A string band is a badge of pride for any neighborhood, and it’s a year-round commitment to community service and involvement. True, it requires a huge investment of talent, time, and money (it can take over $100,000 to put a band on the street), but the rewards are great, too. Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, and all the neighborhoods of the Northwest are home to many fine musicians, designers, arrangers and artists of all kinds. We can do it if we put our minds to it.
There are currently around 15,000 mummers who march in the parade, divided into several categories. The “wenches” are basically just men in dresses. Even if that’s all the parade was (as many mistakenly think it is), it would still be delightfully entertaining, but there’s more. The “clowns” lampoon events of the past year using hilarious homemade props and the “fancies,” well, they’re fancy.
But it’s the string bands who are the true parade royalty. Each band wheels an elaborate set up Broad Street, presenting a themed, four-minute show that includes live music, dancing, singing, and special effects. I’ve been attending the parade for almost 60 years, and I can tell you that the level of professionalism in these bands has increased a hundred fold. Some kids dream about becoming cowboys or racecar drivers. In Philly, kids dream about becoming mummers. I know I did.
The word mummer is derived from Momus, the Greek god of ridicule. The roots of mummery can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, and followed through pagan Rome and medieval Europe. It usually involved parades and fanciful costumes. When Europeans first settled in Philadelphia, they brought these traditions with them.
Groups would go from house to house on New Years Day, singing and dancing, to be rewarded with food and drink. It’s quite likely that President George Washington himself was witness to some of this gaiety. The practice eventually grew from scattered, uncoordinated celebrations into a citywide parade staged by farmers, fire brigades, and various workingmen’s organizations. Official city sponsorship of the parade began in 1901.
Despite its ancient roots and long standing traditions, the parade has grown in terms of diversity and sophistication over the years. It’s not just men anymore, and the themes and costumes are as varied and inventive as anything to be found on Broadway.
There are currently 18 string bands, many with histories dating back to the 1920s and 30s. While their musicians and marshals are recruited from all over the Delaware Valley, there are still relatively few neighborhoods represented by their own band. There are seven bands from South Philly, six from the Northeast, and three from surrounding counties, and two from New Jersey. Since parade attendance and involvement has been declining for a while now, it might stimulate public interest if the stable of string bands encompassed more areas of the city.
Whatever you think of the Mummers Parade, there’s no doubt it could be a boon to our tourist industry. Folks who came here for the parade and had a good experience would tell their friends and perhaps return in the summer, too. Many New Yorkers (and there are a lot of them) have never even heard of the Mummers, and they’re only 90 miles away. There’s a huge, untapped market out there.
Lesser parades, in my opinion, have been much better marketed by their cities of origin. I’ve seen the Rose Parade (fluff and flowers), the Mardi Gras (beads and boobs), and many other so-called tourist attractions, and I think what we have here is by far the best-kept entertainment secret in America. Instead of moaning about the cost of the parade, the city should get the word out to the rest of America, and maybe even (pardon the sacrilege) hold it on the first Saturday of every year, so there will always be a Sunday rain date, to accommodate out-of-town visitors. It could even be a two-day festival.
If you wanted to symbolize America’s exuberant, indomitable spirit in one event, this parade would be it. It’s a day when working men and women get to be in the spotlight and show off their brilliant creativity. Let’s not forget, this is the city of Rocky, tough as nails, heart of gold. Whatever we can dream, we can do.
Information on the 2011 Mummers Parade
Jim Harris is a columnist with the Chestnut Hill Local. His website is jimbobsjournal.com. firstname.lastname@example.org