Seeking policy to fit family image to a T

Standards: Ocean City officials resort to friendly persuasion to avoid bawdy messages on T-shirts and other merchandise.

May 01, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - If there's anybody in Maryland's favorite beach town who knows T-shirts, it's Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. In 23 years running a boardwalk shop, he's pretty much seen it all, T-shirtwise.

You've got your Confederate flags, your stock car racing logos, your marijuana leaf prints, your old geezer jokes, and countless varieties that make the wearer a walking advertisement for brand-name sportswear, beers and liquors. There's the ever-popular "I'm With Stupid" shirt with forefinger pointed strategically at a partner strolling the boards.

Increasingly it seems, merchants are displaying push-the-edge shirts featuring everybody from professional wrestlers to pop stars spilling out of skimpy swimsuits.

There's a seemingly endless supply of shirts promising all manner of sexual gymnastics or the ubiquitous "Big Johnson" sexual cartoon shirts, and tons that encourage or glamorize drinking to excess.

Not that anybody, least of all Mathias, a former president of the Arcade Owners Association, expects merchants to go solely with the tried-and-true "Ocean City, Maryland" T's or even the patriotic theme that became instantly popular after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

But the two-term mayor, a tireless booster of and true believer in the town that bills itself as "America's Finest Family Resort," is waging a quiet campaign urging shop owners to tone down dirty T-shirts and other naughty merchandise.

He and the town council are pleading for merchants to keep "anything that might make a 6-year-old kid ask questions his parents would rather not answer for a few years" inside their shops.

Given constitutional protections of free speech, the town's lawyers say gentle persuasion might be the only option.

"I'm out there on the boardwalk, I know all the guys and this has already been fairly successful," Mathias says.

"We want a dialogue with businesspeople, not a monologue. I'm not preaching or judging anybody. We're not banning anything and we're not going to pass some ordinance that's just going to wind up in" federal court.

So far, the town plans to continue a long-standing practice of having police officers who patrol the boardwalk stop in and ask merchants to move the risque stuff indoors.

Cooperation

Last week, Mathias mailed out letters to vendors asking for cooperation in refraining from "displaying, depicting or offering for public view, T-shirts, decals or any other merchandise which may be viewed by passers-by as lewd, obscene, explicit or embarrassing."

Danny Meyers manages a T-shirt shop near Dorchester Street and the boardwalk. He says he's followed the debate in the local papers and keeps some potentially offensive designs inside or even behind the counter. But it's not always easy to know what might draw complaints from customers, even from parents of small children.

"Last fall, some people thought we were exploiting the Sept. 11 attacks with T-shirts," says Meyers. "But there were people who came in that day, the day it happened, asking for shirts. It empowers people, gives them a way to make their own statement."

Old-timers at the beach say all the hullabaloo is nothing new, recalling similar consternation about counterculture T-shirts and posters that glorified drug use 30 years ago.

More recently, town officials put the clamps on body-piercing shops and successfully blocked a proposed tattoo parlor, a first for the town that many feared would have been a blemish on Ocean City's cherished wholesome image.

Crackdown

Last year, the town council cracked down on under-21 clubs that spawned an after-hours party scene that police said was getting out of hand.

Councilman Joe Hall, whose family has operated a Coastal Highway restaurant for 30 years, figures a lot of bottom-line merchants are short-sighted, opting to meet demand for bawdy merchandise but missing out on a potentially bigger market.

"I think they're going for the quick sale or the impulse buy of a lewd T-shirt, but they may lose the sales to the parents or the grandparents out with the kids on the boardwalk," says Hall, who has also crusaded against legal cigarette rolling papers and pipes he believes are used with illicit drugs.

For shop owners like Mark Kieserwetter, the T-shirt sales business isn't exactly rocket science and it doesn't have much to do with taste, one way or the other.

"It's pretty simple," he says. "In Senior Week, you have stuff that appeals to teen-agers. During the firefighters' convention, you go with that. From mid-June to the first of September, it's families. In a couple weeks, we've got a big car show coming. There's no secret."

Mathias, who like Hall is fond of walking the boardwalk at night to get a firsthand look, says his next tack is asking landlords to pressure tenants who might be pushing the limits of good taste.

Sensible suggestion

It's a suggestion long-time property owners like Charles R. "Buddy" Jenkins think makes a lot of sense.

"If a tenant is unwilling to clean up his act, there's nothing that says you have to renew his lease," says Jenkins, whose family has been prominent in the resort business community for more than 50 years.

In the end, Mathias says, it's good business to occasionally shore up his beach town's image.

After all, he says, the town's franchise remains the generations of solid middle-class visitors who keep coming back.

"Ocean City is a french fry, pizza, cotton candy, crab cake kind of town," says Mathias. "A lot of people who rolled up their sleeves and worked hard have done well here and we don't need to tinker with that formula.

"We're not selling trips to the moon. Ocean City's niche is the mainstream."

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