies of her book When the Moon Stood Still for sale. Published in 2003 it is $25.00 and we only have a few copies left.]