Robert Hancock of Ocean City knows how to throw a party, and he has the salt and pepper shakers to prove it.
Every year, the Hancocks elaborately decorate their West 16th Street home for Night in Venice, the annual boat parade and festival that draws tens of thousands to the city and is expected to do so once again on Saturday.
Night in Venice is also a contest in which judges select the most creatively designed boats and houses along the approximately 4-mile route, something that many families take very seriously and plan for months ahead of time.
The Hancocks are old hands in this regard. They registered in the contest every year since it began in 1954, and they have boxes of ceramic mugs, plates, glassware and those two ivory-colored shakers they received as registration gifts.
To them, Night in Venice is the biggest holiday of the year. They invited more than 60 people with personalized invitations this year, and their parties usually include thousands of dollars in food, party favors and refreshments.
“Some people say you’re going to the extreme, but it’s not going to the extreme,” said Hancock, 52. “We’re just trying to make it perfect for our guests.”
This year’s festival will include a number of firsts, the most obvious being that boaters will pass underneath the new Route 52 causeway bridge instead of through the former drawbridges.
In the past, the drawbridges would stay open to let the parade pass, which in some years included as many as 100 boats. That obviously caused dramatic traffic problems on the causeway.
The massive new span will not only eliminate that issue but it will also provide a unique vantage point for spectators to watch boats pass below.
Another new addition is that the city will posting the contest winners online as of Saturday night rather than at an award ceremony the following day.
“The city’s bringing their IT people to the parade this year,” said Sue Canale, a longtime volunteer on the Night in Venice Committee.
This year also looks like it will continue a trend of fewer boats participating than in years past. There were about 50 boats registered as of Thursday, but registrations continue through Saturday morning.
A number of people pointed to the rising price of fuel for the decline, but the city’s public relations director, Mark Soifer, thinks there’s a more likely cause.
“The house parties, if you had to judge, have become the more colorful things,” he said.
Indeed, the view from the boats of the land has become as exciting as the view from the land of the parade over the years.
More than 150 homes had registered for the decoration contest as of Thursday, albeit some of those people simply signed up to receive the commemorative mug.
Many of those homeowners spare no expense, adorning their homes in laser lights, smoke machines, painstakingly painted signs and other creations that really need to be seen to be believed.
One year, for instance, one home adopted a “Miracle on the Hudson” theme. They built a mock cockpit on the back of their home and had people in scuba gear in the water to resemble rescue divers.
Winning themes last year included “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Gas,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Harry Potter in Ocean City.”
The optional theme this year is “Do you remember when?”, an open-ended idea that is a partial reference the old Route 52 causeway being replaced by the new one.
The Hancocks have won several awards in the contest over the years. Last year they went all-out with a “Wild Wild West 16th Street” theme, though, so they said they are taking it relatively easy this year on the decoration.
That does not mean they will slack on their party, though.
Hancock said the most people they have ever had in their 112-year-old house was more than 100. In the past, he said he has gone through more than 1,000 pounds of ice, and luckily Sea Isle Ice trucks park along the neighborhoods during the festival to supply extra bags to homes.
He said he has also learned a few trick over the years, like making sure to buy small, individually wrapped bags of chips, since the salt air makes a bowl of chips go stale in no time.
The same goes for water bottles. He only buys small plastic bottles, since people don’t finish large ones once they get warm.
As for adult beverages, he said he has learned to tell people to bring their own if they are going to be picky. If they are going to arrive looking for something very specific, they are going to be out of luck.
“It’s nothing to drop thousands of dollars on Night in Venice,” he said.
Hancock’s mother, Adelaide, who is better known as “Carm,” said it’s remarkable how the event has grown since its beginning,
“After the first year, we thought, ‘Well, that was it,’" she said. “But then they kept doing it every year.”
What hasn’t happened every year, or any year that anyone can remember, is it being canceled by rain. A number of people were nervously looking at the forecast this week, eyeing possible Saturday storms and holding on to hope.
“Usually the sun shines on Night in Venice,” Canale said. “We’ve been really lucky with that.”
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