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Families flock to Flamingo

The Baltimore Sun

OCEAN CITY -- Old black-and-white photos show the place back when Rose and George Brous bought it in 1963. The Flamingo Motel was a flat cinderblock rectangle, sitting on the sand. Twenty-three rooms on three floors, each with a pair of double beds and a phone - no TV - cooled only by the sea breeze.

Everything was clean, starched and dependable. Strictly no frills, save for a leggy, 6-foot-tall pink bird perched on the roof, buzzing in neon glory, a landmark that stood out even on the 15-block strip that old-timers still call "Motel Row."

The parking lot was lined with Detroit muscle cars - a Pontiac Bonneville, a Ford Fairlane, a big Caddy with huge white fins. You can imagine Motown and British Invasion pop music blaring from dashboard radios.

Today, two five-story additions rise above the Flamingo's original squat building, where rooms now feature all the required amenities such as air conditioning, cable television, even wireless Internet service. "People's wants and expectations change. We've always tried to adapt," says Rose Brous, 69.

But the Flamingo is still evocative of an earlier time, before Ocean City was quite so big and crowded, and folks still come for its old-fashioned charm. "The real secret, if it is a secret, is that we know our customers and treat them like friends and family," Brous says.

Through cycles of boom and bust, Ocean City has seen a relentless march of development that has torn down the tacky, the kitschy and the outdated, adding luxury condominiums and high-rise hotels that have changed the skyline.

This year, more ultra-modern competition popped up, with the opening of the 13-story, 225-room Hilton Suites that soars above the Flamingo and a handful of other motels that have maintained a measure of period charm.

All told, tourism officials say, there are nearly 10,000 hotel and motel rooms for rent in Maryland's only beach resort. There are 7,000 rental licenses for condos, but city officials know there are many more out there, rented by owners who have been hit hard by a downturn in condo sales and prices in the past few years.

"It was a post-World War II thing when there were motels from the inlet all the way up the beach. Then it was apartments. Then people started to prefer condos. Places like the Flamingo are a real history of Ocean City," says Sue Hurley, director of the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum and a local historian. "We've lost so much from that era, it's hard to keep track of it."

The Flamingo seems to have taken the change in stride, long ago achieving something like icon status. It is still a landmark on the original Motel Row, which stretches from 15th to 32nd streets, slipping off from busy Coastal Highway like a railroad siding.

Air conditioning was installed at the Flamingo in 1966, then came the two five-story towers that tripled the number of rooms - most of which are kitchenettes or efficiencies. Rose Brous operated the hotel alone after her husband died in a 1978 boating accident. These days, she has turned day-to-day operations over to her son Joel, 36, who says he always had a hunch he would wind up in the family business but hedged his bets by earning an engineering degree.

Guests are almost all repeat customers who have made the Flamingo home base for years and years of vacations, choosing the familiar over the modern.

It has been 27 years since Suellen Salkeld Springer of suburban Cleveland and her sister, Ann Akers of Everett, Pa., crammed into a Volkswagen Dasher (sort of a station wagon, only more uncomfortable) with three kids and headed for the Flamingo, sight unseen. They have come here every June since.

"We came because everything else was booked. We've stayed because it's Rose's motel, and we've always been treated like the friends we are now," said Springer, who organizes the annual beach trips that have included anywhere from 10 to 50 family members.

That first year, 1980, the two moms parked the car and never moved it during their stay. They walked to the Boardwalk or anywhere else they wanted to go. The menu was hot dogs, cereal, toasted cheese in an efficiency.

Now, certain rituals must be observed every year - including a grudge card game called Hand and Foot that consists of four three-hour rounds. The losers are made to wear T-shirts that say "Loser."

Like any family that might come together once a year from Ohio, Pennsylvania or New Jersey, they tell the same stories each time, remember the same pranks. This bunch has one about the year the dads got carried away with the giant water balloon sling shot and blitzed cars in the parking lot. Rose had to persuade the beach police that there was no foul or harm.

If the family tree weren't already complicated, a couple of divorces over the years make things next to impossible for an outsider.

Joanne Hayward, who comes to Ocean City with the family almost every year, is "Jenny's ex-sister-in-law." She is known to everyone as "the clown aunt" because of a series of unintended pratfalls she has never been able to live down.

One tale they all find hilarious, no matter how many times they tell it: When they arrived one year, the Flamingo sign greeted them with "Welcome Springer Group, Maintenance Needed."

The Springer Group is also a main supplier for Brous of anything flamingo, hauling all manner of flamingo-pink floppy pens, flamingo-pink necklaces and a ton of flamingo Christmas tree ornaments they have picked up throughout the year.

"Rose is here, so that's why we're all here," said Elaine Sertway, Springer's sister. "Along about February, we all start talking about getting down here."

'Motel Row'

The Flamingo Hotel is part of an area of Ocean City known as "Motel Row." Some additional information:

Runs from 15th Street to 32nd Street, parallel to Coastal Highway and the Boardwalk.

Two dozen oceanfront hotels and motels stand on the strip.

Seven old motels have been torn down and replaced over the past 10 years.

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