Pennsport String Band marches to beat of a different drum

That's Mike Drzal on the banjo as the Pennsport band gives and gets notes for its New Year's Day gig.
That's Mike Drzal on the banjo as the Pennsport band gives and gets notes for its New Year's Day gig.
Posted: December 27, 2013

IF HE were still alive, it's doubtful legendary football coach Vince Lombardi would be a fan of the Pennsport String Band. After all, it was he who was famously credited with saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

But for those who will be cakewalking up Broad Street Wednesday morning under the Pennsport banner, winning the annual string-band competition, while certainly an aspiration, is far from the unit's mission. Instead, the 7-year-old troupe has other, more important goals, foremost among them offering people the opportunity to be a part of the Mummers Parade without having to devote a huge portion of their lives (and bankrolls) to do so.

Indeed, the band's "About Us" Web page (pennsportsb.com) begins: "The Pennsport String Band has embraced a model of string band that is revolutionary. We are not a year-round string band. While we will meet periodically throughout the year for practices and meetings, we are a three month a year organization (October through New Years) with a sole focus on our New Years Day performance."

As such, it's difficult for the ensemble to compete with such Mummers powerhouses as Ferko, Fralinger and Quaker City. But, according to band co-founder and captain Charlie Nicholas, that's the whole point of the club that was founded in 2007 expressly to allow "the guys who didn't have the time and couldn't keep up with expenses of the other bands to go out, play your instrument, enjoy yourself and keep the tradition alive," he said, during a recent rehearsal in the gym at South Philly's Stella Maris School (a location forced upon the group by the recent spate of abnormally brutal weather).

Incidentally, Nicholas' use of the word "guys" was generic, rather than gender-specific. While the Mummers Parade remains overwhelmingly the province of members of the XY chromosome crowd, Pennsport boasts an unusually high percentage of women members (we counted a dozen just among the instrumentalists at the practice; there were a slew of female dancers as well).

Not that Pennsport's members don't take their Mummery seriously. Nicholas marched for years with Avalon String Band, one of the city's elite organizations. And, according to Nicholas, his group boasts five String Band Hall of Fame inductees. But it's the rank-and-file that set the band apart.

Typical of its membership is saxophone player Karen Kessler, of Mount Laurel, who found that Pennsport's emphasis on the annual strut through South Philly and Center City fit her schedule far better than bands that focus on year-round activities, including the seemingly nonstop raising of funds needed for their elaborate Jan. 1 presentations.

"Pennsport opened the door for someone like me to enjoy the string-band/mummer experience, which I would not have been able to do otherwise," offered Kessler, who works for the state of New Jersey.

"The organization was created to give members the New Year's Day experience without the year-round heavy commitment that is required by the 'top bands.' A musician like myself, who does so much else, including playing with the Philharmonic of Southern New Jersey, Jersey Shore Pops and a lot of musicals, can still participate in the parade. Come December, it's expected that we each personally shift priorities to attend more of the Pennsport rehearsals, but still it's with the 'make what you can' attitude."

Nicholas is particularly proud that, contrary to the insularity of so many Mummers outfits, Pennsport strives to be a portal to the Mummers experience for those who didn't grow up with the tradition. Among those who have been able to avail themselves of this only-in-Philadelphia experience through Pennsport is Monique Chabot, an occupational therapist and Katy, Tex., native, who was recruited by her accordion teacher, Mike Buloff.

Chabot, a Wynnefield resident who has lived in Philly five years, said that she attended her first parade simply to watch Buloff perform. She was entranced by the spectacle and thought, " 'This is like Mardi Gras, I wonder how I can be a part of it?' The next year, Mike invited me to join the band."

Like Kessler, she has found the group's part-time status a perfect fit. "I actually like the fact it's just for fun," she said. "I don't have time for a full-time band. We take it seriously, but it's more about the joy of entertaining."

The drawback to this less-formal strategy is that Pennsport doesn't have the financial resources to conjure the kind of Vegas-worthy spectacle that is a hallmark of the elite units.

This year, Pennsport is going with a Venetian party theme that features such setting-appropriate songs (or snippets thereof) as "Carnival in Venice," "Masquerade" and "Libiamo," from the Verdi opera "La Traviata." But the score also will quote from such traditional Mummers tunes as "O Dem Golden Slippers" and "Waiting For the Robert E. Lee," songs that seem to have lost their cachet, as bands today tend to favor rock, pop and show tunes.

"Years ago," said Nicholas, "someone said to me, 'If you wanna impress me, you have to play this real difficult part, but if you wanna keep Aunt Mary at Broad and Wolf happy, play "O Dem Golden Slippers." ' Well, I like Aunt Mary at Broad and Wolf, so we keep the tradition of Mummers' songs going while some of those other bands are [musically] off-the-charts."

It's a fairly safe bet that Pennsport won't finish in the top three in this year's judging, but that doesn't mean that Nicholas is not optimistic. Despite its financial and time limitations, Pennsport has acquitted itself impressively in the past two parades. In 2011, it placed 15th, jumping to 12th place in 2012 and 11th last year.

"If we keep doin' that," he reasoned, "in another five-to-eight years, who knows where we'll finish?"


On Twitter: @chuckdarrow

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