Not all Mummers on board with route change

Kailee Didominic, left, takes her mask off to see the signal to move up to street to perform in the Fancy Brigade of Hog Island. She is part of the "Jesters" in the Fancy Brigade.( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Kailee Didominic, left, takes her mask off to see the signal to move up to street to perform in the Fancy Brigade of Hog Island. She is part of the "Jesters" in the Fancy Brigade.( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Posted: August 11, 2014

Take the Mummers Parade out of South Philadelphia? Albert Lancellotti is having none of it.

"You don't know what it is like to be a full-blooded South Philly Italian with this in your blood," said the 55-year-old lifelong neighborhood resident and president of the Jesters New Year's Brigade. "For them to move the parade is no big deal, because their families ain't from here. To us, it is all about our family."

Brigade member Matt Ciotto, 31, concurred: "Leaving out the neighborhood where it started from? Why don't we just move the Liberty Bell to South Jersey?"

That attitude was shared last week at the Jesters clubhouse at Juniper and Shunk Streets, when a small band of Mummers - mostly comics - gathered around card tables to grapple with the news that the city and Mummers leadership were considering a new parade route, one that would skip the very neighborhoods that sired and nourished the event for generations.

The new route would start at City Hall and run south on Broad Street to Washington Avenue, where it would end. Past parades have moved north on South Broad from Oregon Avenue in deep South Philadelphia.

The new route is a recognition that crowds below Washington have grown anemic. That is in part because of demographic changes in South Philadelphia, which has seen its historic Irish and Italian neighborhoods increasingly filled with Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

Also, the nature of the parade, which has roots dating back more than three centuries, has changed in recent years. With a premium placed on keeping the event moving, string bands are limited in where they can play along the route. That has turned the parade into a long, often silent, slog up Broad.

The new route is meant to alleviate that, said Tom Loomis, president of the 17-member Philadelphia String Band Association and among the leaders advocating for the change. It would get judging out of the way first and allow the various comics clubs, string bands, and fancy brigades to perform at will as they head toward Washington. It would also reduce costs by requiring less police presence.

The change is endorsed by the leaders of all five Mummers divisions - the comics, the wenches, the string bands, the fancies, and the fancy brigades. While none was happy with leaving South Philadelphia out, they see the changes as necessary to breathe new life into an event that has been struggling to keep its audience after more than 100 years of city sponsorship.

"Taking the parade out of South Philadelphia was a gut-wrenching decision," said Jim Julia, president of the Fancy Brigade Division. "We knew we were going to catch holy hell for this. But we are trying to make it a better parade."

Loomis agreed.

"We are not trying to take this from anybody," he said. "We are just trying to maintain this tradition that has been entrusted upon us. This parade is dying. If we don't make changes, we are going to be history."

There was a grudging acceptance at the Jesters clubhouse Thursday that change was needed - but not at South Philadelphia's expense.

"I'm not against the route," said Lancellotti, an electrician. "Just let us march past Washington."

Added Eric Royer: "Nobody is saying they are not right about the empty streets. But look up there now and it's changed. It's a different crowd."

What hasn't diminished, they said, is the parade's impact off Broad, in the blocks bracketed by 13th Street and Shunk, Porter, Ritner, etc.

"On New Year's, every street down here is blocked off," Lancellotti said. "It is one big party. If there is no parade and nothing is blocked off, it will be just another day."

It is hard to believe that could ever be the case for Lancellotti, who says he spends all 12 months of the year focused on preparation and suffers from a recurring nightmare that he has overslept and missed the parade.

"After Thanksgiving, you know what I do with my wife?" he asked. "I say: 'Here's the money. You go Christmas shopping, because you won't see me.' "

Nick Laino Sr., 49, chimed in: "He puts his picture on the milk carton so his wife will remember him."

The guys in the room laughed. Hard.

"This is an all-year thing for us, too," said Anthony Gentile, 19, who works construction and is a member of the South Philly Vikings Fancy Brigade. "My group starts practice three weeks after New Year's, four times a week, from 7 to 10 or 11 at night."

The conversation turned to one of the more novel explanations for the new route: that the stress of waiting to perform for the judges left some bands too jittery to be very entertaining leading up to City Hall. Starting with the judging would solve that, the theory goes.

"Stress," bellowed Chip Foglia, 51, a manager at Home Depot. "We are grown men. We've been doing this for 100 years. That's part of marching."

Royer, a manager at Chickie's & Pete's, chuckled. "What we going to do?" he asked. "Give the guys Zoloft now instead of blackberry brandy?"

(Dan Harrell, 70, who marches with the Finnegan Comic Brigade, hit the same note in a separate interview last week: "Let's be honest. The guys are hitting the booze. They're having a good time," he said of the marchers. "The way it is now, they know they have to be at least halfway organized until they get to City Hall.")

Though details are still being worked out, the city expects to finalize the route sometime next month.

Lancellotti and his crew know they have an uphill battle, but they are determined to make themselves heard. They have posted an online petition that by Friday had 1,300 signatures.

"Just let the people have a voice," Laino said. "Put it to a vote."

Lancellotti nodded.

"You take South Philly out of this and I'm telling you," he said, "I give it three to five years and the parade is done. Finished. Finished."


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