Before nighttime entertainment became routine on the Outer Banks, the Circus Tent drew impressively large seasonal crowds of all ages for two decades of fellowship and family-friendly fun.
The Outer Banks was a growing vacation destination by the mid-1960s, but there were still very few entertainment opportunities for residents or visitors during those long summer nights. This was an issue that prompted a group of local Christian leaders to discuss the possibility of creating a ministry that would appeal to both groups by providing an open, family-friendly space where people could regularly gather.
Their initial plans were modest when they began showing movies on an old billboard-sized wooden screen near the Kill Devil Hills Coast Guard Station. According to at least one report, the founding group decided to test the waters with this venture, agreeing that if at least 50 people routinely came for the viewings they would consider pursuing other ideas. When crowds numbering in the hundreds quickly started gathering each night, it was clear that there was room for more offerings.
As a result, the Circus Tent opened its doors in Kill Devil Hills only a few years later in 1968. Located on the bypass just south of the Wright Brothers National Memorial (where Outer Banks Brewing Station now stands), the Circus Tent was an interdenominational ministry that offered an ice cream parlor and free nightly “folk music revues,” which were brightly advertised on their large, eye-catching sign.
Several musical performances by the New Hermeneutics (a revolving band made up of college students and other young adults that was once known simply as the Hermeneutics) took place Tuesdays through Saturdays during the summer months. Special Monday shows featured traveling regional bands, including some Hermeneutics alumni from previous seasons.
At the height of its popularity the Circus Tent reportedly drew crowds of up to 500 people per day, which led, at least in part, to several more additions. Chief among those innovations was a prayer garden, a Christian bookstore, puppet shows and a mobile arm of the Circus Tent known as The Showboat, which was formed in order to spread “the Good News” to people at places such as motels, campgrounds and nursing homes in the mid-1970s.
Funded mostly through church-sponsored and individual donations, and staffed primarily by both local and visiting volunteers who served as ice cream dippers, gardeners, cashiers and attendants, the Circus Tent inspired a sense of community that’s still remembered fondly today.
The Circus Tent closed after its official 20th season in 1988 as a growing number of new attractions became readily available along the Outer Banks. A spinoff of the Circus Tent’s ever-popular puppetry programming was formed under the name Creative Ministries.
In 2009 a well-attended Circus Tent reunion was held at the Promenade in Kitty Hawk, proving that the spirit of the venue lives on in the memories of many.
The photograph and research assistance for this article came from the Outer Banks History Center, a regional archives and research library of the State Archives of North Carolina. In 2016 the History Center Gallery in Manteo presents “Explore Your Outer Banks Parks: Celebrating a Century of the National Park Service.”