By Donald Wittkowski
This was one New Year’s Eve that called for ditching the fancy-schmancy tuxedos and bejeweled evening gowns and the crystal glasses brimming with sparkling champagne.
On this night, hooded parkas and double underwear were in vogue. Toasts were made using paper cups filled with coffee or hot chocolate.
“It’s very, very, very cold,” exclaimed Bob Callahan while sitting inside the Ocean City Music Pier as the temperature outside dipped into the single digits.
But no matter. Callahan, his wife, Joann, and thousands of other revelers braved the bone-chilling weather for Ocean City’s First Night celebration that ushered in 2018.
An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 visitors poured into the city for an array of family-friendly, alcohol-free entertainment at 20 venues spread out across the city. A midnight fireworks display capped the celebration as the crowds bade farewell to 2017.
Michele Gillian, executive director of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said the city was expected to sell out all 10,000 First Night buttons that served as an admission ticket to the shows and events.
Gillian noted that the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebration provides a huge economic boost for the shops, restaurants and hotels. Before the city started the First Night celebration 22 years ago, Ocean City was a virtual “ghost town” on New Year’s Eve, she said.
“Now, the city has become a destination,” she said of the holiday crowds.
Despite the brutally cold weather, the downtown shops were bustling with customers, hotels were booked and the restaurants enjoyed brisk business, Gillian said.
Big crowds also packed some of the entertainment venues that featured a total of 80 shows and events.
The Callahans, Ocean City residents, had only a short walk from their home on Plymouth Place to the Music Pier on the Boardwalk to watch a concert by First Night headliner, Chubby Checker, of “The Twist” fame.
Bob Callahan, 72, joked that he and his 71-year-old wife were twisters a long time ago when they were young.
“Mainly, we’re old doo-woppers,” Callahan said, referring to the rhythm and blues music popularized in the 1950s.
Still equipped with a powerful singing voice and some slick dance moves, the 76-year-old Checker thrilled an audience mixed with both old and young fans.
“Twist and shout until we knock you out!” Checker boomed from the stage while performing a medley of hits.
He ended the show with “The Twist,” bringing the audience to its feet, including dozens of gray-haired twisters who shimmied to the front of the stage.
“Happy New Year! Enjoy it, Ocean City,” Checker shouted to his fans.
A lower-key New Year’s Eve celebration was held inside the recently opened Ocean City Life-Saving Station, which features a museum harkening back to the early 1900s. Mayor Jay Gillian and members of City Council were among the dignitaries who joined John Loeper, the chairman of the nonprofit organization that runs the museum, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Loeper said the Life-Saving Station, which dates to 1885, is a piece of maritime history that is “Ocean City’s version of Monticello or Independence Hall.”
“There aren’t many places left in the entire country that you can go to and still see an original life-saving station,” Loeper said, estimating that only 26 to 28 are still left.
For years, the old building itself was in need of rescue. The city purchased the two-story structure from private owners in 2010 for nearly $900,000, ending a decade-long battle to save it from demolition.
Now, renovations are underway to transform the site into an interactive “living museum” that will recreate the station’s heyday and pay homage to the surf men who risked their lives to save others.
Loeper said the frigid weather on New Year’s Eve was a reminder of the extreme conditions that would cause shipwrecks off Ocean City, forcing the surf men into action.
“They didn’t go to work on the Fourth of July. They would go to work on a day like today,” he said.
It was so cold on New Year’s Eve that some revelers were even ice skating. But the ice was only artificial. A paved area outside the Sports and Civic Center at Sixth Street and the Boardwalk was transformed into a skating rink with the help of some fake ice.
Sisters Elena and Nina Mason and their friend, Alyssa Lauer, 11, were bundled up while gliding along the ice.
“I was a little wobbly at first, but now I’m skating backwards” said 11-year-old Elena.
When asked what she thought about the cold weather, 9-year-old Nina replied that it was “okey-dokey.”
The Mason sisters and Alyssa Lauer, all from Washington Township, N.J., were enjoying a getaway holiday weekend in Ocean City with their families.
“We’re a fun family. We always like to do fun things,” said Bob Mason, Elena and Nina’s father.
Many other families took to the Boardwalk to enjoy the amusements, including the indoor rides at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier. Gillian’s towering Ferris wheel, illuminated in bright lights for the holiday, was visible for miles.
Tara Kowalczyk, of Springfield Township, N.J., brought her three young daughters, Priscilla, Scarlet and Amelia, to the First Night celebration.
“We absolutely love it. It’s a nice, family-oriented place. The kids always look forward to it,” Kowalczyk said.
Kowalczyk and her husband, Brian, also spend their summers in Ocean City at their vacation home on 35th Street and Asbury Avenue.
Brian Kowalczyk, however, wasn’t with the rest of the family for the First Night celebration. He was at their Ocean City home, trying to fix a broken heater.
“It was 30 degrees inside the house,” Tara Kowalczyk said.
Even at that subfreezing temperature, it was still a lot warmer than the severe weather outdoors for the First Night celebration.