Golden Sunrise, the last fancy club, prepares to Mummer it up for 2015

Listen
George Beerley is one of three people featured in the 'Torn Apart' series.  (Emma Lee/for WHYY)

George Beerley is one of three people featured in the 'Torn Apart' series. (Emma Lee/for WHYY)

Two days before New Year’s Day, the Golden Sunrise fancy club set up a roadblock on Greenwich Street in South Philadelphia, to have the block to itself. The Mummer club has a few new performers — some as young as four and five — and needed some time on the asphalt to work out dance moves.

Normally, the final touches of choreography are done during the New Year’s Day parade itself. The long trek up Broad Street, from Oregon Avenue toward the parade judges at City Hall, used to afford them plenty of time to refine the show.

Now that the parade route has been reversed — performers will be judged first at City Hall, then parade south down Broad Street — Golden Sunrise has to be on its game from the get-go.

“You got to nail it that first time,” said choreographer Karen Giorgio. “There’s a little bit of nerves, a little bit of butterflies. That’s why we’re here today to work it out.”

The new parade route is the least of the club’s worries. Golden Sunrise is the last fancy club. For 20 years, there have been at least three clubs competing against one another. All others have dropped out for lack of funds.

To be clear: There are still plenty of fancy brigades — those clubs that perform elaborate dance numbers in the Convention Center for a ticketed audience. As for the fancy division — the clubs that perform a thematic dance routine while marching up Broad Street — there is only one. Competition is moot.

“It’s not about see who places first or last, it’s about seeing the crowds,” said Golden Sunrise president Jack Cohen. “That’s what we’re hoping for with the new parade route. Judging is a small part of the parade.”

The competition lost its allure a few years ago when the city stopped giving out prize money (a first-place fancy club could receive more than $10,000). Without it, clubs died by a thousand tiny cuts: the price of feathers, the cost of glue, renting trucks, the price of heating oil. Even with all-volunteer labor, a Mummer organization can spend tens of thousands of dollars.

The Golden Sunrise clubhouse on Greenwich Street has an attached garage stuffed to the rafters with old floats and costumes of parades past — a huge red lobster, a pair of jousting knights, giant exotic birds. This year’s toy shop float is repurposed from old props to save money.

“The toy shop has been with us for three years,” said Giorgio. “It was a caboose, and then a castle. Now it has been undressed and redecorated as a toy shop.”

When Cohen watched his most recent competition — Hog Island — back out of the parade, he knew there but for the grace of God goes Golden Sunrise.

“This year we were lucky,” said Cohen, a Mummer of 39 years. “We did some fundraisers. Republic Bank donated some money [$10,000]. But I can see why it’s diminished so much. It’s because of financials.”

Less fortunate was the Original Trilby String Band. Established in 1898, it is the oldest string band in Mummerdom. This year it could not pull off a show, in part for lack of money, but more importantly for lack of people.

By regulation, a Mummer string band must have 40 members. As of Dec. 1, Trilby captain Joseph Kaminsky could round up only 27. He said canceling was the hardest decision of his life.

“Even though we are an older string band, a lot of members are made up of people new to mumming — to the world of mummery,” said Kaminksy. “A lot of our players last year were from cover bands … They learned our music and our style, and they did it. I just couldn’t keep them, couldn’t keep their interest in mummery.”

According to Kaminsky, at the core of the Original Trilby band are four families who continue the generational legacy of Mummers. That’s not enough. Kaminsky plans to step up recruiting in 2015 to be able to once again march up (or down, as the case may be) Broad Street.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.