In 1979, the people of the Outer Banks were, to paraphrase the B-52s, looking for a little old place where we could get together, as well as do some moves and listen to live rock and roll bands.
After all, disco was beginning to lose its grip on popular culture.
It arrived just in time for the summer season in the form of the Atlantis Beach Club, which was two lots south of the Nags Head fishing pier.
Next door was the Footsball Palace, where young people gathered to play pinball machines and video games.
The strip of land near mile post 12 on the beach road at Nags Head quickly became an entertainment hub, and locals and visitors alike started partying like it was, well, 1979.
A carefree and relaxed atmosphere reigned in the salty air.
And while the Outer Banks weren’t the Wild West, Nags Head and the other beach towns certainly had loose rules and regulations in those days.
“It was loud and hot and fun,” said Dan Banks, 67, of Kill Devil Hills, who was a regular customer and part-time DJ that first year. “The great thing was you could walk in the front door and have a beer and then walk out the back door to the beach and watch the moon.”
But beyond that, the Atlantis has become a premier music venue, joining a circuit that included, among others, the Pass in Richmond, Virginia, the Attic in Greenville, North Carolina, and the hotel townhouse in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“All the top regional bands wanted to play there,” said Keith Duke, 69, the club’s first DJ and sophomore manager who is retired and traveling the country in an RV with his wife.
“It was a level of entertainment the beach hadn’t seen.”
Before being named the Atlantis, the flat blue and white beachfront building was home to two other nightclubs: the Wind Dancer and the Oz, which closed in 1978.
The nightclub (the working name was the “Paragon”) operated from 1979 to 1995; it closed after a coastal storm severely damaged the building.
Houses now occupy the land where the iconic Atlantis and Football Palace once stood.
For a few years there was a “new” Atlantis, which occupied a building that is now the Mahi Mahi Island Grill in Nags Head.
This story is about the original (Full Disclosure: I worked as a house DJ during the summers of 1981 and 1982, so I had the big picture of the proceedings).
Its history is rich with tales (and, perhaps, a few fables) of wild summer nights, flowing beer (in cans and bottles, only), and high-profile bands churning out punk, rock, alternative, rap, reggae, country-rock and blues jams.
Atlantis would have been an ideal setting for a reality TV series if the genre had existed in the club’s 16-year existence, especially in the early days.
Hearts have been opened, broken and repaired every night.
Mike McQuillis, a former Navy SEAL and former manager of Peabody’s Nightclub in Virginia Beach, was the club’s first owner-operator.
He left the building in the late 80s and was then managed at different times by Doug Kibler and Jerry Dowless.
It was just a rock ‘n’ roll joint and we loved it.
But the Taj Mahal was not.
The walls were covered in red carpet, the bathrooms were functional at best, and the stage was small.
Back in the big hair days of the 80s, band members’ headpieces almost touched the low ceiling.
There were bars at the back and front of the building, and a dance floor (part of an old ice rink) took up space in front of the stage.
It was often sandy and sticky (from spilled beer).
The capacity was around 300, but the number often exceeded that.
The air conditioning system, which consisted of four ceiling units, struggled every night to keep the hundreds of club-hoppers cool on hot summer nights.
“Hotlantis,” man, it was hot in there,” said Robyn Dozier, a nurse who lives in Duck. “Fun times, though.”
Nightclub goers weren’t in the nightclub to admire the decor, but rather to mingle, drink, dance and enjoy the confusing groove of the sounds.
“I loved hanging out there with high school friends,” said Wendy D. Daniels, 61, of Statesville, North Carolina. “It was the best music ever.”
The club also thrived thanks to the high standard of security led by legendary bouncer Collis Gallup (d. 2010) of Manteo.
“It was impressive,” recalls Duke. “Mike (McQuillis, the club owner) wanted things to end before they started.”
“Collis has always watched over us kids,” said Daniels, whose photo of Atlantis is on the cover. “He was the best guy.”
Part of the club’s early appeal, according to Duke, was the community spirit.
To this end, Sundays were “local evenings”.
Monday evenings, also aimed at locals, were devoted to punk-rock and new wave music, a nod to booming trends.
“It was a collective hangout for locals,” recalls Bryan Murray, 58, a filmmaker who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. “The locals were wearing old t-shirts and tearing them up on the dance floor.”
“Drunken tourists would do the same with much prettier shirts. We used to laugh about it.
Murray remembers Johnny Quest, the Nerve and the Boneshakers as popular New Wave bands that made the scene.
Music has always been the driving force of the nightclub throughout its journey.
Jacksonville-based Southern rock band Nantucket, who released four major-label albums, played Atlantis many times during the golden years, as did, among others, Good Humor Band, Snuff, Sidewinder, the Connells , Widespread Panic, Waxing Poetics, Brice Street and Sutter’s Gold Streak.
“We loved this place,” recalls Nantucket lead singer Larry Uzzel.
“The stage was a bit small, but the sound was good and the crowd loved us.”
In the 80s and 90s, Atlantis was still the place to be with its hands-up spirit and high-quality entertainment.
“The party never stopped,” said Laurin Walker, 53, of Kill Devil Hills, who was a bartender at the club from 1988 to 1994. “I saw crazy music.”
It was both a launching pad for emerging artists and a stopover for classic rock bands on the East Coast circuit.
And what can you say, the Charlottesville, Virginia-based Dave Matthews Band played their first out-of-state gig in 1992 at Atlantis, and the following year played back-to-back shows.
“I think I have a 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.
Derek Trucks, who played with the Allman Brothers Band and now tours and records with his wife Susan Tedeshi, was also in the club in the early 90s.
Other bands that rocked the house during Walker’s tenure include Widespread Panic, 311, Awareness Art Ensemble, Edwyn Collins, Hootie and the Blowfish, Everything, All Mighty Senators, Too Skinny J’s, among others. and burning spear.
Beth Pennington, 57, of Kill Devil Hills, was an avid traveler from 1989 to 1995.
“After parties on the beach were always awesome,” she recalled.
Legendary artists such as Atlanta Rhythm Section, Blue Oyster Cult, Edgar Winter, Dickey Betts (of the Allman Brothers Band), the Outlaws, Firefall, Molly Hatchet, Little River Band, Rare Earth and Pat Travers have also given memorable performances at the ‘Atlantis.
“It was the perfect dive bar to listen to live music on OBX,” said keyboardist Eric Lawson of popular bands Fighting Gravity and Boy O Boy, who were ’90s regulars. nothing like it since then.”
Nearly 27 years after the original Atlantis closed, people still fondly remember those lazy, foggy, crazy summer days at the Gathering Place.
Asked about the memories, some smile, others blush.
But most said they could still hear the nightly poetic words of closing time (2 a.m.) from security officer extraordinaire Collis Gallup:
“Go out or go out, I don’t care.”
Editor’s Note: Part of this story appeared in the June 5, 2020 edition of Coast.