A tradition is dying

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Mummers Parade is the signature event, but each February's Show of Shows gave the bands a chance to see competing performances. Could it be gone for good?
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER The Mummers Parade is the signature event, but each February's Show of Shows gave the bands a chance to see competing performances. Could it be gone for good?
Posted: February 28, 2014

THE SOUND you are not hearing is a Philadelphia tradition falling in the forest.

The sound is banjos, saxophones, drums and glockenspiels - the sound of the String Bands' Show of Shows, a February tradition for nine decades.

February ends today without a Show of Shows and Tom Loomis, newly elected president of the sponsoring String Band Association, tells me there's "less than a 50 percent chance that we could pull anything together right now."

Rigor mortis hasn't set in, but I must prepare an obituary.

The Show of Shows (SOS) was born in 1938, during the Great Depression, to raise money for a milk fund for hungry children. If you know Mummery, you know they are always there for their neighbors. Like their music, it defines them.

Once launched, the SOS also provided an opportunity for the string bands to see themselves as others see them and for fans to enjoy the show in indoors comfort.

There were 16 string bands in 1938 and those 16 still exist. Other bands have marched on New Year's Days - hitting an all-time high of 27 in 1986, says George Badey, publicity director for the Mummers Association - but the 16 are like the 13 original states. They have Sequin Status.

While string bands prepare all year for their star turn on New Year's Day, "these men and women almost never get to see each other perform live" in their costumes, explains Ron Goldwyn, a former Daily News reporter who enthusiastically covered them for decades. The February show let them see competing string band performances, which they could see no other way.

Behind the scenes, SOS was also a block party where Mummers could renew acquaintances, sing each other's praises and bust each other's stones. Both the praise and pummeling are Mummer traditions.

SOS was staged in Convention Hall (R.I.P.) from 1938-96. Until the old building was torn down, the city let them have it for a buck. SOS then played the old Spectrum from 1997-2003, Badey says, with matinee shows on Saturday and Sunday, evening shows on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, followed by two more weekend shows.

Then attendance began to fall.

With the show on TV and everyone having a VCR, "the audience didn't have the need to come out see the show anymore," Loomis says.

From 2005-13, SOS escaped to Atlantic City, following one year, 2004, at the Liacouras Center. That was a sour note for the Mummers because Liacouras didn't have space for the "cornfield." Convention Hall, the Spectrum and Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall all had plentiful space for the cornfield.

Goldwyn explains: The top four finishers got huge dressing areas, the bottom dozen were cramped in, side by side, six bands on each side of a central aisle. The layout was called the cornfield. Why? It's a Mummers thing.

After bands came off the performance floor, they'd serenade their way down the cornfield to cheers of their peers.

To apply CPR to SOS, Loomis says, "We need a venue and time to put on a show." Also money. The Pennsylvania Convention Center would be ideal, but Mummers won't get that for a buck.

"We would need corporate sponsors and individuals who want to help us out," Loomis says. He'd welcome any kind of support, but cautions, "We don't want to be like NASCAR with patches all over us."

To do something this year, Loomis is thinking about a Spring Strut through South Philly ending with a string band festival in Marconi Park at Broad and Oregon.

Would that keep the Show of Shows tradition alive?

Not exactly, but it could delay the funeral.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

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