(July 12, 2019) Belly dancers, confiscated umbrellas, dollar tricks and a recovered stuffed cow are just a few of the many memories of the famous “Cocktail Party” at the Lankford Hotel that began in the 1960s and took place again this week.
What it really is, however, is a family-and-friend reunion that began more than 50 years ago with three or four families. Since then, it has expanded to nearly 55 people, with family and friends coming to Ocean City from Baltimore, and as far as Florida, Chicago and Missouri.
Family patriarch Owen Burns, 95, said that the reunion is always in Ocean City because “There’s no other place to go!”
Mary Wroten began attending nearly 50 years ago. One of her favorite memories was when her aunt hired a belly dancer for Burns’ 75th birthday celebration.
“She put on a performance on the deck and everybody on the Boardwalk stopped and created a mob — people we didn’t know,” Wroten said. “The whole Boardwalk was packed with people and the police came because it was too crowded.”
The belly dancer and the crowd had to go, she said.
Roman Caperna recalls the “cow story.” After a night out, Caperna was riding the bus back to the apartment with a stuffed cow he won playing a game. A fellow vacationer asked if he could buy the cow for $20. Caperna agreed.
His son, distraught from the loss, wouldn’t stop crying until Caperna spent nearly $50 on a game to win another stuffed cow.
“Everywhere I went, I got ‘mooed,’” Caperna said.
The families have a full itinerary for the week – including their annual Wednesday bike ride.
“After the bike riding, my dad would make bloody Mary’s,” Wroten said.
While the adults enjoy the drinks, the kids typically cook nearly 100 pancakes and sausages at a different apartment with Burns.
The group enjoys staying at the Lankford Hotel on Eighth Street and the Boardwalk because of the convenient location on the beach.
Family matriarch Peggy Lighthiser, 90, remembers the party used to be held at a different location across the street. When they wanted to relocated it, Burns was the only one who didn’t want to move.
“[Owen] said ‘Everybody who wants to stay with me step over the line,’” Lighthiser said. “Nobody stepped over the line. We didn’t budge.”
Gayle Schemm, who hails from Florida and grew up in the Midwest, was amazed the first time she attended the party.
“All kinds of families meet at the same time, as well as families we don’t get to see,” Schemm said. “That’s why I like it.”
The party goers also return every year for the original members who have since passed.
Christy Ernest, Burns’ daughter, said they are remembered with loving hearts.
“It’s bittersweet because it’s sad, but they’re the ones who started it,” she said. “Their presence is still felt.”
Today’s members decorate the apartment walls with pictures to commemorate the older generations. One room, dubbed the “museum,” is filled with artifacts and pictures from cocktail parties of the past.
“It’s generational,” Wroten said. “The kids come and then the grandkids come.”
Ernest hopes the tradition continues with the younger generation, and has spoken to them about the future of the cocktail party.
“They like the tradition,” Ernest said. “I think they would try to carry it on with their own changes.”
Though nothing at the reunion can ever be expected, Wroten emphasized the foundation of the cocktail party.
“The tradition of seeing every one is all that matters,” Wroten said. “It’s everything.”