OCEAN CITY, N.J — Everyone loves a parade, or so they say, and by Labor Day practically every town and village in America will have one. They could all learn something from the way folks here conduct a mid-April oddity called the Doo Dah Parade.
This community, built on a barrier island roughly two hours south of New York and about an hour east of Philadelphia, seems to have little ego. It also has none of the casinos found a few miles up the highway in Atlantic City and, like just one other town in the state, no alcohol.
I mentioned to Mark Soifer, who started the annual parade 29 years ago, that even though this is a tourist town, there don’t seem to be any chain-operated hotels or retail businesses. “We just got a Starbucks,” he said like a man with mixed feelings, “and we do have a McDonald’s.” But that’s about it. Maybe the strict no-booze policy has frightened off most big operators.
What Ocean City does have is a beautiful beachfront that was mercifully spared the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath, and stately middle-class homes with distinctive porches stacked on two or three stories. Plus there is a classic boardwalk with block after block of the best local offerings that moms and pops can provide.
But back to “doo dah.” The term showed up in the 1947 Disney film “Song of the South,” and the track “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” won the Oscar for Best Song.
Roughly translated nowadays, “doo dah,” borrowed from an annual event in Pasadena, Calif., means a celebration of silliness. Jersey’s version struck me at first as a total turnoff: communal pie throwing, a skills competition among nearly 600 Bassett hounds, and a show by Abbott and Costello impersonators.
It got even stranger as I watched on a sunny Saturday. There was Angel Dromgoole atop a convertible posing as the Queen of England, Peter Sofio in a poorly made Spiderman costume, and J. T. Williams as Santa Claus, wearing a bathing suit.
But the thing is, it was great. There’s a community-wide effort to avoid taking life too seriously. If the town’s Miss Pre-Teen wants to wave from a convertible, why not wave back? And if Linda and Rick Stickney wish to dress as clowns, why not cheer them on?
Shortly before the parade, there was a false alarm at the Port-O-Call Hotel, and several firefighters had to remove their long fake beards to respond. Then they rejoined the others who make up the bagpipe band, playing “Camptown Races” (it has “doo dah” in the lyrics, you know) followed by a rousing but nondescript tune on kazoos.
Ocean City considers itself a “family town,” so when a bill to allow the sale of alcohol showed up on ballots a few years ago it was voted down - again.
In a way this place seems frozen in time, and a pretty good time at that. Personally, I’m not sure about the liquor ban; I tend not to favor morals-based legislation. As for the parade, many small- and medium-sized towns across America know how to enjoy a “good-old-days” approach, and as long as that’s not an excuse to ignore the serious problems of the present, it seems like a fine idea.
The point isn’t so much to dwell in the past, I believe, but rather to supply a down-to-earth foundation for the future. To put it another way, none of us should ever become so jaded that we’re unable to smile when Dara Belford helps guide a bevy of semi-cooperative Bassett hounds down the boardwalk.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker