Seven decades a mummer: 84-year-old still strutting after all these years

Jimmy Driadon is captain of the Greater Overbook String Band. 2020 marks his 70th parade. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jimmy Driadon is captain of the Greater Overbook String Band. 2020 marks his 70th parade. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s hard for Jimmy Driadon to pick his favorite moment from his decades-long mummer career, but if he had to pin it down, winning second place in the String Band Division — some time in the 1980s — would be it.

His second favorite moment would be marching in the 2020 Mummers Parade Wednesday — his 70th, but certainly not his last, parade.

“As long as I can walk, I’m going to parade,” he said before his 45-member string band was called to places. “I’m shooting for 80.”

Jimmy Driadon, captain of the Greater Overbook String Band celebrate’s his 70th parade dressed up as Mary Poppins. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Driadon sashayed his way behind several people dressed as chimney sweeps as they danced on a model roof that moved on hidden wheels. Another handful of performers, dressed as older women feeding birds, danced in front of the Driadon and the sweeps, adding to the Mary Poppins fantasy they prepared for thousands of fans waiting on Broad Street.

The performers had a medley that included favorites such as “Jolly Holiday,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” ready to go as soon as Driadon swung a white umbrella away from his face for his big reveal.

“I’m Mary Poppins, can’t ya tell?” he joked as his white, wide-brimmed hat slipped forward.

This is the most elaborate look Driadon has donned in his time with the Greater Overbrook String Band, but after decades of strutting, he’s used to the elaborate costumes. The year the string band won second place with the theme “Ballroom Reflections”, he was dressed as a shimmery disco ball and his bandmates played popular songs of the time.

Jimmy Driadon, captain of the Greater Overbook String Band, celebrate’s his 70th parade dressed up as Mary Poppins. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Driadon first joined the Greater Overbrook String Band in 1950, when it was based in South Philadelphia and called the Whitman String Band, after founder Harry Whitman.

Driadon was 14 with no familial ties to the mummer tradition. He was living in Grays Ferry when his friend from the neighborhood, Luke McDermott, convinced him to audition on saxophone.

They went to 24th St. and Vare Avenue — an intersection that does not exist anymore due to the construction of I-76 — and met with the band captain, Harry Straub.

“He said, come on in,” Driadon recalled. “So I did. Just like that. Nothing to it.”

For the next two decades, he dutifully played saxophone in the band. During that time, it moved to Overbrook and renamed itself. It moved three more times: to Pennsport, to Upper Darby, and finally to Chester Heights.

In 1971, Straub’s age caught up with him. Suffering from emphysema, Straub stepped down on doctor’s orders and appointed Driadon to take the top spot.

“I feel very well-honored to be captain, and very nervous,” Driadon said in 1970, before that year’s parade started. “It’s my 21st year going up the street and my first year as captain. I think I’m really going to love it.”

Jimmy Driadon, captain of the Greater Overbook String Band celebrate’s his 70th parade dressed up as Mary Poppins. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Driadon appears in archival footage, dressed in flaming scarlet plumage for the band’s theme at the time, “Satan Takes a Holiday,” beaming in the spotlight. He stayed at the head of the band for the next 20 years, alternating with his childhood friend McDermott and another member, Chris Caniglia.

“I never thought about being a captain. I was happy being a musician. I’m still happy being a musician,” he said.

Driadon’s son followed in his footsteps, becoming a member of Greater Overbrook for many years before his death in 2007, at age 47.

Driadon has seen the mummer tradition go through changes over the last 70 years. The parade route used to be more than twice as long, starting below Oregon Avenue and going north past City Hall to Girard Avenue before looping back down to South Street for the Two Street party.

Now the parade starts at City Hall and heads south to Washington Avenue, making it significantly shorter.

Years ago, mummer festivities lasted well beyond New Year’s Day. In February, all the string bands would reconvene at the old Convention Hall in West Philadelphia for the Show of Shows, when they would do their routines indoors for a ticketed audience.

“We had a seven-day show there, back in the early ‘50s,” said Driadon.

Convention Hall was demolished in 2005 to make way for a University of Pennsylvania hospital. The Show of Shows moved to Atlantic City before it ended altogether. It has not taken place since 2013.

“There’s a lot of things that younger guys don’t know about in string bands,” said Driadon. “It was party time down there. You met all the other guys in different bands. You socialized with them. It was very interesting.”

The Greater Overbook String Band’s 2020 performance was Mary Poppins themed. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Recently, the city has been urging the mummers to reform their acts. The street performers come out of a long tradition of social and political satire, which has often targeted people of color and immigrant communities. After years of complaints, the mummers associations created sensitivity training programs. They also ask the brigades to submit their routines to a committee in advance for approval.

“Years ago we didn’t have that,” he said. “Everybody could take a joke, but now everybody gets insulted. You’ve got to be very, very careful what you do.”

Though Driadon doesn’t offend easily, he does think the changes help the parade avoid any misunderstandings.

“We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” he said

Since 1990, the Greater Overbrook String Band has voted Driadon captain on every 10th anniversary: he marched out front for his 40th, 50th, 60th, and now his 70th year with the band. In between, he has marched rank and file, playing his saxophone alongside his fellow musicians.

“As long as I’m able to do it,” he said, “I’m going to do it.”

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