Night in Venice to get ‘Happy’ with the Oscars

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Night in Venice City still working to encourage boaters to participate in annual event

OCEAN CITY — Featuring decorated boats, music, friends, fun and family on the bay front, the 60th annual Night in Venice Boat Parade sets sail on Saturday, July 26 beginning at 7:30 p.m.

The parade lines up near the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, floating along the bay front and through the lagoons and ending at Tennessee Avenue.

This year’s theme is “A Night at the Oscars,” with an optional spin on Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.”

Miss Night in Venice will be announced at the Music Pier on Wednesday evening. The new queen and her court will lead the flotilla.

The Grand Marshal will be TV 40. The local station will be honored for its contribution to the community and news celebrities will be showcased on the premier boat. Numerous elected officials, including Mayor Jay Gillian and city councilmen will also be in the parade, along with local beauty queens and numerous decorated boats.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Mark Soifer, the city’s publicist who is directing the parade for the 43rd year.

In recent years, the number of boats participating in the parade has dwindled. Last year, the parade included 70, down from a high of 100 boats several years ago.

“When the casinos first came in, they put a number of boats in the parade, just to promote their casino,” he said. The boats, he said, were floating billboards. “One year Harrah’s had a huge boat with a two-story Ferris wheel; it was spinning and it was lit up. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. They wanted to get attention.”

Now, with casinos closing and laying off a large percentage of their work force, casinos have no interest in the parade.

Soifer said that as of Friday, 30 boats had signed up.

“We usually at least double that the last week, so if we do, and we get somewhere between 60 and 70 boats, we’ll be happy,” said Soifer. “We’re taking a positive attitude. We could have 50 boats, we could have 70. We are urging everyone who has a boat to enter.

“We spend our time trying to build up the number of boats,” said Soifer. “In the old days, a lot of people had boats, and they used to put them in the parade.

“Now, the big thing is the house party,” he said. “We have more decorated homes than ever, people are concentrating on decorating their homes and entertaining guests, and we have fewer boats.”

Rising gas prices began to hurt the parade about five years ago, Soifer said, so the city began offering gas cards to compensate boat owners. This year participants will receive a $50 gas card.

“We give them a photograph of their boat in the parade and a commemorative mug,” said Soifer.

Another factors contributing to the decline in the number of participants is Hurricane Sandy.

“A lot of boats were damaged in the storm, and people have not replaced them,” he said. “Things are just slowly getting back to normal on the bay front. Some homes are still not habitable; some boats are not in the water yet. It takes a toll.

“Some people would rather have the party and enjoy the parade than be in it,” he said. “Maybe younger people just aren’t in to the boats as much as they used to be. The parade used to be a big family affair, a thing of pride. People loved decorating the boats, we just aren’t seeing as much of that anymore.”

“Night in Venice is always a last minute thing,” he said. “The last five or six years we never knew until the last week. The boat entries come pouring in Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So we’ll see.”

The important thing, Soifer said, is that the parade raises money for local charities, including the Food Cupboard, the Ocean City High School After Prom, The HERO Campaign for designated drivers and the Sunshine Foundation.

Miss Night in Venice contestants are sponsored by local businesses. Each campaigns for funding, and the contestant who raises the most money is crowned Miss Night in Venice. The parade raises more than $100,000 annually.

“That’s what it’s about, and that’s why Night in Venice is so important,” he said. “It’s a fun night and people enjoy it, but it really is all about helping local charities.”

The parade would not be possible without its many volunteers, he said, led by Jane French.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” he said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work and a lot of planning, and a lot of people donate a lot of time to make it happen.”

The parade has been held continuously since 1954, Soifer noted.

“They were celebrating the city’s Diamond Jubilee,” he said. “Art Watkins, who worked in public relations, and Jack Jernee, the captain of the Ocean City Beach Patrol got together and decided to host a boat parade. Art Watkins had seen something similar in Venice, Italy and decided it would work well here. We’ve had it every year since; it’s worked out pretty well. We’re one of the few places that still has a boat parade.”

At the turn of the last century, the city briefly hosted a similar parade along the bay front.

“They called it Night in Venice, it was Philadelphia debutants aboard boats, with bands,” he said. “They had music on the boats, and the girls waved to people in their homes as they went through the lagoons.”

In the long run, Soifer said the trend toward fewer boats could lead the parade to “flip,” with the decorated homes the attraction and a small parade floating by to view the homes.

“We could have Miss Night in Venice and some other boats ride by, and really emphasize the homes,” he said. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon but it may someday.”

Soifer said he remains optimistic that the week will bring a lot more entries.

“If we can just double what we have as of Friday, we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “No matter, it’s going to be a fun parade.”

Stands have been set up at various street ends along the bay front. There is also a viewing spot at the Bayside Center, at 525 Bay Ave. where there will be entertainment prior to the parade. Call (609) 525-9300 for more information. Tickets are $7, $3 for children under 12. 

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