Mummers strut stuff while crowds brave the cold

Kailee Didominic takes off her mask to see the signal for showtime on Broad Street as part of Philadelphia's winter blast. Didominic was a jester with the Hog Island club. Full Mummers Parade results, from string bands and comics to fancy brigades, on A8.
Kailee Didominic takes off her mask to see the signal for showtime on Broad Street as part of Philadelphia's winter blast. Didominic was a jester with the Hog Island club. Full Mummers Parade results, from string bands and comics to fancy brigades, on A8. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 03, 2014

Any tradition that has lasted 114 years must evolve to survive. And so, the annual Mummers Parade has been put through Darwinian paces. Routes have been tweaked. Hours curtailed. Rules imposed. Crowds have expanded and contracted. Drag queens, who strutted until the 1970s, returned to the frilled fold in 2013 - and oh, dem golden kinky boots.

But the 2014 rendition, which rolled and strutted, boogied and high-stepped, clowned and twirled up South Broad Street on Wednesday in a well-hydrated flurry of confetti, sequins, feathers, and face paint, was 100 percent consistent with its century-old roots in the most essential Philadelphia ways.

Children laughed until their chapped cheeks ached. Grown men behaved as if they were off their meds. Old heads complained that back when they were young, the crowds were bigger, the parade was longer, and the performances took place every six inches along the route. And a new generation started a family tradition that, freakish as it may be, will become a treasured and somehow wholesome memory.

For confirmation, there was no need to seek any authority more trustworthy than Gianni Sacca.

"This guy came out with a skirt and a hat, and he was hilarious," he said.

The 11-year-old came from his home in Washington Township with his family and friends to witness his first Mummers Parade. After standing in the freezing wind for two hours, watching the comics and wenches dance by, his father had herded all the kids into the vestibule of the Center City Macy's, where they stood by the blasting heat registers, toasting their hands like marshmallows.

Newcomers are often perplexed by the spectacle. Asked if he understood what he was witnessing, Nicholas Richardson shook his head. "Not one thing," said the 17-year-old Rhode Island high school student, who had landed a job selling novelties at the corner of Morris Street and Broad. "Looks like a lot of drunk people and music."

That observation, while technically accurate, failed to grasp the gestalt. Because the Mummers, whose New Year's Day blowout is considered the oldest folk parade in the country, are mostly a confederation of good-hearted souls who want to kick-start January with a good laugh.

"Every year is just another year. It's tradition," said Tom Quinn, a member of the O'Malley New Year's Association Wench Brigade. Quinn, 48, a dockworker at the Navy Yard, has been coming to the parade since he was a baby, and started bringing his son when the child was 22 months old.

"The crowd is great," said Quinn, a vision in greasepaint and satin. Down in South Philly, spectators were scattered thinly along the route. But as the parade approached Center City, the sidewalks were packed like rush-hour subways.

Reaching his Michelin Man snowsuited arms across the police barricades, Harris Saritsoglou commanded attention.

"He grabbed my hand harder than anyone. He knows what he's doing," said Dave Kennedy, a Mummer who could not resist the boy's insistent calls from the sidelines. Kennedy, 20, who in his other life is studying to be a pharmacist, draped a strand of shiny beads around Harris' neck.

Before he left, he had a few parting words of wisdom for the 5-year-old from Upper Darby.

"Not everything you want in life comes with an aggressive approach," Kennedy told the boy. Then, with a plastic cup filled with twisted tea, he left to rejoin his fellow wenches.

The more serious performances would come later in the day and require considerable stamina for those who hoped to catch the action out on the street.

The gutter was strewed with the torn envelopes for portable Toe Warmers, crushed cans of Budweiser, confetti, and yogurt containers. The air carried the vapor trails of cigars, cigarettes, pot, beer, and ChapStick. And story-high amplifiers loaded on truck beds blasted Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" through the thickest ear muffs.

"I love the Mummers," said Nina Swanson, who had just scored a pair of green plastic LED blinking glasses in the shape of "2014" from a guy selling them, two for $5.

"I love the costumes and how they are all excited and everything," said Nina, an 11-year-old from Glendora. She hoped to last until 4 p.m., when the Fancy Brigades finally arrived, and was holding out fairly well so far, she said, because in addition to her jacket, she was wearing three shirts, three pairs of pants, and two pairs of gloves.

One of the most dramatic changes in the parade came about 17 years ago when performances were first offered indoors. The bleachers Wednesday were packed for the noon show of the Mummers Fancy Brigade Finale at the Convention Center.

Marianne Buccello, a native Philadelphian who left the city years ago, had bought tickets so that she, her husband, Joe, and her 86-year-old mother, Marion Flerx, could enjoy the show in comfort.

"Our feet aren't so good," said Buccello, 63, the acting director of a nursing home. Before they took their front-row seats, Flerx had picked out a plumed and sequined Mummers hat from the pile of costumes spectators were encouraged to borrow for the two-hour performance.

"We moved to Florida for 10 years," said Joe Buccello, "and came back because of the Mummers. The Mummers, the pretzels, the cheesesteaks. ... " He hesitated a moment. "And my son."


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