Lumina 3: The People’s Pleasure Palace

BY Susan Taylor Block

During the years of World War II (1941-1945) Luminas exterior signature lights were turned off to conform to “blackout” rules that darkened the entire coastline. With all its bulbs burning Lumina could have served as a mighty beacon for the enemy that reportedly lurked just miles from shore. Even interior light had to be camouflaged from ocean view by blackout shades or shutters.

Bands still played at Lumina on weekends but they werent the A-list performers who wowed dancers during the 1930s. Many of them were playing for the troops in the European Theatre. Virtually every man who frequented Lumina on weekends was a serviceman and many of them hitchhiked to Wrightsville Beach. Others caught a beach bus at the Woodrow Wilson Hut at Second and Princess streets in Wilmington or went by bus from Camp Davis in Holly Ridge N.C. where they were attending officers training school.

Serge Troubetzkoy a Russian prince who was being groomed to serve as a spy was one of the officers in training. He made his way from Camp Davis to Wrightsville Beach every weekend because that is where his wife Ulrich had found an airy haven. During 1942 Ulrich a journalist and poet stayed at the Ocean Terrace Hotel located where the Blockade Runner Hotel presently sits. Her memories paint a bleak picture for beach commerce during that era.

“In desperation I boarded one of the rickety buses for Wrightsville Beach and got off at the Ocean Terrace ” said Ms. Troubetzkoy. “I had the whole rambling summer hotel to myself except for weekends when the soldiers including Serge came down from Camp Davis. After the weather got cold I enjoyed the luxury of breakfast in bed. In fact I stayed there most of the day wrapped in blankets like a Taos Indian furiously writing poems and articles to keep warm.”

After the war most of Wilmingtons native sons returned as did noted band leaders like Guy Lombardo and Jimmy Dorsey who played at Lumina occasionally. But the creaking pavilion under new management was changed. Wrightsville Beach historian Bill Creasy remembers that time: “Lumina never was the same after the war. They never did restore all the lights.”

Along with the lights went some of the luster but in 1948 leaders of a new tradition called the Azalea Festival sought to change all that. Clothier and designer Beulah Meier teamed up with civic leader and beauty pageant coach Hannah Block to plan the festivals first Queens Coronation. They transformed Luminas ballroom with paint polish a suspended crystal ball and an elaborate garden motif. Meier who met her husband Richard at Lumina in 1912 also designed gowns for the female celebrities. Lumina was bursting at its wooden seams with people that memorable evening and the Azalea Festival now 60 years old got off to a brilliant start.

By the mid-1950s Lumina had a homier feel. After Brogden Hall auditorium was added to the New Hanover High School campus in 1954 there was less need for Luminas ballroom as a venue for large dressy events. Dance styles had changed too. The elegance of the big band sounds had given way to Elviss You Aint Nothing but a Hound Dog and the “gotta dance” element of 1930s music had been replaced by the smooth sleepy sounds of recordings by performers like Perry Como and Pat Boone. As a result various groups began to rent Lumina for picnics and simple holiday parties. A local newspaper advertisment told the story: “Lumina available to all churches clubs organizations. There are sufficient bath house facilities cafes restaurants games amusements novelty shops grocery centers bowling alleys and shooting galleries to keep any crowd completely happy throughout the day and night.”

Luminas exterior began to show its age in the 1950s and worsened in the 1960s. Natural sandblasting from oceanfront conditions called for perpetual and expensive maintenance but little was done. By the 1960s it was apparent that nature was winning the cosmetic battle with Lumina a structure so beautifully constructed at the core that even devastating Hurricane Hazel in 1954 didnt much faze it. New owners came up with a plan to economize yet bring new life and paint to the aging giant. John C. Drewry Lance Smith and three other partners formed the Lumina Corporation and opened a bar on the south side of the building called the Upper Deck. For a whole new generation of Lumina-goers the space would one day serve as a mental file full of memories of happy carefree college times.

Drewry and his partners added a fireplace and bought lots of nautical appointments from Horton Iron Works. “The Hortons were in the process of dismantling the Mothball Fleet of old Liberty ships that used to sit on the west side of the Cape Fear River ” said Drewry. “We put some of the pieces to good use.”

The Upper Deck had a smaller dance space than the Lumina ballroom and the warmth of it caught on quickly with area teenagers and young adults. Wilmington native Joe Page who turned 18 in 1966 became a “regular” at the Upper Deck. “Eighteen was the legal drinking age in those days and we all looked forward to having a beer there. There were a bunch of us who spent a lot of time there. One was David Donnell. He always brought his black lab with him. When David took a seat at the bar hed take off his sunglasses and put them on his dog. He had the dog trained to sit right there for an hour wearing his sunglasses. The dog was quite an attention-getter.

“When big bands played everything moved to the ballroom at Lumina ” continued Page. “I think there were as many as 600 people there sometimes. Billy Stewart played there. So did Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces whose famous song was Searching Searching for My Baby.

“But one of the biggest crowd pleasers at Lumina during the 1960s was a band called The Chosen Few. It was a five-member group from Oregon. They played a song that went My biggest mistake was loving you too much/and I want to let you know/ now youve got me where you want me/ but dont ever let me go. When they would start singing that song the whole house nearly came down. We all knew the words and sang as loudly as we could.”

Elaine Henson was a student at UNCW during the mid-1960s. “Unlike students today who flock downtown our evenings were spent at Wrightsville Beach. We frequented the Upper Deck. It was spacious and seemed new with an outdoor deck overlooking the ocean.”

“It seems very strange now ” said Henson “that we hardly ever went out on the deck. Most of us were natives and took the beach for granted. We chose to drink our beer inside in air-conditioned comfort. Having grown up with open windows and fans air conditioning still seemed new and was much preferred to moonlight over the ocean and cool breezes. That was crazy!”

From generation to generation the names and places change but the routine remains the same. For some in that era the Upper Deck was just the last and best leg of a customary nocturnal tour. Designer and antique dealer Bob Lane who claims to have had his first taste of beer at age 3 at Lumina recalled the 1960s bar scene. “We would start the evening at other Wrightsville Beach hangouts like the Wits End and the Spot. Wed check out who was there but we always ended up at the Upper Deck at Lumina. By the time we got there things were going good and people were dancing.”

However the new space didnt have the same feel for the older crowd who remembered Luminas glory days. Wilmingtons premier artist Claude Howell (1915-1997) said it best after he first visited the Upper Deck on June 9 1964. “I discovered a new beer joint tonight called the Upper Deck. It was a sad encounter for it is the old refreshment stand for Lumina and while cool and pleasant it is filled with ghosts and memories of that time when Lumina was glamorous.”

Managers of the Upper Deck included Jack Lane remembered as a “frisky energetic bartender ” and Kay Crocker currently the owner of Crocker Marine. Local artist Ronald Williams a graduate of the Parsons School of Design took over as manager about 1970. By that time Lumina was known as The Back Porch. Williams was already well-acquainted with the pavilion having been a fan of the shrimparoos that were held there in the 1960s and having just recently painted Luminas old band shell in psychedelic colors.

“At night in blue light the shell looked like a glowing sunburst ” said Williams. “With the place opened up and all that natural air conditioning flowing in and out the perfect acoustics and positioning of that bandshell were always amazing. Even on the decks you could hear the music perfectly.”

Maintenance problems and changing tastes continued to dog the pavilion. The Lumina Corporation sought and found a potential buyer. But the sellers found themselves in the middle of a real estate nightmare when Fred Futch a Wrighstville Beach building inspector arrived in the middle of the showing.

“What are yall doing?” asked Futch.

“Im thinking about buying Lumina ” said the customer.

“Well I wouldnt do that if I was you ” replied Futch. “Im getting ready to condemn it.”

With those words the Lumina Corporation lost its best prospective customer and by far their best price. Soon the businessmen sold Lumina at a discount to some folks who chose to tear the building down in 1973 and replace it with condominiums. Just when the early stages of demolition began longtime Thalian Hall director Tony Rivenbark visited the building one last time.

“I am 99.9 percent sure that I was the last person to dance at Lumina ” said Rivenbark. “I walked into the building from the beach side and went into the dance floor area for a last look. I decided that I should pay tribute to this great lady of entertainment and I began to tap dance on the dance floor and up onto the bandstand. I doubt that anyone else had the chance to do that because the building had totally disappeared the next time I went by the site.” 

Like several other very distinctive New Hanover County buildings Lumina was a challenge to raze. It was beautifully built of quality materials. It is said the stalwart heart pine timbers seemed to groan as the wrecking ball had its way. The grandest structure ever to grace Wrightsvilles shore soon became merely a memory.

Sources: Bill Creasy; Reaves Collection Beverly Tetterton Joseph Sheppard (New Hanover County Public Library); interviews conducted by the author 1996-2008.