The Parker House Jumps the Shark

It pains me to write that title.

Really, it does.

For those who have been reading this Hoboken-based column since 2002, and for those who have known me since that time, it is obvious that I hold Sea Girt’s Parker House in the same stratospheric regard Ray Cansella held his baseball field in Field of Dreams, or the way the Pope views Vatican Square, or the manner in which Lindsay Lohan deems Apple Martinis. It is the social shrine of the Jersey Shore, and the most recent poll of beach bars from Rhode Island to LBI (homepage) is a small snapshot of its overall appeal.

For the four of you reading this column who have never heard of this place where dreams really do come true, candidly it isn’t the biggest or most modern bar on the planet. In fact, PH is a bed and breakfast that is nearly 130 years old. Paintings can be found in the Spring Lake/Sea Girt area of horse and buggies being drawn past its location at 10 Beacon Ave. on dirt roads with nothing but rolling sand dunes and a lighthouse behind it (the dunes have since been replaced by homes, a boardwalk and snack bar).

The interior looks nothing like Jett East in the Hamptons or The Ketch on Long Beach Island. If green is your favorite color, you’ll be right at home, as hanging plants are ubiquitous on the front and back porches and in the upstairs portion of the bar (three separate ones on the floor total, which are also green). Ceiling fans keep the ocean breezes moving along the interior and outside eating areas. Green spotlights bounce off the structure’s white wood to give PH a distinctive glow to it. Red flowers are strategically places along its perfectly manicured rolling lawn. Always a popular post-day-at-the-beach-option, burgers are $1.50 and lobster goes for $7.00 on the famed (but always too small for demand) back deck.

Inside, Parker is actually two somewhat distinct bars in one: The previously-referenced upstairs feels more like, well, felt more like, The Madison (more on that in a moment) while the downstairs features The Billy Lawlor Band complimented by rock and pop when they aren’t performing. As far as demo, the upstairs is somewhat younger while downstairs is a more of a veteran PH crowd.

My preference has always been upstairs. It just seems that the energy is more palpable, the atmosphere more, well, summer-like and brighter. The downstairs has low ceilings and the dark wood provides more of a ski lodge ambiance, not unlike the Pickle Barrel in Killington.

My choice of frequenting the upstairs has always been surprising to my downstairs friends, who always wonder why I would hang out in the “Guido portion” of the bar. Of course, I never noticed this so-called Guido aspect in my previous half-decade of coming here. Besides, my share members and most of primary friends are perpetually upstairs, and being a creature of habit, I’m all about familiarity.

But the Summer of 2007 has seen a shift-change to my usual area. And whenever a noticeable change occurs in any saloon, the first and only suspect for this happening can be found in one area:

The DJ booth.

This year’s DJ may be the same one Parker House has employed for years…I never bothered to even look at who has been perched in the spin zone. But whatever the case, whoever is making the music selection this summer has a curious love for all-things-techno.

And that’s not a good thing.

Take this Memorial Day weekend on Sunday night. As I walked in, I immediately encountered a circle of flailing arms with one gentleman dancing quite demonstratively in the middle of all of it. He was looking down the entire time, grabbing his foot up to his ass and looked like a Dancing-with-the-Stars trainee on crack, pop rocks, coffee and human growth hormones. This display was occurring nowhere near the dance floor, which is kind of an unwritten no-no at Parker. After getting by this annoying sphere, I moved to my usual spot to the right of the main bar, only to see an even more horrific and larger circle of flailers near the shuffleboard table.

On cue, my friend Lauren approached me with a look in her eye like somebody with TB had just entered the bar:

“I never thought I’d say this Conch, but the Parker House has jumped the shark.”

Jumping the shark is a term used when a popular TV show inserts a plotline so outlandish and unacceptable that the show cannot be taken seriously and therefore will never again regain its elite status. Some say 24 jumped this season when a nuclear bomb went off in a suburb of Los Angeles, killing 14,000 people (curiously, the fallout never affected anyone near the detonation zone for the final 22 hours of the season). But the classic example occurred on Happy Days, when Fonzie, who had never seen the ocean before the two-part episode in question, is challenged by some California locals to jump over a shark tank on water skis. The Fonz, while wearing his trademark leather jacket, easily accomplishes this feat without any waterskiing experience whatsoever. Ron Howard (Richie) left the show the following season allegedly due to this ridiculous scenario, and the most popular ABC sitcom of the 70s was never the same regardless of Howard’s exit.

Anyway, The Parker House may be a block from the ocean, but there now appears to be a very large version of Jaws swimming around the upstairs bar. And this mammal appears to prefer tunes with little-to-no singing that is smothered in tons of bass.

“Isn’t DJ’s two towns over?” my friend Bryan chimed in, referring to a Guido shrine on Ocean Ave. in Belmar. “Why are they trying to appeal to that crowd in Sea Girt?”

“I’m not sure, but…” and before I could get the next thought out of my mouth, the DJ (who had uttered seven words total on the microphone in years past) bellowed, “All the Guido’s in the house, put your hands in the aaaairrrr!!!”

The area by the shuffleboard table went nuts at this acknowledgment, and all followed suit with a booming “Hoooooo!!!!” I think the guy in the first circle I saw started having convulsions from being so happy that his moves were not only allowed at PH, but even embraced by their new Deity in the DJ booth.

It was then I noticed that very few of them had drinks in their hands. And the ones that did weren’t holding beers or mixed drinks, but thin silver, red and blue cans.

I think a Jersey-based MLS team is named after it:

Red Bull.

Not exactly a cha-ching drink for the Parker House to bring its usual millions in gross revenue over the summer.

“A friend of mine in LBI once made this observation,” Bryan explained after confirming what we had seen, ” Guys in collared shirts and flip-flops always outspend those in tight t-shirts and tons of hair products by a 5-to-1 margin.”

“5-to-1?” I asked.

“I’m being generous,” Bryan yelled over the seventh consecutive techno tune that sounded no different than the first six. “They’re not here to drink. They’re here to dance and get loopy on straight caffeine.”

The Parker House was packed that night, no question. But did they bring in the same amount of cash as a typical holiday weekend? If Bryan’s 5-to-1 margin is correct, the answer is a definitive no.

In the process, PH, courtesy of one rogue DJ, has already alienated its core summer rental crowd that comes to the bar every night from Spring Lake, Sea Girt and Manasquan. It is now, unintentionally or not, wooing the Belmar contingent. Perhaps they figure that the downstairs atmosphere could appeal to the aforementioned rental town people, while the upstairs could now be designated to the previously silently-shunned DJ’s delegation.

There was once a time when Parker was a living, breathing J. Crew catalog, and this was due to the fact a dress code of collared shirts, no hats and no flip-flops were part of the equation.

Reincorporate that rule, and Parker is 75% back to being the place it once was.

From there, have a nice chat with the DJ pseudo-Sopranos style (i.e., “If you ever play another techno song within these walls, you’ll be spinning at weddings in Seaside Heights next week”) and it’s all the way back up on its perch looking down at every other bar on the Jersey coast.

Give bars like Edgar’s and Leggett’s in Manasquan credit: They haven’t compromised their core principles. Say what you will about Club E, but the music is always fun (for lack of a better word) and the dance floor is always a sloppy scene as a result, but in a good way.

Leggett’s rotates the same two cassette tapes (yes, cassette) with rock ballads (Sweet Child of Mine, Faithfully, Here I Go Again, Pour Some Sugar on Me, Born to Run) and sing-along classics (Tiny Dancer, Daydream Believer, Take Me Home, Country Road) each weekend. It’s a drinking crowd who doesn’t care that the selection is always the same. It’s the summer. It’s Leggett’s. Because down the shore everything’s all right.

Both Edgar’s and Leggett’s formulas are simple: Appeal to drunk girls. The guys will always follow. Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, whatever…if they’re happy, they’ll drink more. And if the women are drinking more, the men will gulp down twice as much. No one, particularly those who have kept the joint in business for years, feels betrayed, and the bar makes more money over a three-month period than they know what to do with.

The logical way order can be restored to the universe…a universe where Parker is indeed the undisputed heavyweight champion…is to eliminate the techno cacophony emanating throughout the upstairs. By all means, keep the kind of dance music one would hear on Z-100, but to go the Hot 97 route is a direct path to killing any semblance of this great institution.

For if they don’t make a pitching change on the DJ mound, the PH will end up like the Yankees: A once-proud franchise who sold its soul to free agency and alienated its farm system and core fans that made it great in the process.

The Yanks are sitting in last place or somewhere near it by the time you read this. Like the Yankees, Parker still draws the masses because of its reputation, but this won’t last forever.

For now, Parker, regretfully, has chosen a different route. Again, I’m not sure that management is aware of this cosmic change (one trusted bartender I asked claimed all of the music sounds the same to him every year), but the DJ in question must know what kind of crowd his brand is attracting. Also note: There’s nothing wrong with Guido’s, we’re all from Jersey and they are largely the face of our the Garden State’s eclectic culture, but it appears that all parties involved would be infinitely happier if Belmar stayed in Belmar and Sea Girt/Spring Lake stayed in SG/SL.

It’s kind of like the uneasy truce between sharks and humans in the ocean: You stay out of our way, we’ll stay out of yours.

The Parker House has indeed jumped the shark.

But there’s still time to hit the rewind button on the remote.