Stu Bykofsky: Strutting through controversy with the Mummers

Posted: January 03, 2013

WHILE AMERICA on Tuesday patched away from a fiscal cliff, Mummers strutted over the entertainment cliff, falling short on spectators, delivering a better-paced parade and generating a controversy or two. Controversy is mother's milk for Mummers' fans.

Through the day, crowds viewing the 113th parade were sparse, practically nonexistent away from the few Broad Street performance intersections - at Ritner, Washington, Pine, Sansom and City Hall. Even there, at peak, crowds were rarely six rows deep behind police barricades.

Unlike last year's well-attended Saturday parade, this year's parade was on an elbow of a day, Tuesday, and didn't have temperatures soaring into the 50s.

In past years, annoying gaps made the parade seem like a still-life painting, with face-painted Mummers leaning on their props or stamping their feet. This year, I spot-checked at Broad and Pine during the day and found that the average time between one string band departing and the next one playing was around five or six minutes, which is excellent, keeping in mind that scenery and props have to be set up. A few bands took longer.

There's a funny story about the gaps, a yin and yang, and if it's a funny story about the Mummers, you can count on a Froggy Carr angle.

For its purposes, the city measures the length of the parade as time in front of the judges, rather than from the actual starting time at Broad and Washington, which was 9:39 a.m. Time in front of the judges was 6 hours and 45 minutes, two minutes shorter than last year, according to city Parade Director Leo Dignam.

It could have been 20 minutes shorter, he says, except that the infamous Froggy Carr wench brigade overstayed its welcome before the judges, by a lot.

Damn dem green Frogs!

And yet . . . the Frogs' bad behavior, Dignam concedes, caused the string bands following them to "stack up," reducing the gaps and cutting the delay between performances.

Bless dem green Frogs!

As to controversy (other than that involving Froggy Carr), there was grumbling among the string bands because two previous performance points in Deep South Philly, at Shunk and at Wolf, were combined into one performance point at Ritner.

The complaints had two elements: 1) Mummers weren't told about the change until the "last minute," several string-band officials told me; 2) it cut down on the number of performances in South Philly, which string bands consider the heart of their fan base.

The change was made with advance notice and so that bleachers could be added, Dignam told me.

"It stinks," Mummers Association President Bob Shannon told me, citing the two reasons above.

Trilby String Band President Steve Mulzet was more diplomatic. "We would like to do more performances," he said, but he steered clear of criticizing the city.

Things change, life goes on. The Wolf performance point was at Methodist Hospital, which used to have its own panel of judges that gave out prizes to string bands. I remember, because for a few years I was a judge. I also remember when String Bands serenaded patients in the old St. Agnes Hospital, on Broad near McKean. Just memories now.

The other controversy is racism.

Out there in the twitverse - that's not a typo - some donkey sees blackface in the Mummers Parade and - kazaam! - as many as nine people on a couple of different "platforms" are finding other forms of "racism" in the parade, drawing insipid conclusions from their aggressive ignorance.

Before you can say, "What a load of crap," it winds up on storify.com (yeah, me neither) as a story or analysis - it's hard to categorize - by my friend Tara Murtha, who has done some really serious, penetrating work, of which this is not an example.

First, as Murtha acknowledges, blackface has been banned from the parade since 1964, which is longer than she has been alive.

Second, there's no proof that anyone was in blackface. Dignam says that every group has a city escort who enforces the rules.

Third, the alleged "racist" stuff was in the Comic Division, which uses comedy, satire and general silliness. The Venetian New Year's Association was mentioned for its Indi-Insourcing skit that satirized America outsourcing calls to India, then jumping the shark by having Native-Americans take over the call center.

Somehow, depicting Indians in call centers or Native Americans in buckskin is racist. Same with Eskimos (OK, Inuit) in igloos. Or women in polka skirts. Or male hillbillies in overalls. Or Turks in turbans. Or Hasidic Jews in long, black coats. They've all been featured in the parade.

If you're offended, here's a buck. Try to buy a sense of humor. Or an ounce of sense.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Columns: philly.com/Byko

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