Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Philadelphia Reflections (6)
New topic 2017-02-06 21:23:28 description

Reviving the Mummers


There's a growing sense of alarm among loyalist Philadelphians that the Mummer's Parade may be in decline, possibly even in a fatal spiral of decline. Only 10,000 people participate in this folk ritual, while a few decades ago 25,000 people were participants of some sort. A great many people who don't participate, and don't attend, are having a lot to say about whose fault it is.

Much of the commentary is contradictory. The consensus among participants is that moving the parade from Broad to Market Streets, and then back again to Broad Street, somehow broke some vital strands of tradition. On the contrary, say some former viewers, the problem is that once you have seen the Mummers, you have seen them; there's no variety. If you take either argument seriously, you have to conclude that what seems appealing to the participants - continuity and stability - unfortunately turns off the spectators. If that's the situation it's hard to know how the parade ever got popular in the first place. So one or the other of these comments are wrong, maybe both are wrong. Unless both are right but insignificant, not the root of the issue.

Where everyone agrees is that the parade on New Year's Day is too doggone cold. Years ago the leaders tried to shift the parade to the Fourth of July, since in fact, it may have originally begun as an Independence Day celebration. What we now call "comics" were then called "shooters", because they carried and shot off guns. Since alcohol has always been an important attraction for these parades, it is easy to imagine the concern of the Quaker City about drunks lurching around the streets, firing real weapons. With the coming and going of Prohibition, sales of liquor on the street vanished, although there remains plenty of evidence it is still popular. On a political-social level somehow it is possible to sell beer at baseball games, whereas it is almost politically inconceivable to sell beer, or hot toddies, on Broad Street. No one could argue with a straight face that alcohol violates tradition.

As for that doggone cold, it isn't any colder today than it was when the Mummers parade was thronged, is it? Well, yes, it's a lot colder. Skyscrapers cast dark shadows at the end of short winter days. And tall buildings block the wind at their tops, with the wind then scooting down the side of the building to the sidewalk. That's the "Marilyn Monroe effect," and it's plenty real. So, it has to be noted that the parade migrated up from South Philadelphia to center city, at the same time center city became climatically inhospitable. To get a little technical, there's also the "sundown wind." As the shadow of nightfall moves from East to West, the warm air in the sunlit area rises up over the cold air in the darker region, creating a sundown wind. Add to this the early sunset of winter, throw the sundown wind against skyscrapers, and it's time to go home. To television.

It's my view that television, which I never watch, by the way, has a lot to answer for in the deterioration of the Mummers parade. If people who never watch the Mummers parade are allowed to criticize it, surely people who never watch television are also entitled to some surly comment. Back in the fifties and sixties, getting featured on television was a big thrill for the mummers. If the cameramen preferred performance in one place so they needn't move their equipment, their request was eagerly agreed to. There might even have been the prospect of big bucks since everyone knows show biz commands top dollar. Let 'em perform at City Hall, where the judges can keep warm on elevated benches, and politicians can accidentally walk in front of the cameras. But notice that all of the successors in the parade line are backed up from City Hall to Locust street, not performing for the sidewalks. And all of the performers, having strutted their stuff at City Hall will then disband, instead of continuing up to Vine Street, as they once did. It's no longer a parade, it's a performance at City Hall. For television, you might say, except that television has used up the material and is abandoning it.

For completeness, we should mention the bad luck of snow and rain for a few years in a row. And the discomfort with blackface, but the absence of black people. The absence of Jewish and Oriental brigades in an ethnic extravaganza deserves notice. You will occasionally see people at Philadelphia upper-crust dances showing off the Mummers Strut, but you aren't likely to see that on Chinese New Years. Whether newer ethnic groups were excluded from participation by the hard-core South Philadelphia Italian, Polish and Irish groups is not immediately obvious. In fact, it could well be the reverse, a sour-grapes rejection by the newer arrivals or their leaders. But all such sullen opinions are somehow unsatisfying, particularly when the parade retains such a noticeable tolerance for transvestite behavior.

My main suspect for the culprit of the parade's decline is television. It was sure a nice parade before that thing came along. The leaders of the mummers' parade must either find a way to cope with the monster or - fuhgeddaboutit.

Originally published: Thursday, January 30, 1997; most-recently modified: Tuesday, June 04, 2019

I love the mummers - at least I love them in my mind. They are indeed a folk custom. And I will never ever forget my father dancing around the house with an umbrella in his hand to "Oh Dem Golden Slippers." But as a folk custom - sadly, it's already dead. The influences of Broadway and Hollywood and TV cannot be stopped. The culprit - is the destruction of community, of neighborhood by the modern age. The ancient mummers of jolly old England and South Street Philadlphia 100 years ago will always live in my heart - because my father bequeathed that to me.
Posted by: TomBlair   |   Dec 27, 2012 5:14 PM
Whatever it is, it is increasing from absolutely none (a few years ago) to noticeably more (today). The so-called comics have the most, split between all-black bands, and all-white shooters. All white mostly means red, green and purple-painted faces; no doubt, a defiant comment on the hubbub a few years ago about black-face on the white comics. As the line progresses toward sundown, the string bands at the rear seem the most traditional. Similarly, the music gets more traditional at the rear, where there is still strutting. Up at the front, it's more a screaming charge of either Kilted Highlanders or Zulu Warriors, so far, without the hissing.
Posted by: George Fisher   |   Jan 1, 2008 4:59 PM
What percentage of black people participate in the "Mummer's Strut"?
my e-mail is brownmilt@hotmail.comdmwk2
Posted by: Milt Brown   |   Dec 31, 2007 11:10 PM