Down the Shore, summer traditions don't die. They change with the tide.
Where babies (on parade) come from
On July 22, 1890, Asbury Park became Jersey's first beach town to trot tots along boards in a who's-cutest contest.
Ocean City launched its nonmobile baby "showcase" Aug. 10, 1901, on Casino Pier. The island's parent-powered stroller stroll started in summer 1909, the same season that the Wildwoods instituted its infant-centric extravaganza.
Sea Isle City's bambino brigade kicked off in 1916. Cape May jumpstarted its "juvenile jubilee" in 1928. Stone Harbor finally got its moppets marching in 1962.
Decades later, all five Philly-favored vacation destinations still put on baby parades. As for Asbury Park? Well, the Stone Pony's still there.
Through the years, the popularity of the family-friendly pageants has waxed and waned. According to Ocean City Baby Parade, a chronicle of the event by residents Fred and Susan Miller, only a few paper-hat-wearing kids paraded that first year in 1909.
Two decades later, 541 babies promenaded along Cape May's Beach Avenue, said Terry Brown, the town's former director of recreation and civic affairs.
Beach-burg historians claim that the events' participants and audience hit a Shore-wide swell in the mid-'40s and '50s. That's when, said O.C. baby parade organizer Jane French, "trainloads of people came to town . . . the crowds were bigger those days - just huge."
This summer, 118 kids were registered for Wildwood's baby parade (July 30). About 75 took part in Sea Isle's (July 16), 35-ish in Stone Harbor's (July 14) and 50 in Cape May's (Aug. 1). Ocean City, ever "America's Greatest Family Resort," expects up to 150 kids for this week's event, the Shore's last of the summer.
What to expect
Boardwalk to boardwalk, baby parades are largely similar. Each is open to newborns through age 10. Each requires registration, some early. (Ocean City charges $5 per participant; other towns don't charge.)
All offer a small souvenir trophy or ribbon to each and every wee participant.
Most have a float featuring a teenage queen: "Maysea" in Cape May, "Oceana" in Wildwood, "Infanta" in Ocean City.
Mummers often pepper the route, as do clowns, stilt walkers, high-school bands and floats promoting local businesses. Once in a while, a celeb shows. Joe DiMaggio led O.C.'s parade in 1983. So did Jack Kelly, with little sis Grace in tow, in 1947. More recent VIPs have included Don Tollefson and Kathy Orr.
Ocean City publicist Mark Soifer has worked the parade 43 years. He typically dresses in a garbage container and calls himself "Trash Buster, the canned crusader."
This year, the 82 year-old Soifer is going sans can. He and his wife are grand marshals. He called the event "an Ocean City institution," and credits its survival to longtime volunteers.
From O.C. on down, seniors - mostly grandmom types - helm the event. "My staff has done it for 30 or 40 years," French said. Helpers categorize kids, line 'em up and do the judging.
Ocean City judge Fattorini said that she and her fellow evaluators look for creative themes - choosing among many Thomas the Tanks, Mother Goose characters, sunbathers, lifeguards, pirates and sea creatures.
When it comes to overall attractiveness, Fattorini seeks out an "intangible something." Looks count, but she also makes sure "the child's personality is a winner."
Can't be easy, ranking one one-year-old over another.
"I would be afraid to be a judge," said Tracey DuFault, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Chamber of Commerce, one city that still does some assessing of looks alone. "The cutest baby boy and cutest baby girl categories are literally judged on the babies' faces," she said. "I don't know how they do it."
Cutest, little . . .
Colleen Meakim, of Chester Springs, has entered her two children in Sea Isle City's baby parade for the past eight years. "My parents have a summer home there," she said. "When my son was an infant, we happened to be at the parade, and he was mesmerized."
Ryan Meakim has taken part ever since. He and lil' sis Alyssa, ages 9 and 7, are repeat winners.
Meakim said her kids love the costumes - they typically go as a pair, bride and groom, king Neptune and mermaid, Uncle Sam and little Miss America. (They've also done kiddie pageants.)
Parade participation requires months of planning, said the mom. But "the look on their faces, the years they placed first or second," is worth it, Meakim said.
Not all kids care so much. Many nap through the lineup. Those who are awake, said Wildwood's DuFault, "are either loving it, smiling and waving, or they're screaming their heads off."
Truth is, a baby parade's survival has little to do with its participants, spectators or organizers. It's mostly about moms and dads.
Said O.C.'s Miller, "Every year, there's a new crop of babies, new parents. The babies just keep coming."
On Twitter: @LaMcCutch