Sitting in his office on the second floor of Ocean City’s municipal building, Mark Soifer swivels his chair to admire the autographed photo of Joe DiMaggio that hangs opposite his crowded desk. It was a gift from the baseball legend, who served as Grand Marshal for the town’s annual Baby Parade in 1983. Decades of sunlight have faded the prized artifact; the years are showing no ill affects on Soifer’s memory or wit.
“Did you know the Baby Parade’s been going on for 107 years?” asks Soifer. Then comes one of his signature zingers: “The very first one was really interesting. I should know. I was in it.”
A hearty chuckle escapes as a smile stretches across his kind face. Soifer exaggerates—he’s only 84—but he is just as revered as any of the seaside town’s traditions. Officially Soifer is director of public relations, but the title doesn’t begin to explain what this quirky and affable hypemaster has meant to the town.
“Mark is the one who really put Ocean City on the map,” says Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian, the third-generation owner of Gillian’s Wonderland Pier. “Anyone can hire a communications manager or public relations specialist, but Mark is something different. He just makes everyone feel so warm. He’s one of a kind.”
Soifer is credited with creating dozens of the town’s most beloved events and celebrations, including the Miss Crustacean Hermit Crab Beauty Pageant, Weird Week and the Doo Dah Parade. He is perhaps the most influential individual in contemporary Ocean City, in terms of promoting the town and shaping its character.
“Mark is the reason we have any of these events,” says lifelong Ocean City vacationer Brian Reed. “And he’s why people know about them.”
Born and raised in Chester, Pennsylvania, Soifer began in communications in 1954, when he enlisted in the Army and was shipped to Germany. Armed with a degree in journalism, he worked as a reporter for the Fourth Infantry Division’s Ivy Leagues newspaper and as an editor for an American news publication in Stuttgart.
“When I got shipped overseas, I had just gotten engaged and really didn’t want to go,” recalls Soifer. “But it was the best thing that could have happened to me as far as my career is concerned.”
At the end of his tour of duty, Soifer returned home and settled with his wife, Toby, in Philadelphia, where he taught English at South Philadelphia High School while also writing poetry and short fiction (a pursuit he passionately continues to this day). Spurred by the prospect of more economic stability, Soifer moved his family to New Jersey and took a job with an ad agency in Vineland. That’s when Ocean City came calling.
It was the late 1960s and a local resident named Dr. Marsha Smith sent Soifer a note asking if he would help organize and promote the town’s first art show. His efforts impressed Mayor Harry W. Kelley Jr., who offered Soifer the full-time public relations post in 1971.
“The mayor was ahead of his time and wanted me to plan more special events,” Soifer recalls.
In addition to strengthening the town’s traditions, Soifer generated new events for Ocean City’s residents and vacationers. His love of puns, G-rated humor and tireless dedication to all things “wacky, not tacky,” turned out to be perfect for the job. Immediate and enduring hits started flowing from his office.
“I had an instinct for what interested people, for coming up with things that nobody else had,” he says. “And I knew how to generate excitement through word of mouth.”
The excitement comes in annual bursts. In August, Soifer hosts for Ocean City’s Weird Contest Week, which comprises five days of competitions that include taffy, french fry, and paper-clip sculpting contests. There’s also the Miss and Mister Miscellaneous Competition, which Soifer describes as “a talent show for people who always wanted to be in a talent show but maybe missed the bus or got stuck at a rugby game.”
Soifer’s innovations are varied. Consider the Quiet Festival, which takes place each fall and amounts to nothing but hushed activities like blowing bubbles and flying kites.
On the flip side, there’s the Little Miss and Little Mister Chaos competition, which requires children ages three to five to bang on pots and pans to make as much noise as possible.
Consider the relatively new Mr. Mature America Pageant, an eclectic talent show for Ocean City’s male senior citizens.
Then there’s the Twins Contest, the Freckle Contest, the Pamper Scamper baby race and the Spring Block Party. From early April through late November—when most of the events take place—the fruits of Soifer’s giddy imagination are inescapable.
“I think people have responded to these things because it gives them a sense of family fun and it lets them use their creativity and imagination,” says Soifer, who also composes a weekly column called “What’s Happening in Ocean City.” “And that’s what generates advertising. Especially now, with selfies and Facebook and Instagram. People take pictures of themselves having fun, and their friends see what a great time they had in Ocean City.”
In many ways, Soifer embodies the town’s anachronistic yet endearing mix of quaintness, charm and goofiness.
“I get a certain amount of satisfaction from what I’ve done here,” says Soifer, who commutes 40 miles each way from Vineland every day. “I think I’ve earned my money.”
Of the future, he says, “I’m taking everything day by day. I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.”