Saturday, January 7, 2017

Magical Mummers Parading in Philly

Early on New Year's Day we jumped up out of bed, showered and headed immediately out of the door. We didn't sit down for breakfast so grabbed a snack as we walked. I got cream cheese on a toasted bagel with a coffee, held precariously as I attempted to take photographs. We made straight for City Hall where the Fancies were already lining up to be judged.
Fancies are small floats usually with just 1 person operating them, and some have small children dressed as part of the theme. We recognized some which we'd seen still and silent the night before, but were now bright and colorful, catching the early sun's rays, as they walked past. We weren't able to get anywhere close to the judging area, and the 'tickets only' bleachers sat high in front of City Hall while a helicopter whirred noisily above us. We walked back a few blocks and watched the Comics who were readying their large groups. This category focuses on humor, most group participants had beer in their hand and I noticed were all wearing very similar styled outfits, although in different colors. It's also a tradition that gold shoes be worn.
String bands follow the Comics, and these are my favorite, unique band sounds, (no amplifiers allowed) paired with elaborate themes, military styled dance routines and costumes. Lastly, and the most impressive, are the Fancy Brigades, which we were perplexed to miss, until I saw this on Wikipedia, "Until the late 1970s, the fancy brigades were simply larger presentations within the Fancies. As the props grew larger, more cumbersome and more vulnerable to wind, rain and snow, the decision was made to move the Brigades indoors", and I discovered afterwards that they were performing in the Convention Center. We watched some of the Comics pass by, while each and every van that was carrying their props for the judging performance (and beer), was searched by dogs for explosives. There was quite a large police presence but they were a friendly bunch and very accommodating.
This guy walked up to us and asked for a cough lozenge, as he was a little horse. We'd all heard it a hundred times before but we still howled, his laughter was so infectious.
 I soon tired of the comics, although entertaining, their outfits were all too alike and I was yearning to see some of those sequined and glittered outfits  in action that we'd spied the night before. Across on Market St. many of the String Bands were practicing so we walked over, moving faster as we heard the music of those wonderful brass instruments rolling between the tall buildings, and then the percussion tinkling or thundering as we turned the corner. The street was alive with color, reds, golds, aquas, every conceivable shade was jumping, flowing, rippling or twisting in the morning breeze before our eyes. I didn't know where to look first, it was overwhelming. Even though it had been 10 years since I'd seen the Mummers, the years slipped away as I recognized the striding steps of the Captains and the tones of the saxophones. It was just like greeting old friends after a long absence. I just stood and savored the moment, trying to take it all in, and then I snapped the lens cap off my Sony and got to work.
Above are Ferko String Band, their theme, We Stand as One. Their Captain, Thomas D'Amore won the String Band Captain group.
The images following are of The South Philly String Band, their theme, Awakening the Dragon, was one of my favorites.
I took a video of their practice performance. Unfortunately because I was so enamored and excited while watching them, there were a few times when the camera view dropped down a little, but I think that can be excused.
Above are the Uptown Swing Band, their theme, Mr Future. The 'starter' guy who stands in front for the whole performance was very friendly, telling me that in 1980 there had been 31 string bands, but this year there were only 17. The expense for this performance is astronomical, and while some of the bigger bands with regular wins have sponsors, many raise their own money through the year with band performances. His grandson is above playing the bass. I actually laid down on the ground to take some of these shots. While they practice their routine, they only come forward to a certain point so I was able to take photos without getting in their way. It was an exhilarating experience to have them leaping and bounding right in front of me.
Margie checking out the muscles on a Tiki dude. He was a superstar putting up with our giggles.
Above are Pennsport with their theme, Tiki Island Jungle Jivin'. It was a surreal time walking around the convenience store with these incredible characters milling about us. But hey, they were hungry and thirsty too, as well as enjoying the warmth inside the store, it was freezing outside. Some were even lining up for the restrooms. All along the parade route and practice streets were 'Royal Flush' porta potties, and a few times we had to suppress laughter watching some of these folks battling to get their costumes inside or trying to extract themselves from the tight cubicles..
Below are Hegeman String Band with their theme, Golden Gala.
Their band and Captain both came 6th in the results.
Below are Aqua String Band with their theme, Mine Blown!
Below are Quaker City String Band with their theme, Winter is Coming.
The band came top of their division!
Here that huge mammoth that I'd snuggled up to last night as it stood in the quiet night street was now a pivotal prop in their performance.
Below are the Fralinger String Band with their theme, Spellbinding. They came second in their division, and their Captain, Scott Wray, came third.
These mirror men were visually stunning, their mirror fragments catching the sun then throwing out rainbows of color as they twirled through their routine. I asked them afterwards about the weight of their costumes and was told the pieces were acrylic, so much lighter and safer than real glass. They were a huge hit with the public and the judges.
After watching the Fralinger routine and cheering them loudly, we started walking briskly up to Broad Street again, hoping to see more of the parade. We had missed quite a few of the other String Bands, it seemed an impossible task to watch them all practicing, but I had thoroughly enjoyed this day, being able to mingle with the performers, chat with them and inspect their costumes closely. It had been a very personal experience. We missed some of the dramatic effects that were being saved for the actual contest, such as costumes lighting up, glitter bombs, and some of the team practiced without a complete outfit, which was completely understandable since some of them were huge and likely cumbersome.
This Captain, Denny Palandro, from The South Philadelphia String Band, was my favorite of all. He was strutting that Mummer Captain swagger so perfectly and reminded me of the famous Bill Bowen Jr. who is now in the Mummer's Hall of Fame. His body movements, his smile, just the whole ensemble nailed it for me, I could have watched him all day. I was so happy to see he came second in the String Band Captain Results.
I was really pleased with my photos. Only having a 24-70mm lens I wasn't able to zoom in from afar but despite that I was happy with the moments I captured. After standing for about 8 hours with just a morning bagel for sustenance, I was ready to call it a day. We wanted to try and escape the city center before the hordes left, so we started pushing through the crowds back to the hotel where the car was parked. We'd try to get closer to the highway before we stopped for dinner and a long awaited beer. The music was still ringing in my ears and I could still see the twirling of colors as we walked away. This had been an enchanting experience, and the sole people responsible for this were the performers and crew. Not one person in any of the teams had shown the slightest annoyance at our presence, which I'm sure must have been occasionally invasive or annoying. Everyone showed extreme patience, willingness to pose or supply information, and I'm still marveling at this today. They made the whole event unforgettably magical, and created a day of wonder.
Crossing over Market Street, it felt as though I'd come full circle when I spotted the same back drops we'd seen the day before, from the Greater Kensington String Band, which we never managed to see but somehow it was a fitting end to the trip. They had been the first and last props of the Mummers Parade that I'd see nand I now bid them a silent adieu until next time.
The main website for The Mummers Parade is here.
Footnote: If anyone is featured in these images and would like a full resolution image, please contact me,, or feel free to use these.

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