By John Harper
The next time you’re driving or walking along the beach road near the Nags Head Fishing Pier at milepost 12, stop and listen. Over the surf sounds and seagulls squawking, you might hear echoes of a bygone era on the Outer Banks.
The iconic Atlantis Beach Club, two lots south of the pier, was the go-to place for young folks looking to get their groove on from 1979 to 1995.
Wrecking machines tore the roof off the sucker and made the walls come crumbling down in early 1996 after the building was heavily damaged during a coastal storm. The Atlantis operated for a few years in the space now occupied by the New York Pizza Pub in Nags Head, but this story is about the original.
Full disclosure: I worked as the house DJ in the summers of 1981 and ’82. It was only a rock ‘n roll joint, but we liked it.
Atlantis’s history is rich with stories, and maybe a few fables, about wild summer nights, flowing beer – cans and bottles only — and top-tier bands pumping out rock, punk, reggae, rap, alternative and blues jams.
The flat, blue-and-white, oceanfront building, next door to the old Footsball Palace, housed several short-lived nightclubs, including the Rain Dancer and the Oz, which closed in 1978.
Enter Mike McQuillis, a former Navy SEAL and one-time manager of Peabody’s Nightclub in Virginia Beach. He did a few repairs on the building and christened his new nightspot the Atlantis Beach Club, which opened in the summer of 1979. McQuillis left the building in the late ‘80s and it was later owned by Doug Kibler and Jerry Dowless at separate times.
The Taj Mahal it was not.
Capacity was listed at about 300, but numbers often exceeded that. Walls were covered with red shag-carpet, bathrooms were functional at best, the stage was small and the ceiling was low.
“The only time I was there, a horse came in through the back door,” remembered Carlen Pearl of Colington.
There were bars at the back and front of the building and a dance floor, a section of an old skating rink, occupied a space in the front of the stage. Spilled beer often left the floor sandy and sticky. The air-conditioning system, which consisted of four ceiling units, struggled nightly to keep the hundreds of club-hoppers cool.
“Hotlantis,’ man it was hot in there,” said Robyn Dozier, a nurse who lives in Duck. “Fun times, though.”
“I loved how you could just walk out the back door to the beach if you got too sweaty and hot,” said Laura Perkins Tripp, a marketing director in Richmond, Virginia.
But the summer set was not there for the décor; they were in the club to mingle, drink and party like it was 1979.
“It was just high energy,” said Keith Duke, who was the nightclub’s first DJ and second-year manager. “And there was a real sense of community.”
Sunday was designated “locals’ night.” Music was a big part of the club’s allure. The Atlantis attracted some of the most popular bands of the day.
“It was a level of entertainment that the beach hadn’t seen,” said Duke, 66, who these days travels with his wife in a recreational vehicle.
Nantucket, a Jacksonville, North Carolina-based southern rock band, played the club in the early days. So did the Good Humor Band, Snuff, Sidewinder, Bryce Street and Super Grit Cowboy Band.
“We loved it there,” remembered Nantucket lead singer Larry Uzzell, whose band released four albums on major labels. “The stage was kind of small, but the sound was good and the crowd loved us.”
Through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, the Atlantis was still the place to see and be seen.
“The party never stopped,” said Laurin Walker, 51, of Kill Devil Hills. “It was like the Wild West.”
Walker served as a bartender, one of usually six on duty nightly, at the club from 1988 to 1994.
“I saw some insane music,” she said. “Everybody wanted to play there.”
The Atlantis was both a launch pad for up-and-coming bands and a stop for classic-rock groups on the East Coast circuit.
In the former category was a little act called the Dave Matthews Band. The Charlottesville, Virginia-based band played their first out-of-state gig in 1992 at the Atlantis.
“I believe I have a cassette tape somewhere of Dave begging for floor space and complaining about the leaky ceiling,” said musician, sound engineer and record producer Scott Franson of Kill Devil Hills.
The Dave Matthews Band also performed back-to-back shows in 1993.
Derek Trucks, who played with the Allman Brothers Band and now tours and records with his wife Susan Tedeschi, also played the funky little bar in the early ‘90s.
Other bands that rocked the house during Walker’s tenure were Widespread Panic, 311, the Awareness Art Ensemble, Edwyn Collins and Burning Spear. The Atlanta Rhythm Section, Blue Oyster Cult, Edgar Winter, Dickey Betts, the Outlaws and Pat Travers also gave memorable performances at the club.
Almost 25 years after the original Atlantis closed, people still fondly recall those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer at the gathering spot. When asked about the memories, most smile or blush.
Several mentioned the last-call words of the Atlantis’s legendary bouncer, Collis Gallup of Manteo: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”