OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Mark Soifer is in his 40th summer as Wizard of the Wacky at the Jersey Shore.
While Ocean City typically projects itself as a placid, mainstream family resort, Soifer, the resort's longtime public relations chieftain, tries to pull it ever so gently toward the unconventional.
"Wacky, but not tacky," said Soifer about the version of events he puts on for visitors, mostly on the Ocean City Boardwalk, every year. Next week - which encompasses Weird Week - is about the ne plus ultra of Soiferdom. And the timing could not be more perfect as families head to the Shore for their annual August sojourns.
Actually, this weekend, prior to Weird Week, is a bit more formal. On Saturday night is the Miss Ocean City Pageant, a preliminary for the Miss New Jersey/Miss America contests. Each year, the Ocean City Exchange Club seeks contestants ages 16 to 22 who either went to Ocean City High School or whose families own property in the school district. Sunday's top event is the Dave Stahl Orchestra Concert at the Ocean City Tabernacle.
Then it's all about Weird Week, according to Soifer.
Weird Week got its start in the 1980s after Soifer had, admittedly, gotten over-inventive with contests - he had too many to spread out intermittently through the summer. So he determined what he believed to be the busiest vacation week in mid-August and scheduled five of them then.
This year, there is a new interloper - the Clip Art contest on Thursday.
"I went to my Research and Development team to find me something new for 2010," said Soifer, who is, truth be told, the sole member of that R&D team. The idea is that contestants are given a number of paper clips and get a half-hour to make a sculpture out of them. In a preliminary tryout in June he got a beautiful array, including an Empire State Building and a SpongeBob SquarePants.
The other four days have contests coming back from previous years. On Monday, there will be Taffy Sculpting. There contestants get a wad of taffy from Ocean City's famed Shriver's and mold it, by hand or mouth, into a candy sculpture. Tuesday is French Fry Sculpting, with a similar chew-them-mold-them premise.
"I once crushed the french fries into the shape of the Eiffel Tower," said Mary Moran, 24, of Northeast Philadelphia, who said she won that Weird Week contest when she was a teenager. "I couldn't have gotten more French, right?"
Another former winner, Mike Harris, 30, of South Philadelphia, said the taffy-sculpting is a hard go, but he managed to win a few years back with a figure-eight. "I had to use brute strength for the twists and my natural artistic talent for the turns," said Harris, who said the contests liven up the midweek for his annual visits in Ocean City.
On Wednesday, it's "That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles," when contestants will chew around the edges of their own huge oatmeal chocolate chip cookie from Ward's Bakery. Soifer said in the past, this had been a Tastykake pie venue, "but they started making the pies too small and we went in a different mode."
Next Friday, Aug. 20, offers a bang-up finish to Weird Week. First off, the city will crown Mr. and Ms. Miscellaneous. This, according to Soifer, is a bit of all-inclusiveness for Ocean City.
"It is for everyone who always wanted to be in a contest but maybe got caught up in a rugby game or missed the bus and forgot to show up," he said. Thus, a contestant exhibit any talent and qualify to be, well, miscellaneous.
After that, it is the toddlers' turn with Mr. and Ms. Chaos. At most resorts, said Soifer, the idea is to silence kids, but at Ocean City, there is one Friday morning event for the noisy and rambunctious. For Mr. and Ms. Chaos, kids between 3 and 5 years old are given pots, pans, metal spoons, wooden hammers, and noisemaking whatnot. The winner is the one who can produce the most chaos.
In the old days, said Soifer, 77, who started out as Ocean City's PR man in 1971, he had a big-time tanning contest. There were categories for just about everyone - baldhead tan, left-arm tan for people who put their elbows out the driver's window, whitest ring finger. It was an homage to a Doonesbury character who lived to tan.
"But then a CBS radio reporter came down from New York to do the story and there was a big reaction," he said. People complained about how dangerous tanning was, so he had to discontinue the contest.
Soifer is most proud this year of his latest invention, Extreme Hermit Crab Wrestling, which took place last month and, he said, might make a comeback before the summer is over.
"No crab is ever hurt and none, actually, touch each other," he said. Each hermit crab is turned over on its shell and the first to scramble upright wins. Soifer said he uses it to tell kids how to care for hermit crabs. "They come here from the tropics and wouldn't last outside come winter. We don't want them to be throwaways, destroying the cheer they give in the summer."