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History of the Sun Fun Festival in Myrtle Beach

  By  Kathryn Hedgepath
Old Sun Fun Photo of Parade Float with Chamber Logo

Since 1951, Myrtle Beach’s rite of summer has been the annual Sun Fun Festival.  Traditionally, it was held at the beginning of June, just as the summer season was about to get into full swing.  These days, the Carolina Country Music Festival (CCMF), already has June rocking, so the Sun Fun Festival now gets the party started even earlier at the beginning of May.  It’s kind of like we start by celebrating Cinco de Mayo and just don’t stop until after Labor Day.  Check out this year’s fun at:  Sun Fun Festival | Visit Myrtle Beach

The driving force behind our current day Sun Fun Festival, along with his wife, Michelle, is Buz Plyler, whose father, Justin, was one of the founders of the original festival.  Plyler Park was named for Justin and serves as the epicenter of the Sun Fun festivities. 

The former focal point of the festival had been the Myrtle Beach Pavilion, a couple of blocks south of Plyler Park.  But when the Pavilion was razed in 2006, the Sun Fun Festival eventually went away as well after its 60th year in 2011.  It was the tenacity of Buz and Michelle that brought it back to stay five years later.  They have the iconic Gay Dolphin Gift Cove almost next to the park that bears the family name and features “The Goddess of the Sea,” the bronze sculpture Buz commissioned the world-renowned artist, Kristen Visbal, to do before she ever became famous.  Her work was dedicated at the opening ceremony of the 2018 festival.

While the Plylers have taken the helm of Sun Fun now, it had been a Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce event for its first six decades.  In the earlier years, one of the ways for the Chamber to raise money to host it was to declare that anyone not wearing shorts during the span of time while the festival was going on would be thrown into “Sun Fun jail.”  Those “incarcerated” had to post “bail.”  By about the 1970s, the money raised was given to charity instead. 

There were always loads of activities like sand castle building contests or human chess games where bathing suit-clad folk stood in for the pieces. But the crowd favorites were the beauty contests for Miss Sun Fun and Miss Bikini Wahine.  They served as qualifying events for larger pageants and the winners became 12-month ambassadors for Myrtle Beach.  Usually appearing in cocktail dresses or gowns rather than the swimwear that had helped them win their titles, these girls would travel around the country with our local Chamber promoting the Grand Strand. 

People enjoying the sun fun festival

But my favorite part was the parade, both watching it and being in it.  Usually, a national celebrity would be flown in to be the parade marshal and, if we could, we’d have news outlets from across the country broadcast live from the parade route.  My husband was even part of the fun one year.

When my future spouse was in his late twenties and had an attractive convertible, someone asked if he would drive a visiting beauty queen in the parade.  "Sure,” was his immediate response.  She was to perch on that part of the car, just behind the seats, that is sometimes actually called the parade boot.

At the designated space and time before they were to line up, he met up with the queen from somewhere in the upstate.  She arrived in full hair and makeup with gown, sash, and crown.  In addition, she had two magnetic signs for the car doors bearing her name and title.  As she was quite adept at the whole parade routine, she asked for no help as she attempted to affix her sign to one of the car doors, but it fell off.  She tried the other door to no avail.

Meanwhile, her handsome chauffeur was watching, but didn't want to interrupt her while she was in her earnest pursuit.  She was completely baffled, but her driver was not.  In fact, he had brought masking tape for just this situation.  He used the tape to design a sort of a harness for each sign that could be hung over the door and fulfill its purpose.   He didn’t have the heart to tell her that his Corvette was made of fiberglass and that those signs were never going to stay on by themselves.   

In the previous decades growing up, I rode in the Sun Fun parade a total of six times.  But I wasn’t on a Corvette, I was on a crash truck.  For five years, when I was in high school and college, I was a volunteer with the Myrtle Beach Rescue Squad.  I started as a cadet at 16 and continued into my twenties as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).  I and the other ladies on the squad would either sit on the front bumper or stand on the back bumper of our heavy rescue truck in our dress uniforms, which were just our regular uniforms with a little crossover tie at the neck and a hat.  To my recollection, we were the only female first responders in the parade.

But my first parade was when I was four years old, and I rode on a float with my mother. I was the understudy for my big sister who was obligated to march in the Myrtle Beach High School band in the same parade.  She and my mother were performing that summer in a dinner theater at the old Shrine Club, which was located on the south end of what is known as restaurant row, near Lake Arrowhead Road, where an upscale go kart track is today.

It was a hilarious melodrama in which my mother played the forlorn widow and my sister was her daughter. I was so excited to be in my little costume dress portraying an urchin beside my glamorous mother.  Then someone she knew hailed us from the side of the parade route and told her that I didn’t look like an urchin enough, so my mom pulled out her mascara and smudged black on my face to make me look more authentic.  I was crushed to have my appearance marred in such a way for the whole town to see in my inaugural parade.

I had been waiting for three years to have my turn to be on a float.  In the summer of 1967, the year Sharon Tate graced the festival with her beauty when she and an entourage of MGM movie stars were on hand for the world premiere of the motion picture, Don’t Make Waves, my dad had a float in the parade. 

He had just opened a scuba diving and surfing shop and school next door to his veterinary hospital at the city limits on Highway 501.  Just about every person visiting Myrtle Beach seemed to pass by there.  The thing that made them tap their brakes and look was the 12-foot, above-ground, swimming pool that had a window on the front so you could see the scuba divers training.  It was a spectacle he recreated for his float.

In addition to the beautiful older girls in bathing suits holding surfboards, my sister and our cousin stood in position on the front two-thirds of the float.  That cousin went on soon after that to win the North Carolina Junior Miss Pageant, so that was probably not her last parade. 

On the back of the float was a round tank that resembled the curved front of Dad’s iconic pool on 501.  Inside the tank was a scuba diver swimming around as the float was towed through Myrtle Beach.  This remarkable creation garnered Dad a second-place ribbon.  Three years later, “my” float won first place. 

Kathryn Hedgepath

Myrtle Beach native, Kathryn Hedgepath, loves to share her hometown’s history with visitors and newcomers to the Grand Strand.  She is the creator and narrator of the Myrtle Beach History Trolley and Step-On Tours, and the author of the book, Myrtle Beach Movies, that tells the stories behind the motion pictures that were made or premiered in Myrtle Beach.  She has traveled in 40 countries on 6 continents and uses her experience to convey our local history through a world lens. Kathryn returned home from NYC in 2002 to marry her beloved husband, Jenks, after a career in television and publishing (and even worked in Space Shuttle Operations at NASA Headquarters in DC for a semester before starting grad school at Georgetown University).  Her first career job was as Personal Assistant to television icon and wildlife expert, Jim Fowler, of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom fame. Her dad, Myrtle Beach’s first veterinarian, arranged the job interview when Jim Fowler came to Myrtle Beach for a speaking appearance at a veterinary conference in 1991.