From the moment of its founding a few years after the Civil War, the Ocean City most people long remember from their childhoods has been slipping away.
Chain hotels have steadily replaced wooden guest houses with front porches; buses the size of those in Baltimore now ferry tourists from the Delaware line to the inlet; and while many cherished old faithful eateries remain, a new sub shop or crab shack opens every year.
Lifelong Worcester County resident Hunter “Bunk” Mann grew up just outside of Ocean City and it has been his passion to preserve as much of the resort’s history as possible. Before the end of this year, his work will be available in Vanishing Ocean City, a beautifully illustrated coffee table book filled with a century-and-a-half of memories.
Now a 68-year-old grandfather, the longtime Eastern Shore insurance broker lives away from the action in Ocean Pines. But Mann crosses the Route 90 bridge into Ocean City as often as possible, especially when chasing down another old-timer for an interview.
Set for release by Labor Day, 2014, Vanishing Ocean City will be a hard-cover keepsake alive with a hundred voices. It includes interviews with more than 160 people over the past seven years and is illustrated with more than 300 photos, many never published before.
Of the scores of people Mann mined for their memories, most were 70-years or older with none younger than 50.
“The oldest person I talked to was Pete Cooper, chief engineer when they were building the Route 50 Bridge,” said Mann of the longtime Salisbury city engineer. “Pete was 98 when I talked to him and he lived to be 102.
“After the storm of ’33 that cut the Inlet, Pete was also the guy assigned to rebuild the  that came into town on Worcester Street.”
Though his collection of vintage Ocean City postcards runs to about 600 items, the one image he has not been able to find is a picture of Shorty the Blind Banjo Player.
Shorty reportedly lost his vision as a boy while chipping away at ice that had built up in the freezer of an old refrigerator. He said that he severed a Freon line and the vapor destroyed his eyes.
As an adult, Shorty finger-picked and strolled the Boardwalk with his guide dog. He played for loose change and a kind word- and often more than that from good-hearted folk with half-a-load-on. The banjo still rang out in the mid-1980s, though Shorty is surely on the far side of the surf now and tales about him have long been scarce.
“I’d also like to find a picture of Tex, another one of the Boardwalk singers from the 60s and 70s,” said Mann, who turns 68 on March 11. Like the long-gone Tex, Bunk is also a guitar player, coming of age in the pre-Beatles, “Joe College” crew cut years of the early 1960s. His high school band was called “The Electras,” named for a hot Buick of yesteryear.
For a couple of summers Mann worked as a “beach boy,” renting chairs and umbrellas and inflatable surf “mats” – navy blue and maroon, ridged and made of thick rubber – from stands in front of the Boardwalk.
In 1962 and 1963, his spot was in front of the Hastings-Miramar Hotel. Sixth Street was his 1964 assignment and the following year – which saw the Beach Boys of Hawthorne, California release “Girl Don’t Tell Me” – Mann worked just off the George Washington Hotel on Street. Both hotels, and many others that perished by arson or bulldozer, are in the book.
“We always called the blow-up things surf mats,” said Mann, noting they were good for sailing over waves before the surf crashed. “They faded in the 80s when boogie boards became popular.”
In an Ocean City twist on Annette and Frankie’s beach blanket bingo bashes, Bunk strummed an acoustic at sand parties with bonfires north of 94th St, “nothing up there in those days but dunes and a few cottages until you reached Bobby Baker’s Carousel [hotel] on 118th street.:”
Good times with good people, days that each new generation – from the post-World War II vets who slept on cots at a dormitory on the Showell Block to the YOLOs of today (you only live once) – thinks will never end.
Mann grooved to the Admirals – a show band with a banging brass section – at the Hunka Munka night club (the house band in ’68 was Lawrence and the Arabians); and was also fond of the Lafayettes, a suburban Baltimore band who rocked the Pier Ballroom with their 1962 regional hit, “Life’s Too Short.”
Foolish girls lathered themselves with baby oil spiked with iodine to better bake in the sun,
Todd Ferrante, the king of Park Place Jewelers, worked at his family’s “telescope” photo business, hooking up many with key rings full of kids and grandkids squinting inside a plastic telescope.
The Satellite Motel was where the Jetsons stayed (daughter Judy in a bikini, baby) and the Trimper “Fun House thrilled old and young.
The thrills, as Frank Zappa once observed, were cheap.
“There was an air jet just outside of the fun house,” said Mann. “And the guys who worked the amusement would let the air whoosh just right when a pretty girl in a dress walked by.”
The Fun House was torn down in 1972 and replaced by Sportland.
Bunk will be working on the book through the summer of 2014 and is willing to hold the presses to get as many gems in as possible.
“I’d love to get a picture of the Irish House,” said Mann, sitting on a bench outside of the Ocean City Life Saving Museum by the Inlet. It was a saloon where they had sing-alongs near where the Purple Moose is today.”
Any photographs from the late 19th century are welcome and if his search doesn’t turn up rare goodies for the upcoming edition, Bunk will begin working on a second. Affable and generous with his time, Mann is easily reachable on Facebook and the Mann & Gray insurance office in Fruitland.
“I started the project seriously in 2008 with interviews. But I never really thought about doing a book until about ten years ago when they began tearing down some of the old hotels and I went to get pictures before they were gone,” said Mann.
In November of 2004, he took his mother (the former Hannah Grashl, born in Austria in 1919) with him to watch the Belmont Hotel on Dorchester Street come down. An OC resident for decades, she turned to her son and said, “It’s so sad – everything I remember about Ocean City is being torn down.
“The town,” she said, “is just vanishing.”
And Bunk Mann had the title for a book not yet written.
It is well documented (though not always believed) that when we die, we leave our possessions behind, be they Chevrolets or surfboards.
What many realize too late (like an old Memphis sweetheart of mine who kept reaching for the phone to call her mother for a recipe after her Mom had passed) is the deceased do take some gold with them: their stories.
Bunk is making sure the folks in Ocean City don’t take all of them.
“The book started out being about buildings,” said Mann of his discoveries. “Then I realized the important stories were about the people.”