The wizard behind the curtain of Ocean City's events

Mark Soifer has been doing public relations for Ocean City, N.J., for more than 40 years. The character Martin Z. Molluskis among his brainstorms. But other storms? They stay away.
Mark Soifer has been doing public relations for Ocean City, N.J., for more than 40 years. The character Martin Z. Molluskis among his brainstorms. But other storms? They stay away. (JACQUELINE URGO / Staff)
Posted: July 25, 2011

There's a saying in Ocean City, N.J.: It never rains on a Mark Soifer event. And anyone who has been around the resort's guru of public relations long enough has witnessed storm clouds part just long enough for Soifer to stage one of the town's beloved celebrations.

For more than 40 years, the Vineland, N.J., resident has created a dizzying, year-round schedule of activities. That was the idea: When he was hired, his mission was to lure visitors to "America's Greatest Family Resort" during spring and fall - what the tourism industry calls the shoulder seasons - as well as summer.

Now there's the Doo Dah Parade in April, town mascot Martin Z. Mollusk's looking for his shadow in May, and November's Quiet Festival to round out the year.

Despite the demands of being Ocean City's host, Soifer, 79, also writes poetry, until recently jogged several miles a day, and is a devoted family man with four children and eight grandchildren. His wife, Toby, is often by his side, helping out with many of the town's activities.

Staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo spoke with Soifer shortly after the recent Night in Venice boat spectacle, Ocean City's biggest celebration of the year.

Question: At a time when most other Shore towns, Ocean City included, were primarily interested in getting tourists in the summer, how did you come up with the ideas for the shoulder seasons?

Mark Soifer: As a Temple journalism graduate, I had learned to write feature stories, and I really liked it. I noticed that if it had something newsworthy in that feature, if you had a hook, you could get people to pay attention. I always applied that same idea when we were coming up with a new event: If we offered something that hadn't been done before, even if it was a funny idea or silly idea, people were interested. We didn't have a big advertising budget, so I had to be creative.

Q: What has been your most successful, and unusual, idea for an event?

Soifer: I would say Martin Z. Mollusk - it's a parody on Punxsutawney Phil. What's unusual is that instead of a groundhog, we have a hermit crab coming out to see his shadow on the beach. We started doing it in 1975 in March. Martin complained it was too cold, so we moved it to May every year. That spawned the Miss Crustacean Hermit Crab Beauty Pageant in August, then the Hermit Crab Races. And that led to Extreme Nonviolent Hermit Crab Wrestling. Hermit crabs are really popular on the Boardwalk.

Q: Has anyone ever complained that hermit crabs were being exploited?

Soifer: Over the years, we've worked with the local Humane Society, where I'm a board member, and we've provided instructions on the proper way to care for hermit crabs. Now Animal Planet has picked up the story, so we'll be included in a show on the cable network soon. We get a lot of publicity because of Martin. We call him Ocean City's most famous crustacean.

Q: Have other beach towns copied any of your events or asked for advice in hosting them?

Soifer: Sure, and we try to be helpful. Virginia Beach asked if they could do a Martin Mollusk-type thing, and I said yes as long as they credited Ocean City with holding the first one.

Q: Besides finding a hook, what's the most important ingredient to hosting a successful event?

Soifer: Well, the weather, of course. But you need the props. Toby found a little stage at Toys R Us that we use for the Miss Crustacean pageant that really added a lot to the visuals. We just had a new Martin Z. Mollusk character costume made to replace one that was getting old.

Q: Speaking of weather, what is this about it never raining at a Mark Soifer event?

Soifer: Of course it's rained a few times on a few important events over the years, but never enough to completely cancel anything. I remember one year newsman Larry Kane was the grand marshal of the Night in Venice boat parade, and it had rained cats and dogs all day. He had been driven down from Philly, and he had on all kinds of rain gear - raincoat, rain hat, rain boots. As soon as the doors on his limo opened, the rain stopped, and the sun came out.

Q: What has been the most gratifying part of your job?

Soifer: I think seeing the creativity of the people when they get involved in one of our activities, like when they dress up their hermit crabs for the Miss Crustacean pageant, or the french-fry sculpting contest during Weird Week in August. To see what people come up with is fun. And the fact that these events bring so many people to Ocean City to enjoy themselves. It's such a wonderful place for people to visit, and it's fun to see the grandparents and parents bringing back the children to experience the same fun they had.


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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