Butterfly Dreams of the Outer Banks: the Travel Bureau and the Other Place, Nags Head, NC

Final poster for The Other Place, featuring the Huckleberry Mudflap
Final poster for The Other Place, featuring the Huckleberry Mudflap

Once upon a dream, a sage became a bright butterfly and visited secret places in far-away lands. The dream was so real that, upon awakening, he wondered: am I now a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or am I a butterfly now dreaming I am a man?

Thus read the legend on the most gorgeous concert poster from ‘60s North Carolina I had ever seen. In fact, the colors and lettering were so good that I spent the last several years with the image in the back of my mind with a mental footnote that it was probably a later reproduction. A magenta and aquamarine background camouflaged the face of a lovely woman peering down on a red-capped mushroom with white stalk, on which the opening paragraph was written sideways in small cursive script, while a large, ornate and matching red/white butterfly design drew the eye up and right. It was exquisite.

The design and color scheme was just what you hope for in a psychedelic piece of the era. It would have been good enough to announce the appearance of Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape at the Fillmore West. Alas, this was no lost San Francisco concert herald. The headline in white against the red mushroom top in beautiful stylized lettering read, “The Other Place, The Huckleberry Mudflap, Monday Aug. 26 thru Saturday Aug. 31 at the Rec. Center near mile post 12 Nags Head.”

Huckleberry Mudflap was no mystery. They were a well-remembered group around eastern Carolina, hailing from Harkers Island, NC. Their two 45s are quite nice. “Blue Surf” is a mellow sunshine pop account of a stroll on the beach. “Goodnight Mrs. Kollendoffer (Wherever You Are)” is the more mind-bending side.

This venue The Other Place at the Rec Center was more obscure. The most popular concert club in Nags Head was The Casino, their equivalent of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion. That’s where all the beach circuit bands landed. In fact, whatever The Other Place had going during the summer of ’68 would have been up against some serious competition from the Casino calendar that season. No trip to Nags Head was complete without a visit to the Casino or so I’ve been told.

‘Fessa John Hook would be able to rattle off a string of artists that played the Casino. As a beach music expert and DJ, ‘Fessa (that’s professor in cool-speak) John is conversant in all things shag-worthy. So, when he asked me recently, on the reputation of my Facebook group Carolina Rock ‘n’ Roll Remembered, if I could recommend any interesting show posters, I immediately thought of the Other Place. I told him the provenance was still in question, the jury was still out, but they (I had an inkling of two other designs in the series) were beautiful and deserved more study. While they weren’t really for beach dance bands, the events, if they were genuine, in that location at that time would certainly have some overlapping interest. John agreed. I was on the case.

I shot Morris Willis of Huckleberry Mudflap a message. Did the show as advertised take place? If the poster were a fantasy piece, it’s possible the related content was dreamt up. Morris responded shortly and gave me my first glimpse inside The Other Place. It most certainly did exist and The Mudflap had played that week.

Third poster for the Other Place, featuring the Wild Kingdom and the Aliens, each playing a week
Third poster for the Other Place, featuring the Wild Kingdom and the Aliens, each playing a week

How about those posters, though? The thought still hung with me that someone had revisited an idealized version of their youth and designed these in more recent years, maybe to sell in gift shops up and down the Outer Banks. It wasn’t a bad idea. They were just too good and raised many unanswered questions. Who was capable of such a thing in 1968? Why would they be associated only with a tiny, forgotten club on the beach and feature small regional acts mostly unknown an hour’s drive away? They obviously represented considerable effort and skill. There was no immediate example of anything nearly so well-done in the region. There was one pretty cool pink and orange Janis Joplin poster from UNC the next year, but it was bland alongside The Other Place posters. Most of the Carolina concert posters of the era were boxing style “blanks,” a reusable standard layout that would have the name of artists and dates swapped out with little expense before the next printing. That was another head-scratcher. How were these minor works of art an affordable marketing tool?

Nags Head, NC Recreation Center, 1968
Nags Head, NC Rec Center at milepost 12, April 1968.

Among the many questions, the one I hoped to answer next was, “Did these posters exist in 1968?” I turned to facebook. In an Outer Banks “remember when” group I ran across some mention of The Other Place and the Nags Head Rec Center, sometimes called the Mann’s Center after the family who managed it. Since the early ‘50s it had featured a revolving array of amusements; Bingo parlor, roller skating rink, duck pin bowling, dance hall, pinball and pool tables, snack bar and grill. It was built by Gaston Mann who also built the nearby fishing pier. By 1968 his son Bryan and daughter-in-law Blanche were overseeing the operation. Gaston’s wife Ella was still the grandmotherly matron of the place, running the popcorn and cotton candy machines. The Other Place occupied the north half of the large one-story building that summer. Folks in the facebook group remembered blacklights, strobes, day-glo body paint, far-out designs on the walls, even Huckleberry Mudflap, but no one would say for sure that they remembered the posters.

Swinging Machine Other Place flyerDeep in the recesses of the facebook group’s photo archive I ran across an image posted some years ago. It was an announcement for a couple of shows at The Other Place, The Swinging Machine and Willie T. & The Magnificents. It wasn’t quite as fancy as the posters I had seen. The Other Place lettering was similar and it did feature the same detailed butterfly design. Most importantly, it had yellowed tape in a couple of spots along the edges with the feel of age and authenticity. The print also featured a three-color fade effect I call “Neopolitan ice cream” that was common in North Carolina at the time, a technique overused by the Benton Card Co. of Benson, NC. I was feeling convinced that at least some elements in the posters were period accurate.

I turned back to my friends at Carolina Rock ‘n’ Roll Remembered on facebook with these developments and asked, “Does anyone remember these posters? Are they legit?” A few comments in, our Virginia expert Jack Garrett confirmed. He remembered one of the posters hanging on a friend’s wall when they were in high school. He knew they were for real the moment I posted, he said. “Because Jack said so,” is good enough for me, but I wanted to wave the smoking gun in people’s face.

Other Place poster 4 Swinging Machine Slithy Toves
Fourth poster for The Other Place, featuring the Swinging Machine for a week, followed by the Slithy Toves, both Virginia bands

Aside from Huckleberry Mudflap there were no band names I recognized on the posters. I didn’t think they were Carolina groups. I Googled The Swinging Machine and The Slithy Toves. They were Virginia groups. The Swinging Machine had been tackled here on Garage Hangover and both of those groups have facebook pages. The Slithy Toves soundcloud stream is impressive. I especially like their version of “Early Morning Fear.”

I dove into The Swinging Machine facebook page, reading comments on photos posted years before. I ran across a very cool amateur bit of psychedelia in the form of a flyer for a show at The Light House in Portsmouth, VA. Comments suggested it was the handiwork of band member Vince Screeney. It wasn’t on the level of The Other Place material, but the feel was there. These guys were undoubtedly a part of that scene and must know who was behind The Other Place posters.

Ron Primm photo 1967
Ron Primm, psychedelic artist, 1967.

Somewhere in the exchange of captions and comments on The Swinging Machine page I spotted a clue, a passing reference to a local psychedelic design artist named Ron Primm. Soon friend requests and follow-up inquiries were sent to Mr. Primm and the office of the Norfolk advertising agency bearing his name.

My message to Ron Primm was not much different than a dozen I had sent in recent days. Do you know anything about The Other Place or this Huckleberry Mudflap poster? I had also posted obsessively about The Other Place on my facebook profile for a few days leading up to this attempt at contact.

The next day when I logged on to facebook I found a notification that Ron Primm had accepted my friend request. Further, he had commented on my post about the Mudflap mushroom poster. “It’s the work of the artist Chas Ober,” was his brief answer, then another half-dozen comments, each containing an image of a different poster from The Other Place. I was gobsmacked.

Charlie Ober of the Travel Bureau, New Jersey, 1967
Charlie Ober, in Travel Bureau t-shirt, intensely focused during an exhibition in New Jersey, 1967.
Ernie Hamblin portrait photo
Ernie Hamblin, technical engineer and spokesman for The Travel Bureau.

Shortly I found myself on the telephone with Ron and scribbled like crazy on a notepad for nearly an hour. He was the youngest, at 85, and only living member of an artist collective known as The Travel Bureau. He and Charlie Ober (1928-2014) were the trained artists in the group, but the troupe was very much a multi-media experiment.

Ernie Hamblin (1933-2011), who Ron credits as spokesman for the group, was billed in press of the day as technical engineer and visionary Bob Fischbeck (1922-1999) was described as a photographer and musician.

Travel Bureau, Atlantic City exhibition, October 6, 1967
The Travel Bureau, l to r: Bob Fischbeck pours oil into a clock glass on an overhead projector while Ernie Hamblin, Charlie Ober and Ron Primm operate tandem slide projectors during an exhibition in Atlantic City, NJ, Oct 6, 1967.
The Travel Bureau logo, by Ron Primm, circa 1967.
The Travel Bureau logo, by Ron Primm, circa 1967.

The Travel Bureau were a bit of a psychedelic circus, bringing liquid light shows and sounds to a number of venues and happenings along the east coast at least as early as the spring of 1967. I asked Ron if any in the group had ever experimented with hallucinogens. “We were too old for that,” he said, adding that he was the only one of the four who was even much of a drinker. They were curious professional types.

Ron worked for The Virginian-Pilot, a large circulation newspaper covering Hampton Roads. The paper was keenly aware of the changing youth culture and, in a bid to stay hip, published a weekly tabloid magazine insert for the teen set called Action. The paper sponsored a battle of the bands at the Virginia Beach Dome emceed by local radio personality Gene Loving. This was one of the first events the group undertook to make psychedelic.

Travel Bureau Norfolk Ledger-Star photo and caption
from the Norfolk, VA Ledger-Star, Saturday Feb. 3, 1968: “A Compelling Show [at the Norfolk Museum].” Original caption reads, “The three men are, left to right, graphic artist Ron Primm, photographer Bob Fischbeck and graphic artist Charley Ober. They are members of ‘The Travel Bureau,’ a group which explores psychedelic effects.”
Ron traveled to New York City and visited clubs in Long Island and Lower Manhattan that had already developed a reputation for the new look. He took what he observed back to Virginia and wrote about it for Action magazine. The Travel Bureau would soon apply some of these borrowed lighting techniques and gradually develop some of their own innovations. It was the first time most of the Tidewater kids had ever seen strobes or blacklights, let alone wet slide projections and color organs.

The Travel Bureau lenticular calling card, circa 1967.
The Travel Bureau lenticular calling card, circa 1967.

And it wasn’t just the kids who were curious about the new light shows. Early Travel Bureau exhibitions were held in art galleries and at Norfolk Museum and written up in local art columns. The group booked events as far afield as Philadelphia and Atlantic City. The name Travel Bureau was not only a nod to their skill at providing drugless trips, it summed up their “have light show, will travel” dedication to exhibit on the move. Soon they would become artists-in-residence at teen rock clubs, where live music provided an important organic element missing from some of their early shows, which relied on recorded sound.

The first such club they were to design was The Light House in Portsmouth, VA. From the article “Psychedelic Light House Opens” in the July 9, 1967 edition of The Virginian-Pilot:

Psychedelic projection was developed locally by the Travel Bureau. These four have made over 1,000 color slides that project patterns of squares, circles and abstract images in-between at a rapid pace. Two projectors run at the same time, focused on the same screen — producing double images that jump, twist and gyrate in time to the loudest, wildest rock ‘n’ roll music that can be found in this area.

The bandstand will be lighted by no less than six projectors. The bands will actually be performing in the patterns of projection which will be thrown upon a large circular background — similar to a Cinerama movie screen. The rear wall of the Light House will be illuminated by strips of light eight feet high that will pulsate to the beat of the music. In addition to the projections, the band runway will have sound-actuated colored spotlights.

A seventh machine will project large abstract forms on a translucent screen which allows viewing from both inside and outside the building. The other wall will feature a mural of designs that fluoresce under strips of ultra-violet lights.

It is easy to see why the owners decided to name the place The Light House.

If they don’t blow a fuse on opening night, the place will be open from 8 until 11:30 o’clock Wednesday through Saturday nights. Opening on Friday will be The Swingin’ Machine and The Prophets in Flight with the Chaparalls. On Saturday night, the background noise-music will be provided by The Beechnuts and The Sound Effects. Coming soon will be Dennis and the Times, The Sheepherders and The Malibus.

C.J. Ober the Other Place article
Charlie Ober in booth at the Other Place
The Other Place, newspaper advertisement for opening weekend, May 31st, 1968.

In a preview press showing at the club, the effect could truthfully be said to be visually stunning. In other showings, F.D. Cossitt, The Virginian-Pilot’s art critic, called it “very sophisticated and often breathtaking visually.”

More than fifty years later, Ron Primm is still impressed by the symbiotic relationship their visuals shared with the music, pulsing light and color nestled into a heartbeat of sound. “It was pretty stimulating,” Ron reflects. And it was loud. From the article “Your Senses Deepen in Land of Psychedelia” in the September 8, 1967 edition of the Norfolk Ledger-Star:

Powerful amplifiers are a must, so that the music will blot out every other sound, and project physical vibration to the individuals assembled.

Ron Primm of Norfolk, a pioneer of psychedelic effects in the area, explained that the purpose is to “combine the effects on sight, sound, motion and touch to obliterate everything but the immediate activity.”

Second poster for The Other Place featuring the face of Swinging Machine vocalist Gary Richardson
Second poster for The Other Place featuring the face of Swinging Machine vocalist Gary Richardson

The Swinging Machine would become a regular act at The Light House and, the next summer, The Other Place. Lead singer Gary Richardson would become the literal poster child of the scene. His face in blue stares out from one of The Other Place posters designed by Ron Primm.

Swinging Machine 1968 clipping
The Swinging Machine from Portsmouth, VA, 1968. Gary Richardson front and center, just a month before his death.

Tragically, Gary died in July of 1968 while inhaling freon. While the band continued for a time with a new singer, “Gary was the soul of the group,” the way Ron recalls it. His death also hit his friends in The Travel Bureau hard. In Charlie Ober’s scrapbook there are several lengthy articles from the local press clipped and lovingly tipped in. He was the bright star that burned out too fast.

Ernie Hamblin applies a finishing touch in preparing to open The Other Place. Far out designs covered nearly any available surface.

The summer of ’68 found The Travel Bureau at the height of their achievement. Charlie Ober’s daughter Chris was 18 that year. She was “conscripted” by her father to work on The Other Place project. Ahead of the May 31st opening a complete interior redesign was in store for the north half of Nags Head Rec, by the pier near milepost 12.

Painted table tops at The Other Place
Attention to detail; table tops in The Other Place featured the iconic butterfly logo and assorted psychedelic designs.
The light and sound control booth at The Other Place.

First the walls were painted black. Then the new club logo, Ron Primm’s butterfly emblem, was screen-printed on walls, floors and table tops in a variety of bright day-glo colors. An assortment of necessary gear was installed in the light/sound booth to include the trademark overhead projector. It would be plied with shallow glass bowls borrowed from the faces of school clocks doused with colored oils, caressed and guided as the planchette on a spirit board until vibrant ghosts were summoned and cast eerily over the walls, the crowd and performers alike.

Other Place poster 1: Hang 5 Mann & Sheepherders International
Opening poster for The Other Place featuring the Hang 5 Mann and Sheepherders International Trade Union
Other Place butterfly logo
Butterfly logo for The Other Place, by Ron Primm, 1968.

The first poster for the new venue featured the butterfly, The Travel Bureau logo, also designed by Ron, and the note “Under 20.” It was intended as a teen club. It was something new, an alternative to the usual shag dance, like the one happening the same night over at The Casino and featuring Bob Marshall & The Crystals. At least The Other Place had the novelty of something new on their side, and the cooler poster. It can be seen in situ posted on the wall outside the entrance in one of the color photos from Charlie’s album.

The Other Place entrance, Nag's Head
Entrance to the new teen club, The Other Place. Opening week poster is visible on the right.

What made these old guys pour everything into such a project? Ron talks about how much work went into preparing and operating the club that season. These family men would work their regular day jobs in Virginia, drive down to Nags Head, stay until midnight and drive back to Virginia, or sometimes stay over on the weekends. Chris Ober was their resident body paint artist. It was a family affair. For all the hard work, it must have held all the excitement of a brand new hobby. Even without beer sales, the lifesblood of most nightspots, Ron says the club managed to make a little money during that brief era which he described as “a hiccup in time,” when things were strange and novel for a moment.

The Other Place decor with
The Mush Room inside The Other Place, Nags Head.

Bryan Mann was tolerant of what went on next door, but it was so loud he would occasionally stroll over and threaten to pull the plug if they couldn’t keep it down. The uneasy peace between two worlds about to collide was nothing new in Nags Head, or even on Mann’s property. I imagine the guys drinking beer and shooting pool were about as happy about the racket from The Other Place as they were about the surfers getting close to the pier while they were fishing. Some of the old surfers tell me it wasn’t the “Absolutely No Surfboarding” signs that kept them away from the pier. It was the singular experience of being pelted with 3-ounce lead weights by the angry fishermen.

Other Place interior double-exposure image
Other Place interior double-exposure image

Bryan Mann’s daughter Anna said it was a thrilling time and place to be 13 years old. Her dad may have been concerned about ill-behaved hippies coming to town, but the band members were nice and got along with her parents and grandmother. She remembers one of the band members, though she’s not sure from which group, being very friendly and making conversation with the older Mrs. Mann. They must have talked about the music that was popular when she was a girl, because the band dedicated a pepped up version of “O Susanna” to her that night. I like to think it was Morris Willis from Huckleberry Mudflap, who told me The Other Place was one of their favorite gigs and they enjoyed everyone they met. Or maybe even Gary Richardson from The Swinging Machine who would be dead in less than a month but had an unmistakable charm that reached beyond his generation.

Second-to-last poster for the Other Place, with the Franklin Freight Train, The Genesis and The Nyte
Second-to-last poster for the Other Place, with the Franklin Freight Train, The Genesis and The Nyte
The Other Place large butterfly medallion, custom made for members of The Travel Bureau, 1968.

With the approach of Labor Day, The Other Place closed up along with the Nags Head Rec Center. The Travel Bureau had finished their last long-term installation. They discussed opening again for the 1969 season but the prospect of that tiresome commute and truly hard work was daunting. When they went down that spring and found everything packed up and ready to go, the decision was easy. The Other Place was done.

Very shortly The Travel Bureau as a group would write “finis” to the project that had brightened a lot of lives over the previous two years. Bob Fischbeck would buy out the other partners and keep the lighting equipment and continue to put on shows for quite some time. There was something profound about Bob’s passion for these things. He found a sort of mysticism surrounding their sensory experimenting. It can be said without slight that Bob had a special mind. He had received a serious head injury in an automobile accident and was thereby “freed from normal perception,” as one of Charlie’s children helped me put it into words when we discussed the matter.

Bob Fischbeck and Ron Primm at The Other Place
Bob Fischbeck and Ron Primm turning a portion of the Nags Head Rec Center into The Other Place, May 1968.
A new chapter opens, The Other Place, page from Charlie Ober’s scrapbook.

The pages of Charlie Ober’s scrapbook are filled with tantalizing items relating to a time and place virtually undocumented elsewhere. The Neopolitan ice cream Other Place announcements were postcards, a set preserved in Charlie’s album. Event pages from local newspapers announce concerts by famous traveling acts while Light House events took place on the fringe. It was a small and precious counterculture. Soon pop culture would embrace psychedelia and wear the novelty off.

Somewhere in that far off Other Place, half a century ago, the shutters are open to a salty ocean breeze and a glowing, translucent butterfly is winging in for a landing on a giant mushroom. Maybe it was only a hiccup in time, but, man! What a colorful hiccup!

Vance Pollock
April 2020

List of bands at the Other Place, 1968:

Friday May 31, 1968 (Opening night) and Saturday, June 1: The Hang 5 Mann
Friday, June 7 – Thursday, June 13: The Sheepherders Trade Union International
Friday, June 14 – Thursday, June 20: The Swinging Machine
Friday, June 21 – Sunday, June 30: Willie T. & the Impressions
Monday, July 1 – Sunday, July 7: Wild Kingdom
Monday, July 8 – Sunday, July 14: The Aliens
Monday, July 15 – Sunday, July 21: The Swinging Machine
Monday, July 22 – Sunday, July 29: The Slithy Toves
Monday, July 29 – Sunday, August 4: The Huckleberry Mudflap
Monday, August 5: Dividing Line
Tuesday, August 6: Agents
Wednesday, August 7: The Psychos
Thursday, August 8 and Friday, August 9: The Sun
Saturday, August 10 and Sunday, August 11: The Sassafras Tea
Monday, August 12 – Sunday, August 18: Franklin Freight Train
Monday, August 19 – Thursday, August 22: The Genesis
Friday, August 23 – Sunday, August 25: The Nyte
Monday, August 26 – Sunday, August 31: Huckleberry Mudflap

5th poster for the Other Place
5th poster for the Other Place