For 40 years, New Jersey's Ocean City has been positioning itself as a "mecca of wacky," with French fry sculpture contests, a hermit crab beauty pageant, a Pamper scamper race (toddlers crawling out from the center of a parachute cloth), a wet T-shirt contest (participants try to throw a wadded wet T-shirt the farthest), and a TastyKake sculpture contest wherein contestants "carve" a figure out of a snack cake -- one nibble at a time.
And then there was that time 500 beagles paraded down Central Avenue.
These events bubbled up from the bottomless well that is Mark Soifer, the city's longtime public relations director who was recently honored as "Citizen of the Decade."
"I wanted to have things that nobody else had because that got us publicity, and we didn't have a big advertising budget," said Soifer, 81, who has headed the city's PR department since 1972.
It was Soifer who created Martin Z. Mollusk, a weather-predicting crustacean in the vein of the groundhog Puxatawny Phil (hint: it always forecasts fantastic beach weather); and TrashBuster the Canned Crusader, an anti-litter superhero.
"I like to make up characters, and make up stuff," said Soifer, who moonlights as a poet. "I live in a fantasy world."
Soifer might be facing the biggest public relations challenge of his career. It has been more than six months since Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey, destroying homes, businesses, boardwalks, and entire beach communities. Some towns recovered, some have not, but all depend on the summer tourism industry.
Ocean City was one of the luckier ones. While there was some property damage from flooding, the town began cleaning up within hours of the storm. Now visitors will have a hard time finding any evidence of Sandy.
"We went to work to help the section of middle- and low-income people get right back into their houses," said Soifer. "The only people that are not quite finished recovering are people who waited to come down to check their houses out."
What does a veteran PR executive do to overcome one of the worst storms in New Jersey history? He hosts an artistic pie-eating contest, and stages the annual Doo Dah Parade with 500 beagles wagging through the center of town.
"It's not all fun and games. This is a brutal business," said Soifer. "That's how we conquer the brutal business -- we sculpt French fries."
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