It could be curtains for the 40-foot-high orange neon clown. Likewise for the 80-foot sparkling Regency Restaurant sign, the flashing happy hour ads on the Holiday Lodge marquee, the monster pancakes with electric syrup, cruising clipper ships, towering bikinis and hundreds of rooftop signs, billboards, flags, legends and pennants.

After a year of bitter debate, the Myrtle Beach City Council is expected to pass a proposed sign ordinance Tuesday that opponents and supporters agree would change the face of one of the nation's most popular beach resorts.

That is about all they agree upon, however. The dispute centers on whether the proposed change, which would take up to 15 years to put into final effect, will improve the city of 20,000 that attracts millions of tourists each summer.

The signs are "a mushrooming thing, kind of like a cancer," City Manager David Stradinger said recently. "Let's face it, Myrtle Beach is one of the tackiest places around."

"Whatever we have, signs included, [is] the most successful formula of any resort in the country," countered Justin Plyler, owner of the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove which is celebrated by billboards as the world's largest gift shop. "This [ordinance] has a good chance of destroying our resort business."

Angry opponents have called the ciy manager and other supporters communists, socialists, un-American Yankee agitators and worse. "I didn't know it was going to be quite as bad as it was," said city planner Sam Burns, an Ohio native who wrote the original proposal and has drawn much criticism. "They hate my guts."

Sign companies say there are 924 free-standing signs along the 13-mile strip of U.S. 17 which runs through the city. There are thousands more on U.S. 501, which leads into the city, and along Ocean Boulevard where highrise motels jam the beach front.

Myrtle Beach is the heart of the Grand Strand, a 60-mile-long Atlantic beach-front strip of land that attracts college students to boardwalks and bars each spring, families to beaches and amusements parks in the summer and golfers to 30 nearby courses year-round.

Last year, 6.5 million tourists spent $652 million along the Strand, according to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Tourism is still heavy this year, despite the fuel shortage.

The city's growth has been mostly unplanned, however. Zoning standards for signs and landscaping were not introduced until 1974. Wags say zoning usually is associated with football here, not land-use planning.

Concerned about the city's appearance, Burns proposed a new sign ordinance to the city planning and zoning commission last August. The draft has been changed hundreds of times since in the course of emotionally charged hearings.

Current regulations limit businesses to four on-premises signs with a maximum of 750 square feet and no height limitation. The new ordinance would cut the maximum footage, allow nothing over 25 feet high and permit only two signs per premises.

About one-third of Myrtle Beach's 150 billboards, which advertise everything from was museums to funeral parlors, would come down. Flashing, blinking and animated signs would have to be removed within six months.

Under an amortization schedule, owners of signs costing $11,000 or more would have up to 15 years to alter or tear them down. Violators could be fined $200 a day.

Opponents claim the new ordinance is too complicated, too restrictive and too expensive. Phillip Newsome, vice president of Peterson Outdoor Advertising, said he likes the was Myrtle Beach looks now.

"It's an exciting town," Newsome said. "Take down the animated signs, and flashing signs, the blinking signs and you lose some excitement."

E. W. Phillips, vice president and general manager of Tyson Sign Corp., the largest sign company doing business on the Strand, called the ordinance "just an invasion of privacy, really. A man has a right to do within reason what he wants on his property."

But Dino Thompson, owner of the 25-foot-high neon pancake sign outside Dino's pancake house, said he will gladly take down his "big ugly sign."

"This sign ordinance is not going to make Myrtle Beach beautiful next year," Thompson said. "But in 10 years, maybe it won't be so bad. And it won't get worse." CAPTION: Picture, The view looking north in Myrtle Beach show some of the 924 signs along U.S. 17 which runs through the city. By Bob Drogin for The Washington Post