The Mummers, New Year’s Day, Philadelphia since 1900

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_3484Men dressed in traditional wench costumes in the annual Mummers Parade on New Year's day. : Stock Photo

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.

Fancy division Mummer. Another borrowed photo, we missed this part in 2015.

 

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.

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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.

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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 

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Evansville State Park bike/camp June 2014

The Wonderful family and ourselves, along with a bonus family of 3, set out for Evansville State Park on the Schuylkill River Bike Path for our sixth annual bike/camp extravaganza!  The youngest are our own Fantastic twins, recently turned 8, and all the kids were raring to go.  They chose this location for its bike access, woodsy seclusion, fairy house potential, river, and minimal car time.  In fact, we used only one car for gear for our 9 kids and 6 adults.  Most of us ended up biking over 80 miles during the 4-day trip.  Bike, bike hooray!

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Cynwood to Manayunk

We stared off near the Wonderful household on the Cynwyd (pronounced “kin-wood”) Heritage Trail (above).  This little 2-mile rails-to-trails linear park has tremendous community support and big plans of incorporating the historic Manayunk Bridge– let’s do it people!!!  I can’t wait to ride this trail at that time because it will be an amazing bird’s eye view of the city that will also connect the town of Bala Cynwyd on the west side of the Schuylkill River to Manayunk on the east side. One caveat, however: we rode downhill on the trail almost the whole way – it may not be as fun going uphill.  For us it was a lovely day, a comfortable downhill slope, and we were just starting on our trip.

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Historic hotel and bridge in Collegeville, us on part of the trail: Original dedication inscription on bridge says “This bridge was founded in the Year of our Lord 1798 & finished in 1799” along with some names, see Wikipedia article about Perkiomen Bridge

 

Collegeville and Evansville State Park

Once we crossed some traffic and the bridge to Manayunk, we were on the bike path until Collegeville, about 22 miles.  We stopped for lunch at Valley Forge, a National Historic Park on the bike trail where we ignored some significant national history and took advantage of the bathrooms and picnic tables.  Then we continued on to Evansville State Park where we had stayed before.  In the quiet, wooded group campsite we were once again the only campers.  We ate, played Boggle and “four on a couch” (using a log for the couch-the game was new to me and so fun!), made campfires, and hiked to the Skippack Creek and went creekwalking.  We saw a water snake and lots of fish, also we saw a fox on the trail.

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Skippack Village

We were pleasantly surprised to find a bike trail from Evansville State Park to the small, touristy town of Skippack Village.  It was about 7 miles and went through agricultural fields, suburban backyards, and a town park.  A few of us went to check it out then all of us decided to go on a second trip.  It is a small strip of historic buildings which are now many gift shops, a pottery store, and the wonderful Miss Riddle’s candy shop.

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clockwise from top left: covered bridge where trail meets town, bike trail signage,  picnicking next to the river, Skippack Village signage

We lucked out with no rain, mostly happy kids, and a nice ride back.  I noticed this old film studio near Valley Forge next to the bike trail (below).  Interestingly, it is the site of a pre-Hollywood film studio called Betzwood Motion Picture Studio that covered 350 acres and churned out a movie a week at its prime in the early 1900’s.  Thanks to this blogger for documenting so much about it.  Also below: rock wall detail, Falls Bridge in Philadelphia.

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 How Time Flies!

It was during last year’s bike trip that the idea for this blog was born, so it is nice to post about this year’s trip while considering all of the trips I have blogged about over this past year.  A year from now we should be very close to The Big Trip RTW!  Much to look forward to, much to enjoy remembering, thanks for reading.

 

Midsommar, 2014 tripping solo

Um, I’ll finish Chicago soon, I promise.  For now, due to an unfortunate work schedule – but someone has to work around here, right? – Mr. Fantastic and kids are at this very moment at The Clearwater Festival while yours truly is not.  Due to a little quirk in my work schedule, I had today off with the other five Fantastics gone and, friends, this is a rare event!  Did your correspondent do vital chores like laundry and cleaning out the guinea pig cage? Heck, no!

First a word about Clearwater.  It is an organization with a wonderful history.  Beloved musician and activist Pete Seeger, who passed away at 94 this past January, wanted to bring attention to the poor water quality in the Hudson River by building and sailing a majestic replica of a 19th century sloop there.  This was done in 1969 and the organization has grown to include educational sailboat trips and an annual music festival.  Despite Mr Fantastic’s preference to punk over folk music, we went to a couple of these when Fiercely was little.  It is a great place for kids.  The volunteer program is excellent – for 4 hrs/day, you can camp on the festival grounds, all meals are provided, and you even get a t-shirt!  So, that is the scene this weekend with a couple of other local families and without Mrs. Fantastic.  Cue the violins…

Except!  It was a beautiful day today, and with no pressing obligations (I have a remarkable ability to ignore housework), I decided to bike around Philadelphia.  I found myself getting a little taste of Sweden on this Midsummer’s Day, along with the type of freedom usually found among (and wasted by) childless younger folks.

I biked around West Philadelphia and found myself unexpectedly at the Clark Park Festival.  There were vendors and music, and I had an awesome $2 taco and the last-of-the-season organic strawberries while sitting on the orange chairs there.  Then I headed onthe Grey’s Ferry Bridge and checked out the skyline.

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A little bike trail beckoned and I found myself in a hidden park next to the hidden river.

 

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Schuylkill apparently means ‘hidden river’ in Dutch, so named because lush vegetation hid the waterway from early explorers.  Grey’s Ferry Crescent is a park there under the bridge and on the banks of the Schuylkill River. I biked the whole thing and it was cute, surprisingly clean and green near so much urban atmosphere.

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There were people fishing, wildflowers, and a skateboard park (bottom left, under bridge).

I especially liked this graffiti.

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I decided to aim for FDR park in South Philly.  I had been there once many years ago and thought it a worthy destination.  I wasn’t quite sure how to get there, which ma

IMG_2536de for a bit of an adventure.  I found myself on this road right next to the freeway —>!!  I saw a lot of row houses, took a selfie or two, and just kept aiming for Broad Street south of Packard.  I eventually made my way there.

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The park is large and has a golf course, two lakes, and, randomly, the American Swedish Historical Museum.  It was their Midsommar Festival today of course!!  There were many people bustling about, some in costume, as they prepared for the maypole dancing, etc.  I checked out the many exhibits and their splendid building.

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Of course, there were other things to see in the park as well: the lake, a historic gazebo, lots of outdoor parties, two guys with horses, some weird food stands including a bucket of fish, more skateboarders under a graffiti’d bridge.

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Then it was back north through the Point Breeze neighborhood where a friend of mine lives.  Kermit’s Bakery for mushroom hot pockets and Breezy’s cafe (right next to Engine Co. 24) for a milkshake – yes!!  And my bike looked right at home next to Kermit’s delivery bikes.

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What a great day.  Philly block parties were everywhere, the sky was blue, and I rode through a sprinkler, too!  A bunch more photos of a beautiful day:

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Philadelphia, Dec. 2013

Merry friggin’ Christmas from the City of Brotherly Love.  We spent a day in South Philly and Center City and I got the photos to prove it.  What kind of urban yuletide adventure did we enjoy?  Read on!

South Philly

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Home of cheesesteaks, an open-air market, and the place where all the hippies meet, South Philly is a great place to walk around.  We made a goal of going to get a couple of cookie cutters from this awesome kitchen store called Fante’s which is over 100 years old and just a cool place, but unfortunately it was closed that day.  So we looked at the graffiti and the market shops like the butcher, the variety stores and the open-air vegetable stands and headed to center city.  The area is called the Italian Market – “America’s oldest outdoor market” – but currently has a large Mexican and Asian presence among the pasta shops as well.  You can get tacos, Pho, and homemade sausage all in a few blocks!

Center City

We aimed for the Wannamaker Building next.  This glorious example of 1870’s Renaissance architecture at its finest is alive and well, currently housing a Macy’s.  It was the first department store in the US, brought as an idea from Europe by – of course – John Wannamaker and developed into a lavish, successful urban destination complete with the world’s largest pipe organ that has over 28,000 pipes.  The organ is played regularly, and at this time of year, there is a light show as well.  The building is also famous for its bronze eagle originally from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which was happily surmounted by Really and Truly.  People sit on the floor around the eagle to watch the light show.

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We watched the light show, a short synopsis of several Christmas stories accompanied by old-school lights on a giant wall opposite the eagle.  The lights blink to show movement, much like a neon sign, and certain pictures are lit to correspond with the story told at the time.  Julie Andrews narrates, it is lovely.

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All lights shown at the finale (L) and just the train (R) during the show

Just up two floors on the escalator is another Christmas event – Dickens Village.  This display used to be housed in a Philadelphia department store that is no longer with us called Strawbridge & Clothier, which is memorialized in this interesting blog.  It is now at Macy’s at the Wannamaker building annually and it is worth the trip.  It is an animatronic recreation of 1840’s London, populated by characters from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with placards telling the story as you walk along.  It is free, though you can pay for an optional Santa picture at the end.

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Clockwise from top Left: the whole gang as photographed by yours truly, Dickens welcoming us to the Village, Fiercely reading a placard (actually Mr. Fantastic made us read them all out loud – people behind us had to pass us or wait!), Scrooge shaking in his boots with scary Christmas Future

Reading Terminal Market

Celebrating its 114th birthday in 2014, the historic and scrumptious Reading Terminal Market is just a few blocks from the Wannamaker building.  There are over 100 merchants including several Amish stands, local food at the Fair Food stand, butchers, produce, prepared food, chocolate, just about anything.

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All the girls (L), including Really who is excited about the egg nog, Truly and me (R) at a flower stand

The Market also has a really great train display this time of year.  There are buttons the kids can push- which they love and, I’m not gonna lie, so do I – to make things happen in the train scenes.  One button, for example, might make a light go on or a miniature child swing on a swing.

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Outside the Market, we saw two other things worth mentioning – a gourmet popcorn shop and a streetlight cozy!  Go Popcorn apparently is a new shop.  It has special weekly flavors such as Southwest Cheddar, Candy Cane, and Salt’N’Vinegar and they use locally-sourced popcorn.  We tried Wisconsin Cheddar and Brown Butter Caramel. Yowza!  OK, this is Mrs. Fantastic signing off and Merry Christmas!

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