Season begins: Wildwood unlocks ocean

A scuba kite flies over cyclists on the Wildwood Boardwalk. It is the 29th Wildwoods International KIte Festival. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer ) May 23, 2014.

WILDWOOD, N.J. - Hours before ceremonies began and kites flew into the skies Friday morning, a public works employee hammered swiftly, securing a nail in the wet boardwalk wood.

Inside Harry's Corner near East Cedar Avenue, as metal grates still guarded neighboring eateries and attractions, local residents read newspapers over steaming coffee. Some grumbled about the wind and possible showers.

"Ninety percent, the weather," owner Aristidis Tsakiris, a 58-year-old native of Greece, said about business over the summer season, which is beginning this weekend. "Ten percent, economy."

If the deviation of Friday's weather from predictions is any indication, the summer season at this Shore island will shape up to be a good one. Under a shining midday sun, local elected officials and businesses symbolically began the season with a turn of an oversize wooden key in the sand - a long-standing annual tradition of "unlocking" the ocean.

Paul Berard, 53, an electrician from Rhode Island, cast large bubbles into the air - a "universal" happiness, he said - from atop the boardwalk near Roberts Avenue. On the sand, Mike Dallmer Jr., 38, a mechanical engineer who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, maneuvered an 80-foot stingray kite, anticipating the start of an international kite festival later in the evening.

In line with other traditions, the 1963 hit "Wildwood Days," about summers at the Cape May County shore, was seemingly on repeat throughout the two-mile stretch. But a new addition came in the form of a large mural of the track's singer, Bobby Rydell.

Rydell, wearing a white blazer, snapped his fingers on stage to his anthem - now a staple of Wildwood tourism campaigns - as officials removed a tarp covering a 45-foot-by-25-foot black-and-white likeness of Rydell's younger self.

At 72, Rydell, who grew up in South Philadelphia, still speaks with fondness of his summers at the Shore, where his grandmother had a house on East Montgomery Avenue.

"A lot of the stuff is no longer here," Rydell said of his favorite spots. He recalled warm nights spent dancing at the Starlight Ballroom, a landmark that burned down in 1981. "Everyone would gravitate there."

A handful of local and state elected officials decorated Rydell with proclamations; Wildwood City named Rydell's hit tune the city's official song. Rydell, who two years ago underwent a liver and kidney transplant, said he remained in good health.

"Long live Wildwood days," he said.

The Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority expects the mural to be the first in a series dedicated to area icons, consistent with the authority's push to tap into the traditions and emotions of longtime visitors.

There was little talk about Hurricane Sandy, which debilitated parts of the Shore but largely spared the Wildwoods boardwalk. Tourism folk said that they struggled last year with perceptions that the area was as badly damaged as worse-off areas.

"That is history," said John Siciliano, executive director of the tourism authority. "That's out of people's minds."

Gov. Christie spent the day visiting Shore towns farther north, some brutally wounded by Sandy.

"People are coming back, and they're going to be coming back in even bigger numbers this year," Christie said in Belmar, before heading to Asbury Park and Seaside Heights.

Back on the radar of Shore-goers was traffic, as some experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic entering Wildwood. Nearby, in Upper Township, a dump truck that reportedly went out of control and hit a guardrail dove off the Garden State Parkway into the Great Egg Harbor, slowing traffic along the roadway. The driver was taken to a hospital with serious injuries.

The return to Wildwood was nothing but sweet for Lisa Howell, 42, of Northeast Philadelphia, who lamented the harsh winter.

"I felt like it was never going to end," she said, digging her feet into the sand on a beach she has visited since she was 5. It's a trip she was sharing with her two children, Anthony Jakeman, 9, and Madison Howell, 17.

The boardwalk featured signature items: cold water ice, steaming pizza and a smorgasbord of flash-fried bites. And familiar faces.

Bob DiPeso, 73, stood amid rows of neon lights and stuffed animals, as he beckoned passersby to his water gun game at Bobby Dee's arcade.

"Eyes on the target," he said as four teenage girls hunched over their water guns. "No more smiling!"

He's a performer, he noted, "and I enjoy it."

No matter the show, he said, he had his mind on business, too. He said boardwalk establishments view the long holiday weekend as an entry into "a positive cash flow."

"You're really reaching into your pocket every week prior to Memorial Day," added DiPeso, who was raised in North Wildwood. "Most people use a line of credit from the bank."

DiPeso, who has taught economics and accounting at Camden Catholic High School and Camden County College, began working at an arcade at the same site when he was 13, making change and fixing equipment. A fire claimed the property not long after the blaze that took down the ballroom, he said.

"I bought the sand," he said, and opened his own arcade in 1982.

Gliding across the boardwalk at 5 m.p.h., John "Gig" Gigliotti, 82, returned to his 21-year job as the driver of one of the eight yellow boardwalk trams.

"I love the people," said Gigliotti, a former Conrail train conductor. When summer approaches, the West Deptford resident heads back to his area summer home, just in time for the crowds.

"A lot of people come back year after year, looking for me," he said proudly, the quiet electric engine of the yellow car humming. "I love that sound."



This article contains information from the Associated Press.