Mummers on Parade

By Clark DeLeon
this article appeared in National Geographic in Winter '84/85

By the time we got to Broad Street, the warm red clouds of dawn had given way to a gray overcast and a biting 22 F chill. We weren't dressed for the cold weather, though. In fact, most of the men in my group were wearing sleeveless blue Jean jackets or women's dresses, depending on their roles in Philadelphia's annual New Year's Day extravaganza, the mummers Parade.

Our brigade was one of dozens in the Liberty Clowns, the largest of six clubs in the parade's comic division. And this was only one of four divisions, totaling 20,000 people, that would march in today's fanciful and flamboyant spectacle.

Half of our group had dressed up as "grannies" in skirts, blouses, and scarves. The rest of us were decked out like Mr. T the improbable television hero with the Mohawk haircut, pneumatic biceps, and dangling jewelry who stars in "The A-Team". In our skit for the parade judges, all the Mr. T's would threaten one granny until the other old ladies-'the Gray Team"-jumped out of a van and bopped the naughty Mr. T's with their pocketbooks.

The comics always lead off the parade. Largest and least structured of the divisions, they often satirize celebrities and institutions. Next come the fancy clubs, who wear outlandishly rococo costumes and help create the parade's pageantry. The string bands follow, playing music as they march along. Finally, the fancy brigades pass by with their elaborate floats.

Philadelphia's Mummers Parade grew out of European customs brought by the city's settlers. The origins of the event probably go back to medieval England, where troupes of costumed performers roamed from house to house presenting the mummers' play, a folk drama, at Christmas time. In America, tradition has it that Swedes and Finns in the "Neck" of South Philadelphia celebrated the holidays by banging pots and pans and shooting guns. (Some paraders still call themselves "New Year's Shooters.") And other immigrant cultures have also left their mark on the parade-for instance, the Germans, whose word Mummer means mask. The earliest known Mummers club, the Chain Gang, was formed in the 1840s, and soon other clubs were organized to represent various sections of the city. In 1876 paraders marched in individual groups to Independence Hall, and in 1901 the city organized the first official Mummers Parade.

THE MORNING CROWDS were sparse as we made our way through the heart of South Philadelphia, past brownstones and ornamental iron-work. Our march would take us two and a half miles up Broad Street to perform our brief skit in front of the TV cameras and judges' stand outside city hall; a panel awards cash prizes for the best costumes and performances. The journey would take us less than two hours, but the parade would continue all day and well into the evening. At more than 11 hours-and that's just the official part-the march of the Mummers may be the longest-lasting parade in the United States.

This would be only my third trip "up the street," as seasoned marchers say. Although a native Philadelphian, I discovered the charms of Mummery relatively late in life and never paraded until I was over 30, an age when many Mummers' offspring have already marched a dozen times or more. Mummery has always been a family affair, and the clubs are like clans, offering their members warmth and community as well as status and recognition. Mummers may get together at their clubhouses two or three evenings a week all year long to socialize and work on costumes. And, surprisingly, in a parade where men dress up in sequins and glitter-and sometimes don ladies' clothes-the marchers have traditionally been workingmen: construction workers, longshoremen, truck drivers. Today's Mummers, however, also include lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.

These men are transformed when they parade, especially the members of the fancy clubs, who wear elaborate costumes of satin, spangles, plumes, and feathers outfits that an awestruck, first-time spectator-said "look like something Elvis would wear in heaven." Although some Mummers no longer sew their own finery, turning over the job to professional costumers, club members still build the huge "backpieces," which are like peacocks' tails covered with sequins, beads, and feathers, and which weigh as much as 125 pounds. To design and put together these costumes takes many months-all for a few hours of glory.

But when it comes to Mummery, work and money are no object; the cost of a club's outfits far exceeds the prize money. Among the fancy clubs a first place in the 1984 parade was worth $6,593; yet the smallest club in the division borrowed $20,000 from a bank to pay for its costumes.

"The fancies have gotten to a point where they defy description," says the 32-year-old director of the Mummers Museum in Philadelphia, Joe Dinella. He once canceled a Hawaiian vacation so he could spend the $1,500 to build a costume called "Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights."

The clubs' themes are as imaginative as their costumes. "Helen of Troy," a presentation by the Golden Sunrise Club, required a huge wooden Trojan horse, complete with "Trojan" Mummers who emerged to rescue a 15-year-old boy dressed as Helen.

In a parade including female impersonators, however, it is notable that women didn't march officially until 1975. Each club makes its own rules concerning female eligibility, and more women join the parade every year.

AS THE AFRERNOON wore on, the sidewalks filled with spectators who had come to watch "the lords of Broad Street," the string bands-surely the favorites at every parade. The band members play instruments that are limited to unamplified strings, reeds, and percussion: banjos, violins, bass viols, accordions, saxophones, drums, glockenspiels.

And the music-ah, the music! Many believe that string band music is an acquired taste, but once acquired it's a lifelong love affair. A festive and yet oddly muted sound, it seems a perfect counter-point to the gaudiness of the parade's costumes. The music also has a singular effect on Philadelphians. Once the first bars of the Mummers' anthem, "Oh Dem Golden Slippers," are played any native within earshot can be counted on to begin doing the Mummers' strut, a comical weaving dance-walk accompanied by pumping arms held out from the side of the body. Philadelphians just naturally know how to do it.

An irony of the Mummers Parade is that although the music bears an unmistakable black influence-in fact, "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" was written in 1879 by black composer James A. Bland- there are very few black Mummers. As long ago as 1906, the all-black Golden Eagle Club sent 300 marchers to the parade, but no similar group has gone "up the street" since 1929.

At the corner of Broad and Pine the late afternoon sun glinted off the red and gold backs of the Durning String Band as they performed for an appreciative crowd gathered on the steps of the Philadelphia College of Art. Suddenly the band parted, and two boys in red hooded sweatshirts rushed forward and began break dancing on the pavement-head spinning, popping, and moon walking. The crowd went wild. Break dancing is just one of the nontraditional dance styles that have entered the parade recently. Until 1976 most string bands performed in military drill formation, but that year the Harrowgate String Band introduced Broadway dance steps to a medley of railroad tunes-and stunned the Mummer establishment by winning first prize. Now all the string bands put on a show. Says Joe Dinella, "If you went out there and did a drill today, you'd get laughed off the street."

As the skies darkened behind city hall, the Fralinger String Band kicked off a medley of tunes and dances to the theme "The Jokers Are Wild." The captain wore a dazzling costume with red, white, and blue plumes and a joker on top. While the band played "Puttin' on the Ritz," mummers dressed as harlequins in black and white bounded forth and began to tap-dance, twirling their canes; then the captain turned to show off his back piece, which was decorated as the entrance to a fancy night spot called the Ritz. From inside a box that unfolded to form a bandstand, more satin-clad jesters emerged, and as they turned their backs, their costumes made it look as if they were dancing on their hands. When Fralinger completed its routine, the judges awarded the band a remarkable 99 out of 100 points.

Ecstatic, Fralinger then made its way down to its clubhouse on Second Street. Called Two Street by the residents of South Philadelphia, this is the heart of Mummer-land, the location of many of the clubhouses. On this narrow avenue, spectators and Mummers mix in a mobile block party. As the marchers pass, friends and neighbors cheer and dance and strut with abandon.

There are magical moments, like the time Bill Harvey, captain of the Strutters Brigade, won first prize for his costume, "Metamorphosis - " Long after dark, the fancy brigade arrived in front of its clubhouse along with its centerpiece, an enormous green cocoon-actually a truck with a hydraulic arm, covered with green fabric. Slowly, the arm rose, revealing a caterpillar, and then, before everyone's eyes, the caterpillar was transformed into a butterfly with iridescent wings. A few moments later the butterfly's headpiece was removed, and Captain Bill Harvey took a bow. What a curtain call!

These are the moments that Mummers live for, that make the months of labor and anxious last-minute preparations worth the effort. As Joe Dinella says: "The Mummers Parade is more than just a parade. It's a way of life."

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