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Petty crime, Orange Julius and bear wrestling – memories of life at Virginia Beach's Pembroke Mall

Photo by Mike Kalasnik / Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0. The entrance to Pembroke Mall.
Photo by Mike Kalasnik / Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0. The entrance to Pembroke Mall.

I don’t know how I feel – or how I’m supposed to feel – about losing Pembroke Mall.

The owners announced at the end of last year the mall was closing and transforming into a mixed-use community that includes an office and senior living facility. Interior stores shut down early this year. In March the developer unveiled its plans for the site's makeover to the city council and the public.

Pembroke is one of the oldest malls in the country. It was only the 16th ever created when it was built back in 1966. 

But c’mon, are people really going to miss this place?

It’s not the Washington Monument. It’s not a Grand Canyon sunset. Or even a strawberry field in Pungo.

This is a shopping mall. It’s where you buy slacks and scented candles. 

I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Batman at Pembroke when it came out in 1989. I was back from college, and I brought my kid sister. We met some people in my circle of friends. Certainly it was a fun memory. But how important is it?

I went looking for answers, for others on the internet who wanted to talk about the place. I posted this question on three Facebook groups: 

What is your most vivid memory of Pembroke Mall?

More than 600 replies came in. 

People told stories about friendship, good food and, well, some petty crime.

Kari Nope reminisced about eating at the drug store counter — and stealing a travel-sized hairspray bottle when she was young and foolish. She also remembered getting one of her friends to forge a note so she could get her ears pierced.

“I remember skipping lunch in 9th grade to go to the mall,” Jessy Carson wrote. “Then dodging school security who were specifically looking for ditching students. It was a fun challenge.”

Not everyone lived on the edge like Nope and Carson, but many talked at length about other ways to blow a few hours: Buying Orange Julius, playing video games and lingering in the weird alley near the pet store.

Emily Torres and her friend Holly snuck off to the mall – biking all the way from Kempsville while their parents thought they were at a rec center near their homes. 

The rec center was key to the deception.

“Even if a parent did a drive-by to check so many kids were at the rec center, it would be impossible,” Torres said. “So that was always a solid excuse, because there was no way they could confirm or deny whether you were there.”

Torres said she and Holly spent hours there, exploring the place and flirting with boys. The trip was worth it, even if it was a little risky.

“I can just remember that fear of God I used to have riding my bike across that big highway,” she said. “And thinking today's the day… We're going to get killed by getting hit by a car, and then our parents are going to kill us twice.”

The traffic wasn’t the riskiest thing about Pembroke though. Several residents who visited the mall talked about a wrestling bear.

“They were taking volunteers to get in the ring and wrestle with the bear,” Doug Nichols wrote. “This one guy was giving it his all but the bear just tossed him around like a toy.” 

The bear even toyed with the man's jockstrap, which was sticking out of his pants, Nichols added.

Unbelievable as it is, the story’s true.

Victor The Wrestling Bear toured the country from the mid-1970s to the 1980s.

The bear came to Pembroke in mid-April 1980, where he drew a crowd of 500 spectators and pinned three would-be competitors, none of whom lasted more than a few minutes.

Newspaper writer Bill Ruehlmann was one of the competitors.

“At the end Ruehlmann was flat on his back with the bear thumping his massive head on the writer’s chest for emphasis,” according to a Virginian-Pilot account. “That bout took a minute and a half.”

Victor stopped fighting a year later, after biting a man’s finger off in Alabama and breaking someone’s ankle in Chesapeake.

There were other, safer kinds of spectacle at Pembroke. Vickie Knighten Goolsby remembers taking her kids to see Santa arrive at the mall by helicopter.

For Charlie Haddon, the Pembroke mall was a source of cheap movies during the long hot weeks when school was out.

“We'd get a pass for like $3,” he wrote. “It was good for every Wednesday morning movie for the whole summer.”

Michael Duncan also recalled those movies at the mall, and the very specific moment when people would crack a door during a show, flooding the place with light during a crucial scene, and everyone would yell at them to shut it.

It was just a mall, but it was where you spent time, and it was where you cemented friendships. Torres – the one who lied to her parents and dodged traffic – was a transplant from New York City when she started having adventures with her new friend Holly.

“Holly was just the first person that really I became friends with,” she said. “We were just thicker than thieves. … And it was just so much fun. It was something that we did every summer, every chance we could get for years, for years, literally.”

It’s possible that any place where people meet can be special. Torres thinks so. She’s sad to see it go, but she said she’ll always have her memories.

I’m inclined to agree.

I don’t remember much about that night I took my kid sister to the movies. But my wife does. She was one of the people we met there. We’ve been married 22 years.

A week ago we took our three boys to see the new Batman movie. We went to Lynnhaven.

The world changes fast.

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