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The Romper Room Lady & Ocean City


Mary Carol Reilly, an Ocean City, Maryland afficionado for over 70 years in a picture from 1967. Courtesy of Rafael Alvarez

by Rafael Alvarez 

“I burn, freckle and peel …”

– an Irish woman’s seaside lament

Mary Carol Reilly’s father got two week’s vacation every year from the family leather shop in downtown Baltimore. And just about every summer of her childhood, the Reillys spent part of those two weeks in Ocean City.

“My mother liked to tell the story of pushing me down the Boardwalk in my baby stroller, I guess I was about two years old,” said Mary Carol, a natural-born ham who grew up to be a television “Romper Room lady” and star in commercials with the Pillsbury Doughboy.

“I’d sit up and wave to people walking by,” said Mary Carol, now 70. “I was sure they were happy to see me.”

[She still is and they still are.]

Her memories go back before the Bay Bridge opened in the summer of 1952, in the days when people got dressed up to walk the Boardwalk, and Mary Carol (a tournament poker player) remembers the lure of the slot machines on the Sandy Point-to-Kent Island ferry.

“We always rented an umbrella and a couple of chairs,” remembered Reilly, a Chicago Romper Room teacher in 1967, one of a handful of years she didn’t visit Ocean City. “Mom always wore a big hat so she wouldn’t burn.”

The Reillys –father Ed; mother Mary, brothers Eddie and Johnny and the irrepressible Mary Carol – stayed at the George Washington Hotel on 10th street, now the site of the Americana.

Mary Carol Reilly with baby photo. Photo courtesy of Rafael Alvarez

It wasn’t long after the end of World War II – Mary Carol was a kid of about 5, ice cream still melted down the front of her clothes – and the Great Depression was a memory. Working people had a couple of bucks in their pocket and felt good about themselves.


“The George Washington had men in white gloves to open the door for you and a classy dance hall on one of the upper floors,” said Reilly, now 70. “We thought we were rich.”

And for a week or two, like so many who flock to Ocean City each summer – as several hundred thousand will this Memorial Day weekend – they were.




The old George Washington Hotel in Ocean City, Maryland courtesy of Bunk Mann. This picture is from a postcard in Bunk’s collection. According to Bunk, this picture is circa 1964+/- when Bunk had a beach stand on 10th Street. “The hotel opened in 1931 and was torn down in 1990. The Americana Hotel occupies the site today. The GW was the tallest hotel in OC for nearly 40 years(until the High Point was built in 1970) and was a landmark for boats out on the ocean.”

Not counting helicopter or seaplane, there are four ways to get onto the glittering, eight-mile barrier island incorporated as Ocean City, Maryland in 1880.

The Route 50 bridge that empties into the old part of town near the inlet – where you are welcomed to the White Marlin Capital of the World; Route 90, which ends at 62nd street; and two state routes – No. 54 and No. 1 – out of Delaware.

How I would love to have encountered Mary Carol Reilly as she arrived on one of those byways back when I was a rookie reporter covering Ocean City for the Baltimore Sun.

It was the summers of 1983 and ’84 and I could have added her to the constellation of characters that make the resort Maryland’s second most populated city between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

A former taxi driver in Los Angeles and English teacher in China, the feisty Reilly would have fit right in with the reclusive octogenarian – Watterson “Mack” Miller – who swam a mile out to sea everyday and kept his strength up with a daily breakfast of raw eggs and raw ground beef.

Would have claimed a sober place amongst the drunks and carnies (sometimes the same thing) and Christian athletes who competed in national “born-again” surfing tournaments.

And would have enjoyed a plate of diner eggs with legendary mayor Harry Kelly, for whom the Route 50 bridge is named and whose great regret just before his 1985 death was that he never succeeded in building college-style dormitories for seasonal workers and a monorail running down Ocean Highway.

[Both of which are still good ideas.]

Imagine the inches of narrative had I bumped into the burning and freckling and peeling Reilly – a woman with a thousand ideas for game shows, who jumps on a bus to California and back to compete in Omaha Hi/Low poker tournaments – as she pounded the boards in search of new friends and laughter.

“When I got older, a bunch of high school friends would go with a chaperone, a lady who didn’t have any children of her own,” said the 1960 graduate of the now-defunct Seton High in Baltimore.  “In the summer of 1957, I turned 16 and worked at the Ocean Casino on 9th street.

“There were arcade games and a soda fountain. I was a waitress. It was the place for teenagers,” she said. In the advent of Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac, “there were so many kids at the corner of 9th and Boardwalk people couldn’t get by. The waitresses lived upstairs and locked us in at night so nobody got in trouble.”

Just a few years later, with the folk craze of the early Sixties – and long-playing albums of Odetta, the New Lost City Ramblers, little Bobby Dylan and Phil Ochs – Reilly the college student would go to bonfires on the undeveloped beachfronts north of 80th street to drink and sing on the beach with other young people.

“That might have been the first real drinking I ever did,” said Reilly, who put down the bottle when Gerald Ford was president.

For years, she has visited Ocean City each September with thousands of other sober people from around the country who come together at the Convention Center on 40th street to celebrate their reprieve from the fatal disease of alcoholism.

Reilly’s not crazy about the sun and surf – at age 40 a doctor warned that her “sun days” were over.

But she likes to walk the beach at night and get her feet wet, talking with a friend or thinking of all the places she’s been – the gravy train of working as a commercial actress in Los Angeles in the early 1970s to volunteering in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina – and how so many summers still bring her back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

This summer she hopes to treat her niece and nephew to a week down the ocean at a relative’s beachfront condo near 41st street. Reilly believes that the boy was likely conceived in a Boardwalk hotel back when John Kennedy was president.

“I like to walk the Boardwalk at night,” she said. “Walking, sitting, just looking at the people going by or riding a bike – I love it all.”


Ann McGinnis Hillyer
Ann McGinnis Hillyerhttps://www.oceancity.com
Ann has been with StateVentures since 1999. She graduated from Duke University, but still loves Maryland -- despite their withdrawal from the ACC. She has worked in marketing and strategic planning for decades, starting with an airline out of Dulles Airport. She moved from Annapolis to Berlin, MD to be closer to Ocean City. She She is based in Berlin, Maryland and can help any client build more business. She loves a camera and any excuse to use it. She also loves fishing and being out on a boat. Ann has two cool children who love the ocean as much as she does. Contact info: amh@maryland.com; 410-703-1970

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