OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Ask any Ocean City summer reveler — after they’ve had their day in the sun and surf and stuffed themselves with fudge and Johnson’s popcorn — where the action is and you can be pretty sure the answer will start the same nine times out of ten.
“Well, head to the Music Pier …”
Oh sure, there are other attractions on a Boardwalk lined with amusements, miniature golf courses and restaurants. And yes, there are even other venues in the city to hear a concert or see a theatrical production.
But when it’s summer in Ocean City, all walks on the boards lead to the Mediterranean-style concert hall with the pastel stucco and tiled roof that sits on the Boardwalk at Moorlyn Terrace.
From concerts, to fairs and beauty pageants, to even having your freckles judged, the Music Pier, including its open-air loggia, never sees a quiet day after Memorial Day.
“It really is the center of everything,” says Mark Soifer, Ocean City’s public relations director. “Between the Ocean City Pops [which have called the pier home for 83 years] and the concerts, the flower shows and the fairs, and everything else people want to use it for, yeah, you’d have to say it’s the hub. It’s definitely booked solid.”
Soifer should know as he’s responsible for many of the activities that make the Ocean City Music Pier the center it is.
From Martin Z. Mollusk Day to the Businesspersons Plunge to start the season, to an array of sand-sculpting contests, freckle competitions and just plain goofy events, the pier and adjacent beach seems always in use.
But historically, the Music Pier has been much more than just an obvious landmark to attract people to see costumed hermit crabs.
It has been and still is the center of the city’s musical soul.
“There’s a very long history attached to the pier,” says Soifer. “I mean the Ocean City Pops have been playing there for more than 80 years. That’s the longest running municipal concert program anywhere.”
Actually, music and the Ocean City Boardwalk go back even farther.
“The pier was built in 1928, but it really wasn’t ready for the summer that year, so it opened in the summer of 1929,” says Fred Miller, Ocean City historian and the author of seven books on the city’s history. “It was built after the great fire of 1927 that destroyed the Boardwalk. But there actually had been a music pavilion there since 1905. It did survive the fire, but they moved it and built the pier.
“Music has always been a very central part of the city and I think it goes back to its founding in 1879 by Methodist ministers,” says Miller. “When you look at clippings from those days, they always seem to have bands. There are just numerous examples of bands and I think that was an integral part of the religious services. We’ve had either the pavilion or the pier since 1905.”
For most of the time, that has included the Ocean City Orchestra, now the Ocean City Pops.
“Obviously, we have no original members,” laughs pops director William Scheible. “But we do have some members who have been with us for more than 20 years. People always want to come back for our seasons. It’s just an incredibly fun way to spend the summer.”
And that tradition got a shot in the arm in the 1990s when the pier received a makeover partly funded by a $1 million government grant.
Though the pier’s iconic look was preserved, it did get some modernization.
Among the biggies — air conditioning.
“I remember playing before the air conditioning,” Scheible says. “The windows would be open, so of course the gulls would be flying in. And the doors would be open and people would be coming and going. It was definitely interesting.”
The pier’s stage was also enlarged in the process, which opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the orchestra.
“Before, we couldn’t really do any theatrical productions or bring in very many guest artists,” says Scheible, who has been conducting the pops for 25 years. “But now we’ve been able to work with theater groups and bring in guest artists. We’ve been able to bring in some fantastic groups such as the N.J. Ballet. We could never do that before.”
For this season’s opener, the Pops performed with singer and stage artists Lucie Arnaz (daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz). Throughout its season, the Pops will feature singers and soloists.
Though the Pops also perform at the Hughes Performing Arts Center at Ocean City High School, it is still the Music Pier that is seen as its home.
“Acoustically, it’s not spectacular, but we have a very good sound system,” Scheible says. “The appeal is the ambiance and the feel of the place. It’s a long tradition for many people.”
Along with the Pops, the pier is also home to the Stockton Goes to the Beach concert series on Monday nights in the summer.
The seven-concert series opens Monday, July 11, with the Classics IV and includes groups such as the Family Stone, the Marshall Tucker Band and Herman’s Hermits. Stockton also presents a children’s Summer Playhouse on Wednesdays in July at 10:30am.
And then there are concerts that just pop up on the schedule, such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra July 22 or the Fabulous Grease Band on July 28.
And even when there isn’t a specific show, the pier’s loggia is a shady place to sit and relax, overlooking the beach and ocean. Throw in the fact that the pier also houses the city’s guest information office and public restrooms, and well, no trip to Ocean City can never be complete without a visit.
“People have just become very attached to the place through the years,” says Soifer. “You have generations of people who have been coming to the Music Pier. It’s a special place.”