Mummers for Mamas!! This is an article I wrote for the first issue of my zine “Madre Zenith” back in 2005. I put out maybe 11 issues over about 5 years, chronicling the madness that was my life with the move to the country, having surprise twins, and raising four daughters in their early years. We went to the Mummers parade this year and it was as glittery and glamorous as ever. Text refers to 2005, photos are from this year.
L – Mummer with backplate, R- Mummer dressed as a baby with typical Mummer parasol – sometimes parasols are 3 tiered, and yes, he also has a baby bottle
It’s hard to believe it’s a secret, with all the banjos, sequins, and 30-foot tall floats, but folks outside of the Delaware Valley don’t seem to know about the Mummers. When I was 10 and we moved from Reading, PA to Painesville, OH, I couldn’t believe that when New Years Day rolled around it happened without the locals parading in their makeup with umbrellas and shoes that were spray-painted gold. I thought that every city had a Mummer’s parade, but I was mistaken.
L – “wrong way” theme, since the parade had changed route for 2015. R – a Mummer captain
So, you may ask, what is it? It’s a huge parade starting at the ungodly hour of 7am on January 1st, in almost any kind of weather, and it goes until after dark. There are wigs, there are high heels, there are feathered back plates worn by glittering captains of the various brigades. Brigades? Yes, there is a lot of organization to this thing. There are four categories, and clubs compete for prizes in a huge number of sub-categories, with rules and structures I can’t even begin to understand, but the whole thing is just so darn entertaining it doesn’t matter much.
L – crowd watching a ‘jailhouse rock’ themed team, R confetti in the sky
What you do is get a good spot as early as you can on Broad Street, ideally near an intersection where the string band performers will do their thing. If you are there early enough, you can see the ‘Comics’, the first division to parade. Its hard to see what makes them a division since some are individual performers, some small groups, and some larger groups. For several years I joined a Comics Brigade of West Philly activist types and our performances were political statements, but we were not the norm. One year, a Comic performer followed us who appeared rather tipsy and inexplicably was dressed like Mr. Potato Head. It seems to me a catchall category for Mummers who don’t mind marching at the crack of dawn and don’t fit into any other division. Oh, and the ‘wenches’-usually men with two fake braids trailing down their shoulders, and frilly dresses, bloomers, and caps- are out there in the comics division, then they mingle with the growing crowds as the day progresses.
L- Mummers in metallic Sgt. Pepper-themed costumes, R – wenches (I had to borrow this photo, I didn’t get any wench photos!)
Next come the Fancy division of the Mummers. These are floats, as far as I can tell. It’s a bit chaotic, but definitely a crowd pleaser, especially for the preschool set. There are ten foot tall butterflies, Fabregé eggs, seahorses, knights, just a bunch of shiny fantastical creations being rolled up the street and eventually judged and ranked you can hear the sportsy commentary on local TV that day if you go inside somewhere.
Well, after the Fancies come the String Bands – the darlings of the day. With live music played on banjos, some horns, accordions and a few other instruments and elaborate props and choreography worthy of Broadway, the clubs perform tight, three minutes or so shows with a distinct theme. Everything is very homemade and non corporate, which is a rare thing these days. Folks work all year on these shows, hiring choreographers,comissioning costume designers and music even, just to be the best and win bragging rights till next year. This year we saw ‘Arctic Adventure’, which included a human-sized snow globe with the team captain inside and several Mummers pulled in Mummer dogsleds while the 50-member band played a sort of polka version of ‘Walking in a Winter Wonderland’ or something in a medley of snowy songs. There were also polar bears and penguins, all in their glittery air-brushed glory. I think they came in like 17th place or something. Other highlights from other teams were: a knight being lifted 40 feet in the air by some backstage hydraulic contraption, a street-width 30-foot high church backdrop for ‘Can I get an AMEN!’ with a working pipe organ and stained glass windows, and air cannons shooting metallic confetti some 60 feet up into the sky. All done while moving everything and everyone the seven or so miles of the parade route, and in spectacular makeup to boot. Did I mention that the overwhelming majority of these people are working class union guys in drag? “Mama, is that a man or a woman?” was heard more than once from my four-year-old, and I often wondered the same thing.
It was dark when we saw the String Bands. L – Alice in Wonderland theme, R – farmer theme
So when the last glorious String Band passes by, and the last notes of the glockenspiel fade away, and you are about 8-9 hours into the parade, the last division begins. It is the Fancy Brigades, with their giant amplifiers and flashy dancers and more themes. Their official performances are done indoors, though, so you can only imagine what 85 people dressed like Elvis will do onstage later tonight. Just enjoy the pulsating bass of whatever disco song they are gyrating to, have a hot pretzyl, and distract your children from the balloon saleslady nearby. That is the end of the parade until next year, and Philadelphia cleans up and goes about its business as if it never happened. Except for me – I’m here to say that everyone needs to learn the strut to “O Dem Golden Slippers”, look it up on the web, do what you have to do, but get yourself to Philly one New Year’s Day and give it up for the Mummers.
Clockwise starting top L: Jack Sparrow pirate theme String Band, our favorite – sparkly head-to-toe leotard glittery shadow dancers with a sun god-type captain in very tall feathered headdress, alien Mummer guy, Native American theme