Dennis Quaile, a Mummer of 32 years, is an in-demand choreographer. This year alone he is directing four fancy brigades and a string band. As a young man he once pursued a dance career in New York. Now, he teaches men of the brigade dances based on boxing moves–punches, lunges, and dodges.
“Anything effeminate they will not do,” said Quaile. “Some brigades have girls and they can get away with it. But if the guys don’t feel manly, while dancing in their feathers, they won’t do it. So I have to keep it as butch as I possibly can.”
As the Mummers put the final polish on their routines for the annual New Year’s Day parade and showcase at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the economic pinch on the Philadelphia tradition continues to be a problem.
For more than 10 years, rehearsals at the Convention Center had been accompanied by MummersFest, featuring carnival food, face-painting, and games. It mostly attracted friends and family of performers doing drills.
MummersFest always lost money. With security, insurance, setup and breakdown, the event cost about $25,000, and would bring in only $6,000.
Some expected sponsorships did not materialize, and the loss could not be absorbed. So, this year, MummersFest did not happen.
“We just had to cut, cut, cut,” said Bill Burke Jr. of the Mummers Brigade Association. “Flowers, balloons, things we do to decorate the hall. Everything got cut this year. We’re bare bones.”
That economic pinch is also felt by the individual brigades. The best fancies can spend more than $100,000 on a 4 1/2-minute production. Over the last 10 years–since before the recession–many brigades have given up.
A light touch
Surviving brigades are maximizing resources by using lighting effects rather than materials to give their shows extra pizzazz. For the first time, day-glow and black lighting will be used in a floor show.
The Saturnalian brigade will use the special lighting together with fluorescent paint to create an underwater effect.
The lighting experiment is supposed to work, even in the presence of bright white TV lights. Fingers crossed.
“They said they’ll work with TV to make sure their white lights don’t drown out what we just did,” said Saturnalian captain Jack Hatty. “Hopefully, with TV not having as powerful lights as these ones, it’s something that will definitely benefit us.”
Some smaller brigades are using leftover sets from larger organizations. One thing that is not in short supply is enthusiasm. And bodies. Dancing does not cost a thing, so choreography is central to the productions.
“Yes, there (are) major production cutbacks, but everybody is trying to do different gimmicky things to get more bang for your buck, because you just can’t afford to do what we used to do,” said Quaile, just after rehearsing the Downtowners through their pirate routine. “It’s actually pushing creativity, which I’m all for. How can we do this without spending $100,000?”
The Mummers hope to bring back MummersFest next year. However, Burke of the Brigade Association says the organization expects to see a deficit of about $60,000 when this year’s event is over.