When you think of the Outer Banks, it’s likely the beautiful beaches are first to come to mind. A popular attraction for rock and roll musicians is not as likely to be imagined. But ask any local over the age of 50 about the Nags Head Casino and you’ll be regaled with stories of legendary music acts and dancing the night away.
Originally built as a barracks in the early 1930s for the stonemasons who constructed the Wright Brothers National Memorial, the Nags Head Casino was purchased in 1937 by G. T. “Ras” Wescott. The two-story building housed duckpin bowling lanes, pool tables, and pinball machines on the first floor while a bar and expansive dance floor occupied upstairs. Ras was known for his special care of the wood dance floor, waxing and buffing it each day. To preserve it, he asked patrons to remove their shoes and dance barefoot. With the top-floor shutters open to the ocean breezes and young people grooving barefoot, the Casino was the epitome of summer fun.
During the 1930s and 1940s, big band music reigned, drawing crowds of up to 1000 people to the Nags Head Casino! During this time, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman are a few of the acts who played. As doo-wop, Mowtown, and rock and roll gained popularity in the 1950s and 60s, bands like The Platters, Fats Domino, The Four Tops, Bill Deal and the Rhondels, and The Temptations entertained. According to Carmen Gray, founder of the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum, “anybody who was anybody played at the Casino.” Until the 1970s, bands continued to make the trek to Nags Head to put on a show. And on nights when no band played, a Wurlitzer jukebox provided the music.
Unfortunately, the fun came to an end when Ras Wescott sold the building in the mid 1970s and soon after, the roof collapsed during a winter storm. Jockey’s Ridge Crossing shopping center now occupies the site of the beloved Casino. But Nags Head locals still reminisce about the raucous music, 25 cent PBRs, Wednesday night boxing matches, and walks on the beach after a night of dancing. For their generation, it truly was the place to be for both patrons and musicians. Bill Deal, from The Rhondels, remembers that “it was always packed. We never worried about having a crowd. The Casino certainly opened doors for a lot of groups. If you played the Casino, you’d made it.” For many, the time, the place, and the music will never be replicated, but the Casino will always be remembered.
Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company