For Mummers, 100 percent appeal

Jesters Comic Brigade performs a Frankenstein themed skit in front of the judge's stand during the New Year's Day parade Sunday in Philadelphia. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Jesters Comic Brigade performs a Frankenstein themed skit in front of the judge's stand during the New Year's Day parade Sunday in Philadelphia. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 01, 2012

A tiny toddler named Sophia Salerno performed a Mummers Parade miracle Sunday when she bopped down Broad Street with barely the balance to keep from tipping over, but enough charm to unite two groups of people at odds in the year that just ended: The 1 percent and the 99 percent.

It happened in the low winter sun of midday, when her parents marched down Broad and plunked the 16-month-old tyke at Sansom Street just shy of City Hall, which had been home to Occupy Wall Street protesters until a few weeks ago.

On one sidewalk was the fabled Union League building with men in wool suits and women in fine threads and fur in cordoned-off bleachers, a portrait of gated affluence. On the other was the Wells Fargo building, at its feet throngs of revelers in sweatshirts, crewnecks, Flyers gear, pink boas, a New Year's cowboy hat.

The crowd hushed as Sophia's shimmering little sunflower costume - barely inches higher than the blacktop itself - pierced the emptiness between brigades. All alone on the four-lane street, she splashed of color, like a tyke-sized Hershey's kiss wrapped in green foil.

"Clap!" coaxed her daddy, Matt Salerno, as saxophone-laced Mummers music wafted off nearby speakers.

Sophia bounced. Danced. Wobbled. Then, she clapped. And the crowd went bonkers - the men, women and children on opposite sides of Broad, opposite ends of the income spectrum, roared and applauded on cue, cheering a child making her first New Year's Day strut down Broad.

"Oh my God," said her mother Jennifer Salerno, so overwhelmed that mascara smudged as she teared up. "I'm, like, crying!"

The city's annual feathers-and-sequins pageant of and by the people, a New Year's spectacle in its second century now, went off with flying colors and feathers, despite bypassing its usual endpoint of City Hall, barricaded since police evicted Occupy Philadelphia protesters from there several weeks ago.

Roughly 60 comic brigades, 40 fancy brigades, and 17 string bands instead marched right past to a new judges' stand a block away at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, where they vied for prizes and family pride.

It was a fitting locale for the cacophanous free-for-all Mummers, sandwiched between a 7-11 convenience store to the left and a flying saucer-like bulding that once housed the city's Visitors' Center to the right.

"Everything's working well," deputy city Parks and Recreation commissioner Leo Dignam proclaimed at midday, adding that the parade was on pace to end in six-and-a-half hours, as it had for several years.

The weather was sunny and cloudless for much of the day, adding to the good cheer.

"Look at the fella with his jeans showing over there in the back of his gown!" said a delighted Nancy Glasgow, 60, of Fairmount. The gentleman in question was busting out of a white wedding dress too small to be buttoned across his sizeable back. He also wore a bright blue wig as he either staggered or strutted - it wasn't entirely clear.

Someone hung a tongue-in-cheek banner from a parking garage next to the power-lunch Palm Restaurant near City Hall that said: "Occupy The New Year."

Rented U-Haul trucks, a Penske flatbed, and countless Ford pickups, the logistical essentials of this historically working-class parade, tugged floats past rowhouses, modest storefronts, and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, before revelers in golden slippers reached the end and made their way back to Ground Zero of Mummery: 2nd Street in South Philadelphia.

One man wandered up the parade route near Broad and Sansom Streets carrying a sign that said: "Occupy 2nd Street. Those 'Dirty Dancin" Mummers. Oh dem sleazy slippers."

"I've been on a high since I've been off the bus!" said Deborah Jones, 53, of Maple Shade, a critical-care tecnician who, on a rare New Year's off, came with her daughter, Aliyia Jones, and grandchildren Destiny, 10, and Infinity, 5. Mother and daughter hooted and hollered "Happy New Year" to passing strutters while the little ones took it in with wide eyes.

Even off the parade route the Mummery was infectious: A bear of a man in lipstick and red-yarn wig was spied grabbing a soda at a 16th Street bodega. A trio of bedecked brigade mates camped out on the corner of Race and 15th Streets to share a beer.

And just north of City Hall two Mummers in full regalia engaged in a shouting match that eventually came to blows - an apparent drunken explosion of testosterone, glitter and feathers.

It was all about love, however, for John MacIntyre Sr., 77, marching in his 75th parade, with Mac Mongoose Mummers, a comic brigade. Dressed in a fuchsia suit, a clerical collar and carrying a tractor-supply catalog in place of a bible, he was playing the part of chaplain.

"I'm gonna be the priest who marries the Leprechaun and Lady Gaga," he said with a straight face, a perfectly timed delivery.

As he walked slowly with a sequined cane, he predicted many more Mummers marches in years to come:

"I'll be here," he said, "'til rigor mortis gets me."

A drag performer who gave only her stage name - Brown Sugar - bowed to the Mummers' sense of stagecraft, tossing her hair back and forth to the beat of the passing procession of string bands.

"It's the one day of the year I'm not the most divaliciously dressed man in this city," she said. "Some of these South Philly boys dress up real nice."

Charlie Bernard, a member of the Happy Tappers comic brigade, echoed the sentiment expressed by many of his more sober-minded bretheren. After 47 parades with this troupe, the event had come to mean more than a New Year's Day bacchanalia.

"This is family," he said. "This is tradition. You can't get this anywhere else in the world."


Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com or @panaritism on Twitter.

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