Timing is everything and 3 a.m. sounded about right. Surely, Mike Kapuscinski thought, he'd be first in line if he arrived 30 hours before tickets went on sale.
With two daughters at the Jazz Unlimited School of Dance Arts in Marlton, it was time to make his move and pull an all-nighter - since everyone says that's what it takes to get primo seats for the spring recitals. Arriving as early as he did, Kapuscinski had the place to himself for a full 60 minutes.
"This was our year," Kapuscinski, a fire department mechanic, said Saturday afternoon when I met him guarding his strip-mall campsite 12 hours into the adventure. "My wife wants the front row."
"I cannot stand dodging heads," explained Lisa Kapuscinski, who stopped by periodically throughout the ordeal with the kids and meals.
Everyone has a reason, I was told, back when I was skeptical that up to 300 otherwise sane suburban parents would endure the elements for the sole purpose of being close enough to see their twirling children sweat onstage in an auditorium that has no bad seats.
Some, like George Rears, equate the wait with wanting the best for their kids, never letting them down.
"I'm being a great dad," the IT manager from Mount Laurel said after waking at 4 p.m. from a nap on his cot not far from Camp Kapuscinski.
Then Alison Friedman - 20th in line - let me in on a secret: Many parents come for the fun, which can be in short supply when you spend all your time and money catering to your kids.
"We drink, we eat sushi, and if you've got to go pee-pee, you bring your wipes and go in the woods," said Friedman, a full-time mom from Cherry Hill, giggling at the hours of revelry ahead.
"It's like being back in college."
Jazz Unlimited, tucked inside a shopping center on Route 73, has more than 2,000 students between 2 and 18 years old, owner Carryl Slobotkin said proudly. Some spend every spare moment in leotards and $4,000 a year on classes.
A onetime Rockette and Eagles cheerleader choreographer - she smoothed moves for the 1980 Super Bowl squad - Slobotkin creates end-of-year recitals that are $30,000 productions of Broadway proportions: seven shows, with professional lighting, costumes, programs and hype.
"If you go to Wal-Mart, you know what you're getting," Slobotkin said. "We're Bloomingdale's."
The recitals are staged at the end of the month at Eastern High School in Voorhees. The auditorium seats 1,300. The shows rarely, if ever, sell out. Tickets are only $15 and there are no obstructed views.
So why the line, which can stretch from the dance school door past Carter's and Burlington Coat Factory?
"Everyone wants to be front and center," she said, shaking her head. "It's nuts."
Embracing the chaos
After trying, and failing, to impose a ticket lottery, Slobotkin embraced the chaos and set rules.
Each family may purchase six of the best seats. Need more? Buy all you want after Row Q.
No tents, though sleeping bags and Aero beds are OK.
No live fires, though industrious barbecuers often find a way.
And absolutely no dropping off a lawn chair and leaving. Thirty-minute breaks from the line are allowed. Stay away longer, and the crowd will evict you.
"Last year," Slobotkin acknowledged, "the cops came after two women fought over one of them trying to save a spot."
At 4 p.m. Saturday, 12 hours into his wait, Bob Latigona was reading Windows Vista magazine and wondering what had gone wrong. He'd been first in line for years, until Mike Kapuscinski came along.
When pressed for a meaning, Latigona said the all-nighters could be a sign of the times.
"My parents never came to my Little League games," recalled the Marlton real estate office manager. "I never thought twice about it. But now I wouldn't think of missing anything my kids do."
Sounds plausible, until other parents suggest less noble reasons for their shared obsession: bocce ball and Jell-o shots, fun and games for stressed-out adults craving a break.
"I see this guy once a year," Rears said, before Latigona finished the thought: "And I feel like we're friends."
The party starts after dark, they say, so I leave and return at 9 p.m.
"It's an esprit de corps - the tailgaters, the magic, we're all in this crazy thing together," said Frank Vetesi, a giddy software engineer from Cherry Hill composing music on his laptop, which he rarely has time to do at home.
"Ten years from now, we're not going to have this opportunity - if you could call it an opportunity."
Latigona concurred, lamenting the day his 12-year-old twins, Brooke and Jessica, graduate.
"Honestly," he said, "I'll be disappointed when this is all over."