The air is usually bitingly cold as each New Years Day, thousands don outlandish costumes and strut to the thumping beat of string bands in a colorful Philadelphia spectacle, The Mummers Parade. They're called Mummers (probably after the German word for disguise), they're mostly white, blue-collar guys who every January 1 — except 1919 and 1934 — have strutted up Broad Street decked out in wild array from head to spray-painted toe in one big absurd, hilarious, fraternal party.
Philadelphia's Mummers Parade grew out of European customs brought to the city by early settlers. It's origins go back to medieval England, where troupes of costumed performers roamed from house to house presenting a mummers play - a folk drama — at Christmas time. In America, tradition has it that Swedes and Finns in South Philadelphia celebrated the holidays by banging pots and pans and shooting guns. Soon they became known as 'New Year's Shooters.'
Unfortunately, all this noisemaking wasn't to everyone's taste. In 1808, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed an act declaring that 'masquerades' and 'masquerade balls' were 'common nuisances', although there seems to be no record of it ever having been enforced. Nevertheless, the farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, apprentices, laborers and members of fire-fighting companies continued to stage clandestine masquerades on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and there are no records of any convictions under this act. The Act was repealed in 1859.
The earliest known Mummers club, the Chain Gang, formed in the 1840s, and soon other clubs organized, representing various sections of the city. The Golden Crown recruited members from east of Broad Street and probably first marched to Independence Hall in 1876. Not to be outdone, Mummers west of Broad formed the Silver Crown. The January 1 1881, Public Ledger reported that 'Parties of paraders' made the street 'almost like a masked ball.' The City of Philadelphia organized the first official Mummers Parade in 1901.
At its peak in the 1940s the parade drew two million spectators. Today fewer than a quarter million come — so few that last year's route was cut from 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to ten blocks. But the Mummers remain defiantly merry. Said one mummer, 'I'm not out here for anyone but tradition.'
Mummery, especially Philadelphia-style mummery, takes its cue from satire and comedic review. Marching clowns like to run to the crowd and plant kisses on some of the women. The Liberty Clowns is the largest of six clubs in the parade's comic division. And this is only one of four divisions, totaling 20,000 people, that march in this fanciful and flamboyant spectacle. 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. Their origins stem from the early 'masquerades' when slaves dressed in their owners' finery. The string bands follow, playing music as they march along. Finally, the fancy brigades pass by with their elaborate floats.
String bands are a Philadelphia hallmark. Those organized at the turn of the century bore names like the Dark Lanterns, Early Risers, Mixed Pickles, Red Onions, White Turnips and Golden Slippers. In 1901, the Trilby String Band — founded in 1899 and still going strong — first marched. Only in 1906 did the bands begin to compete for cash. Earlier, they had vied for simple cakes. They would parade through the neighborhoods, collect cakes from housewives and bakeries, then hold a cake-cutting ball. There's a 'remarkable similarity' between the high-stepping two-step, or cakewalk, a national dance fad that swept Victorian America, and the Mummer's strut-a-low, slouched, rhythmic, bent-knee dance, in which the participants weave back and forth in time to the music.
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.
In the 1980s, Las Vegas-style shows became de rigeur when the casinos opened in Atlantic City. Now all the string bands put on a show in the climate-controlled immenseness of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. No more would watchers have to sit in the numbing cold fortified by hot chocolate and even stronger libations.
Rivalry is in-tense within Mummers' families where fathers, sons, brothers and grandfathers belong to different clubs. The standard Mummer's greeting is 'I wish you number 2', second place in the yearly competition for cash prizes, which cover only a fraction of the cost of preparation.
What really makes some 23,000 men and boys — and since 1975 a few women — encase themselves in rainbow colors and march: Solely the prizes? No; try excitement. Going up Broad Street and when the crowd goes crazy, the Mummers' adrenaline starts flowing.
In the old days, the Mummers and their families made their costumes. Today, costumers make them. Where once sequins fell to the ground in a bejeweled snowfall as the men marched, today they highlight some of the most elaborate costumes this side of Vegas. Only the jewel encrusted backpieces — some weighing 170 pounds or more — that each wears, attached to a leather harness, are fashioned in the clubhouses.
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 working-men: construction workers, longshoremen, truck drivers. Today's Mummers, however, also include lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.
An irony of the Mummers Parade is that although the music bears an unmistakable black influence — in fact, black composer James A. Bland wrote 'Oh Dem Golden Slippers' in 1879 — 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.
As the 11-hour parade draws to a close, the ecstatic winners make their way down to their clubhouses on Second Street. Called 'Two Street' by the residents of South Philadelphia, this is the heart of Mummerland and 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. Now the preparation begins for strutting to 'Oh Dem Golden Slippers' again the following year.
Check out Bob Brooke's wonderful sites featuring more of his writing and phootography at http://www.bobbrooke.com, http://www.therealmexico.com and http://www.allscandinavia.com. All three are updated regularly.