Farewell Summer from the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral

by Dave on August 20, 2010

The Town of Bethany Beach is unlike any other beach town. Known as one of the “Quiet Resorts,” the Bethany Beach Boardwalk is the scene for one of the county’s most unusual end-of-summer celebrations, the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral that is now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The 2010 Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral is celebrated on Labor Day Monday September 6 with activities beginning about 5:30 p.m. at the North end of the Bethany Beach Boardwalk, according to Carolyn Bacon and Marie Wright, the assistant chairpersons of this year’s Jazz Funeral events.

At the Jazz Funeral, spectators go to the Bethany Beach Boardwalk on Labor Day Monday and can join in a funeral procession of mourners, along with the combined forces of three Dixieland Jazz Bands, that carry a casket with a mannequin representing “Summer of 2010” to its final resting place at the Boardwalk Bandstand.

The Town of Bethany Beach is one of only a few oceanfront resort communities that are still described as a “true summer resort.” Summer resorts like Bethany experience a dramatic spike in summer tourism beginning with the Memorial Day weekend and continuing on until Labor Day. After Labor Day weekend, there is a dramatic departure of the summer visitor population and the small beach town of Bethany once again becomes a “Quiet Resort.”

Because of land development, more efficient means of transportation, increased commercialization, and effective off-season promotion, neighboring towns like Ocean City, Md. and Rehoboth Beach are no longer part of this unique summer resort phenomenon.

For the past 25 summer seasons, the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral has been held to celebrate the season’s end and to help the local residents ease back to the slower pace of year-round living in the part of the state aptly referred to as “lower, slower Delaware.”

“This Labor Day weekend is our time to thank all those who have visited with us during the Summer of 2010 and encourage them to return again in 2011,” said assistant chairperson Bacon. “The Jazz Funeral events are dedicated to both locals and visitors. It is a universal end-of-season celebration.”

A charity kick-off event for the Labor Day weekend and the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral events is the Silent Auction held on Friday, September 3, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Bethany Blues Restaurant. Funds raised by the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral Silent Auction on September 3 go directly to the Delaware Audubon Society and the Chesapeake Audubon Society. A portion of the funds raised at the Jazz Funeral Silent Auction will be channeled to Audubon Societies in the Gulf States and to the New Orleans Audubon Society.

After funds are raised on Friday to support the Audubon Societies, organizers of the Jazz Funeral encourage families to check out the end-of-season sales held by many local retailers.

“Not only will you have an enjoyable weekend, there are shopping opportunities as many Bethany Beach merchants offer end-of-season and back-to-school discounts,” Bacon said. “You can have a great time and save money too.”

Locals and summer visitors can view the 25th anniversary Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral as the capstone event of the 2010 summer season, according to Bacon.

“It is one last chance to celebrate the final moments of the summer season with an event that is marked by music, humor and good fellowship,” Bacon said. “Our goal is for every one of the 2000 or so people who attend the Jazz Funeral to enjoy themselves and to feel free to celebrate the end of the summer season in their own way.”

And those who attend the Jazz Funeral usually let loose during the end-of-season celebration.

“Some may weep and cry for dearly departed Summer, other dress to the hilt in costumes as if they were attending a New Orleans Jazz Funeral, and other just smile and laugh at the tongue-in-cheek humor that pervades the event,” Bacon said. “And everyone is encouraged to sing-along with the Dixieland bands.”

The Jazz Funeral has a history of attracting great musical talent. Many professional musicians from east coast states get together this time of year to play Dixieland tunes to entertain those who attend the Jazz Funeral and help celebrate another end of the summer season, according to assistant chairperson Wright.

For the first few years Jazz founder Moss Wagner selected the band “Hot House” to serenade the audiences on the last day of the summer season in Bethany Beach. As one who helped organize Bethany’s Fourth of July celebration in its formative years, Wagner also hired “Hot House” to do double duty as the band for both the July Fourth parade and the Jazz Funeral.

Organizers remember audience reaction to the first few Jazz Funerals ranged from folks who expressed astonished disbelief to those who were pleasantly surprised. But all who were part of the early Jazz Funerals agreed, “They loved the music.”

To be sure, the crowds for the first couple Jazz Funerals were relatively small but the music and the novelty of the Jazz Funeral continued to strike a responsive cord. The six-piece “Hot House” was eventually replaced by the Dixie Cats band that became the exclusive Jazz Funeral band. Today there are about 20 pieces made up of three bands that include the Dixie Cats, the Downtown Dixieland Band and the Jazz Funeral Irregulars. Today’s Jazz Funeral even has a dedicated Jazz Funeral Musical Director, John Strawley.

Under Wagner’s reign, the Jazz Funeral gained more audience support and reached a pinnacle in year nine when it was reported by the Wilmington News Journal that 6000 people showed up for the event. Organizers recall that this resulted in “Bethany Gridlock” as Jazz Funeral parade participants very slowly creeped along the street and Boardwalk to the Bethany Bandstand, accepting wishes of encouragement from the crush of visitors who packed the walkways.

Jazz Funeral founder Wagner served 12 years as the event’s leader and grand marshal donning his “Grim Reaper” outfit for each occasion. Wagner returned for the 20th anniversary Jazz Funeral and was given “The Founder’s Award.”

Celebrating 25 years as the world’s only annual Boardwalk Jazz Funeral, today’s Jazz Funeral was originally conceived by Wagner as a way to “lighten up” after a busy resort season.

“If it were not for the former Bethany town councilman’s idea of having a big party on the afternoon of Labor Day to celebrate the end of the traditional summer season in Bethany Beach, there would be no Jazz Funeral,” Wright said.

Known as a local visionary of his time, Jazz Funeral founder Wagner was the owner of the Bethany Beach Ice Cream Parlor and Moss Boss’ Ice Cream Shop. In addition, along with Bethany Beach business owner Mary Croal and founder Patsy Rankin, Wagner worked hard to help organize and popularized the Bethany Beach Fourth of July Parade in its early years.

As the founder of the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral 25 years ago, Wagner’s idea was to have a party to celebrate the closing of the summer resort in a town where there is a definite beginning and end to the resort season.

Wagner commented that, “The Jazz Funeral started as a little celebration for locals. I felt like doing a festival, and it evolved into a theatrical, fun event.”

Today’s traditional New Orleans-style Jazz Funeral has its roots in the first year of his Bethany Beach Ice Cream Parlor, according to Wagner. Well over 25 years ago, Wagner said, a neighbor came over to his ice cream parlor with a bottle of champagne to celebrate the end of summer season. “Good, the summer’s over,” is actually how it was put.

The next year, the party became a little bigger, as it did for a number of years thereafter. Invited friends continued to gather at Wagner’s Ice Cream Parlor with champagne to celebrate the end of summer.

Then, Wagner had an idea, organizers recalled. He read about the Jazz Funerals held in New Orleans that honored the passing of musicians and entertainers. That, thought Wagner, would be the perfect finale for the summer months in Bethany Beach. He then decided that he would celebrate the end of the summer season in Bethany with a Jazz Funeral.

Since he already knew the Jazz band from his Bethany Beach Fourth of July Parade experience, there was no problem getting the essential jazz band. Wagner made the decision to get the band, create some theatrical props and host an end-of-season parade.

On that Labor Day 25 years ago, the idea of the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral was put into operation and became a reality, according to Wagner.

“The band came. Lots of local people dressed in costume and became summer’s mourners. A mannequin was put in a casket was paraded around town in New Orleans funeral style,” Wagner said. “We played it to the hilt. It was just like in the movies.”

Currently, Wagner resides in Crested Butte, Colorado. Wagner is now the president and owner of Massage/Spa Associates LLC, and specializes in massage therapy. His clients range from a number of noted local hotels and the Club Med resorts to former President Jimmy Carter and country music singer Linda Carter.

Commenting on having former President Carter as a client, Wagner said, “In order to work with former President Carter, I had to pass a complete security and background check conducted by the United States Secret Service. I passed with flying colors, so I guess I must be doing something right.”

Another “The Founder’s Award” winner was Art Antal who served as chairman for the six years after Wagner moved to Crested Butt, Colo. Bethany businessman, arcade owner, and restaurateur Antal helped the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral establish itself as the world’s only annual Boardwalk Jazz Funeral.

This year’s 25th anniversary will honor former Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral Chairman Antal for his on-going support and his humorous presentations at the Jazz Funeral. He will be honored as a “Friend of Summer” on Labor Day, according to Wright.

“Art Antal always added a heavy dose of humor to the Jazz Funeral,” Wright said. “Whether Art portrayed Batman, the Pope, or a Hawaiian War Lord; his costumes and persona were crowd-pleasers.”

During the short Jazz Funeral ceremony at the Bethany bandstand, the featured speaker was always Antal.

“Art’s editorial wrap-ups of the just-passed seasons were pointed and humorous, and were usually interspersed with audience applause and laughter,” Wright said. “Audience members would often remark that Art Antal was the only person who could impersonate the Pope, crack jokes, and not actually offend anyone.”

Those who are interested in helping out can contact the Jazz Funeral at PO Box 505, Bethany Beach DE 19930, email jazzfuneral@mchsi.com, or leave a message at 302-537-1585.

The 2010 Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral is based on the Jazz Funerals held in New Orleans.

While this year’s Jazz Funeral will be held on Labor Day Monday September 6 with activities beginning around 5:30 p.m. at the North end of the Bethany Beach Boardwalk, the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral Silent Auction is held on the Friday afternoon before Labor Day as a kickoff to the Labor Day weekend.

The Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral Silent Auction on Friday September 3 is 3-5 p.m. at Bethany Blues restaurant located at 6 North Pennsylvania Ave. in Bethany Beach. The beneficiary for funds raised at the silent auction held on the Friday afternoon prior to Labor Day will be Audubon because the natural disaster created by BP impacts the Gulf region in general and New Orleans in particular.

The beneficiary of last year’s Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral event was the Sussex County Habitat for Humanity. In 2008 the American Cancer Society and their Relay For Life® program was honored. In 2007 the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization was the honored beneficiary.

Those who attended the 2006 Jazz Funeral events had their initial opportunity to contribute funds for local housing initiatives supported by the Sussex County Habitat for Humanity.

The 2005 Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral was dedicated to the excellent work performed by members of the American Red Cross. In 2005, there was a memorial service to honor New Orleans and those who perished in Hurricane Katrina. Representatives of the American Red Cross were on hand to collect funds for hurricane relief.

Since New Orleans has experienced so much devastation during the August 2005 natural disaster, the lighthearted Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral celebration is held as a tribute to a unique tradition pioneered in the “Big Easy.”

The annual Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral on Labor Day Monday, September 6 begins with a private “Wake” at about 5 p.m. The “Solemn Procession” follows at 5:30 p.m. This year’s procession, accompanied by the music of three Dixieland jazz bands, will start at the North end of the Bethany Boardwalk. At the conclusion of the event, those who attend the Jazz Funeral are encouraged to enjoy the rest of the evening by dining at local restaurants in Bethany Beach.

Anyone who wishes to volunteer to help out with the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral or the Silent Auction is asked to email jazzfuneral@mchsi.com, call to leave a message at 302-537-1585 or drop a line to PO Box 505, Bethany Beach, Del. 19930.

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