You don’t just get to be “The 8th Wonder of The World” overnight.
For The Bowery, the journey to become a world renowned entertainment venue and a Myrtle Beach icon began in 1944 from this once rustic, unassuming bar.
In its more than six decades of operation the place has seen it all. From 330 pound can-can girls, to bartenders who can carry 34 beers without a tray — a world record. Oh, and by the way, it also happened to launch the careers of Alabama, one of the most successful country groups of all-time.
Each of these unique little factoids, combined with a 7-day-a-week diet of live music and cold beer, have contributed to what has become one of the most successful brands on the Grand Strand.
Helped along by the demolition of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion and addition of the Myrtle Beach boardwalk in recent years, The Bowery continues to build up its business for more than 30 years after owner Victor Shamah took over the historic spot.
Beginning with a band
Shamah, a Myrtle Beach native, grew up with a father who owned a store on the downtown strip and in the 1970s came into owning his own oceanfront business, a T-shirt store adjacent to The Bowery.
This led him to hang out at the club next door and soon he got to know a group then called Wildcountry which featured Alabama founders Jeff Cook, Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry and various drummers.
During the time the band played at The Bowery from 1973-1980, Shamah began to work with Alabama — which eventually changed its name based on the state license plate that hung on The Bowery wall behind the stage where they played — selling t-shirts and merchandise.
“We were touring a bit but they weren’t signed at that point. We were doing the winter gigs in places like Greenville and all these small little towns across North Carolina and I would go out and sell the T-shirts,” he said.
With the addition of drummer Mark Herndon in 1979, Alabama firmed up its lineup and began to push further toward stardom, scoring its first No. 1 hit “Tennessee River” in 1980. It was at this time, Shamah seized an opportunity to take over The Bowery.
“When Alabama signed that July, the elder lady who owned it at that point decided she would either sell it to me or them and at that time having been just signed they didn’t really have the money,” he said. “ So I left being on the road doing shirts with them and just took The Bowery instead.”
Expanding the business
At only 22 years old, Shamah was already a seasoned businessman and immediately began pushing to expand the bar.
“When I took The Bowery over I just focused on expanding it and promoting the name a lot more,” he said.
In addition to his promoting efforts, Shamah also physically expanded the place, buying Duffy’s next door to add a traditional bar compliment to the entertainment venue that only offers one variety of alcohol — an unnamed draft beer for $2.25.
As Alabama’s popularity grew, more and more people would come through to visit the place where the band began its run. While Shamah is grateful for the positive impact the band has had on the bar and still remains in touch with its members — who generally stop through once a year or so — he’s also quick to point out which came first.
“In my opinion, The Bowery made Alabama, Alabama didn’t make The Bowery,” he said. “Before RCA even signed them, they knew they were gonna have so many hits because they spent so much time here perfecting those songs and testing them out on The Bowery crowds.”
Evolving over time
While embracing its history was important, over time the bar also saw the need to evolve, especially as the atmosphere of Myrtle Beach changed with more and more entertainment moving away from downtown.
“Before there was one strip in Myrtle Beach and this was it. We were the country thing, the traditional honky-tonk. But suddenly instead of a small little town, Myrtle Beach became big business as a resort,” said Shamah.
It was at this time that The Bowery made moves to begin advertising much more than just its traditional word of mouth methods and trademarked its name and “8th Wonder of the World” slogan.
Through the 1990s and 2000s these moves helped The Bowery stay at the top of mind for visitors who were increasingly being drawn toward areas such as Broadway at the Beach, Barefoot Landing and others.
In addition, the efforts of Shamah and other Oceanfront Merchants Association members over the past few years have renewed the city’s focus on bringing people to the downtown area and according to Shamah it seems to be working.
“Downtown was always the heart of what built the tourism industry here,” says Shamah. “It’s a good feeling when people come back.”
Whether it’s nostalgia or just the cycle of things, he says it’s great to see families taking an interest in the area again.
“I find that after 30 years of doing this that we’re getting more and more parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. We get people in here from 21 to 81. We now get four and five generations with people wanting to come visit because their great-grandad used to come here,” says Shamah.
Focusing on the future
Never one to rest on his laurels, Shamah is still pushing the envelope when it comes to the future of The Bowery, both business-wise and entertainment-wise.
He continues to perfect The Bowery’s musical formula, which consists of six nights a week of house band Lee Travis & The Bounty Hunters and various local and touring acts to fill in the gaps on Sunday nights.
“I used to hire bands, now I hire musicians,” he says. “We do our best to teach them and train them and make it so my band now knows at least 1,000 songs from Country to Rock to Blues to Beach.”
In addition, the lineup of Sunday night shows includes top talents such as Southern Drawl, Jeffrey Allan Edwards, Matt Boswell & The Hillbilly Blues Band.
“Once we get them in here then they all want to come back here once or twice a year,” says Shamah.
In addition to the entertainment Shamah — with the help of his son Michael — keeps at the forefront of modern marketing efforts, with a top-notch website featuring a Ustream feed of the bar’s entertainment, aggressive social media interaction and text message deals for free admission and other specials.
Shamah also says he’s thinking about expanding the schedule in which the Bowery stays open.
“We used to be March to October, now we’re going until the end of October, then we do a Christmas party and we’re thinking about having a New Year’s event as well,” he said. “Me and Russ [Stalvey, owner of Oceanfront Bar & Grill] would like to do a block party right here on our street.”
But no matter what The Bowery alters over time, Shamah says he’s sure some things will never change.
“We’re simple and we’re down to earth. You don’t have to worry about how you look or any of that when you come in. Just come in and have a good time.”