By Donald Wittkowski
Was this a mass protest against Ocean City’s “No dogs on the Boardwalk” edict?
Hundreds of basset hounds in all their squat-legged, droopy eyed glory took over the Boardwalk on Saturday afternoon much to the amusement of thousands of spectators.
At the head of the basset hound brigade was the self-proclaimed “top dog,” none other than Erik Estrada, who gained fame in the 1970s and ’80s playing Frank “Ponch” Poncharello in the TV police drama “CHiPS.”
Estrada and about 500 basset hounds were joined by a cast of colorful characters, marching bands and clownish miniature cars in Ocean City’s 33rd annual Doo Dah Parade, a wacky procession that celebrates the end of income tax time and the start of the beach resort’s tourism season.
As grand marshal, Estrada led the parade as it unfolded along Asbury Avenue through the downtown shopping district before making its way up on the Boardwalk for its comical climax. The “Pie-asco,” which encourages parade-goers to smoosh a friend or family member in the face with a shaving-cream pie, served as the finale in front of the Music Pier.
Flashing his gleaming, Hollywood smile, the 69-year-old Estrada was serenaded with shouts of “We love you” and “You look so handsome” from the adoring crowds while he rode down the Boardwalk in a classic Chevrolet Super Sport convertible.
Spectators rushed up to him for hugs, handshakes and photos. Ocean City residents Jill Nuss and Donna Strandwitz, who are friends and neighbors, got Estrada to pose with them for a few pictures.
“I felt like I was a teenager again,” Nuss gushed about meeting Estrada.
The TV star, a veteran of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York and Hollywood Christmas Parade in Los Angeles, was soaking up his first Doo Dah Parade on a sun-splashed spring day.
“I’ve done the Macy’s parade, I’ve hosted the Hollywood parade, but this is a major parade. It’s incredible,” Estrada said in an interview. “The people are so generous, kind, nice and even sweet.”
When asked what it was like to share the spotlight with hundreds of basset hounds, he joked, “I like being top dog.”
The Doo Dah Parade is the main fundraiser for the Tri-State Basset Hound Rescue group. Valerie Mazzei, the president of Tri-State Basset Hound Rescue, said the organization was able to save 254 homeless basset hounds throughout the country last year, although it primarily concentrates on New Jersey, Pennsylvania and eastern New York.
The hilariously built, sad-eyed basset hounds have been in the parade for the past 20 years and have become its centerpiece attraction. They saunter in slow motion behind the Tri-State Basset Hound Rescue’s “BoardWaddle” banner.
Jennifer Buynitsky made a six-hour drive Friday night from her native Boston to march in the parade along with her basset, Eugene. For Buynitsky, it was her third Doo Dah Parade, but 6-month-old Eugene was a newbie. Looking comically nerdish, they wore matching beanie caps with propellers on top.
“It’s goofy, funny, lovable,” Buynitsky said of the parade. “With 500 basset hounds here, it’s impossible not to be happy. It’s a great day of fun.”
Robin Peterson, of Franklinville, N.J., brought a wooden box to the parade containing the ashes of her basset hound, Blaze-Flash, who died Feb. 20. Peterson explained that her dog had two names because he was called Blaze by one family member and Flash by another.
Blaze-Flash was part of the Doo Dah Parade for years, so Peterson decided to bring his ashes along on Saturday to continue the tradition. Her family created a “basset buggy” that had four stuffed animals wearing Blaze-Flash’s collar, harness and some of his clothing.
“Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean he’s not going to participate,” Peterson said. “He’s participated for many years, so we’re helping him along this year.”