'IT'S THE GREATEST THING EVER': Nobody just watches the Parade

In case anyone forgot in the excitement, Karla Bussel reminds us what year it is.
In case anyone forgot in the excitement, Karla Bussel reminds us what year it is.
Posted: January 03, 2011

Daily News staff writer David Gambacorta hit the streets on Saturday to record the sights and sounds of the 111th annual Mummers Day Parade. Here is his report:

ONE FORGOTTEN negative to being a Mummer: the down time. Strummers and strutters are sometimes faced with hours of standing and waiting around until they get a chance to do their thing on Broad Street. About noon on Saturday, Joe King, 57, had nothing but time and a golden banjo on his hands as he strolled by a large tour bus that was parked next to a park at 13th and Johnston streets.

King's face was plastered in red and white makeup; he was with Quaker City String Band, which later won first place. "My kind of clown," he said with a small smile, explaining the group's brightly colored theme. Quaker City was "upbeat," he said, but didn't expect to get in front of the judging stand at City Hall until at least four hours later. "I have a sore throat, but I'm feeling great," he said. Ever the Mummer – King's been one for 47 years – he didn't hesitate when a reporter asked him to strum a little something on his banjo. When his fingers were finished dancing across the fretboard, he turned away and went back to waiting.

At Broad and Mifflin, Polish-American drilled to the delight of a small crowd that had spilled from the corner into the street. Anthony Marzano, 55, swayed to the music and shook his arms in the air. He's lived in South Philly his whole life, he said, so he enjoyed the tradition of the parade. But that wasn't the reason he was out there Saturday. "Tell you the truth, I'm a recovered drug addict, so for a lot of years, I couldn't have cared less about the parade," he said.

The string-band members, dressed like a merry band of pirates, marched past. "I've been sober for more than 15 years now," Marzano continued. "The parade has more meaning to me now. Things that might be second nature to someone else, I appreciate more." He said that he planned on spending the whole day checking out the parade, the sights, the sounds, the colors, all of those things he used to miss.

You hear of people who say they've loved the Mummers their whole lives, that they'd follow the golden-slippered ones to the moon and back. Then you meet a few of those people, like Robin Mitchell and Susan Patrone - who were dancing at Broad and Reed streets before a nearby string band even played a single note - and it clicks.

"We've seen it change from the old days, then when it bottomed out, and now it's emerging as something else," said Patrone, 58. "It's a living thing."

Mitchell, also 58, said that her fascination with the Mummers started when she was a small child, when her parents used to bundle her up and spend all day on Broad Street. Three years ago, Mitchell followed the Woodland String Band to Ireland, where they starred as the main attraction in a small town called McCroom, on St. Patrick's Day. "People love them all over the world," she said. "There's nothing like it, you know?"

If you wanted to explain why the Mummers parade still matters, why it's something good for the city, you needed to be outside Engine 1, on Broad Street near Bainbridge. The Trilby String Band played a rendition of "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here," and something unexpectedly beautiful happened. A crowd of people formed around the group as Fire Battallion Chief Charles Herran darted into the street and started strutting like there was no tomorrow.

Members of the crowd ran over and joined him. The band played on, louder and longer, as smiles spread across the faces of nearly every onlooker. Herran said that the firehouse opens to the public every year during the parade. Firefighters, Mummers, old people, young people, everyone comes together, he said, at least for one day, at least for a little while. "This is the fabric of our city," Herran added. "It's what makes Philadelphia unique. It's the greatest thing ever."

As the afternoon sky started to grow dark, Leo Dignam, the city's parade director, stalked around like a man with a hundred things on his mind – which he was. Pausing for a moment behind the judging stand at City Hall, Dignam reflected on what he said was shaping up to be a pretty good day for the city, for the parade. There had been some hiccups: a member of the Hegeman String Band had collapsed earlier in the day in front of the Methodist Hospital from an apparent anxiety attack, Dunham said. Later in the day, a timer for another string band collapsed near the judging stand, apparently from overheating.

Still and all, Dignam said, "People are happy. I don't think I've talked to more than one or two people who had a complaint." Spectators liked the additional stands that were offered this year, liked the portable toilets and food that was available at the performance spots along the parade route. He smiled at the idea of that many people happy.

Dignam said that the city didn't plan on making any guesses about the size of the crowd. "I will say this," Dignam said. "At some of the performance spots, the crowds are 12 deep. In 2005, when we had that really warm weather, it was more like seven deep."

If you really want to experience the New Year's Day parade, you can't skip out on the massive after-party that unfurls itself down 2nd Street, from Washington Avenue to Snyder, until the wee small hours. Fran Cook, 60, her daughter Donna Sullivan, 39, and old friend Valerie Tuzi, 53, all danced and sang in front of Cook's rowhouse on 2nd Street near Reed about 7 p.m., as a literal sea of humanity moved down the street.

Cook opens her house to strangers every Jan. 1, like a lot of people in the neighborhood, and stays out all night laughing until her sides hurt. She greets old friends, makes new ones and enjoys the music. "It's tradition," she said. "It's in your blood. It has to be, or you don't get it."

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