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Wednesday, January 8, 2014


The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Jan 08, 2014

By Thom Nickels

I didn’t expect to attend the 114th Mummers Parade, but there I was with friends Tara, Walt and Bob walking up Broad Street to the Union League, the only place where the string bands stop and play during their long strut up Broad from South Philly. Having watched the Mummers in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s, the fact that string bands like Aqua, Woodland, Quaker City, Fralinger and Avalon only play in front of the Union League (and then later in front of the judges and TV cameras), is just a little bit shocking.

In prior days the string bands were quite generous when it came to the number of tunes they belted out. If they saw a highly appreciative crowd, say at Broad and Locust or Broad and Spruce, they would offer a song and a strut. Unfortunately, those crowd-pleasing days are over. Since the Mummers went corporate, money is the operative word; and since time is money and money is everything, little or no attention is paid to the appreciative crowds along the way. Of course, there is always the outdoor Mummers party on 2 Street, where the string bands still let loose, but 2 Street, compared to Center City, might be compared to a small fishbowl. There’s no escaping the fact that what happens today on 2 Street, used to happen on Broad.

In the new world of Mummery, the string bands save their heart and soul for the TV cameras but they will, however, play a tune or two in front of the Union League because, as Tara told me, the Union League gives the Mummers huge annual cash donations to do so.

Money talks!

The result of all this is that the city has a far different parade than it did in the days before corporate sponsorship. New Year’s Day in Philly had a decided New Orleans feel but that party-hardy ambience has been reduced to an event created by Walt Disney.

The new sanitized, "Disney" Mummers is just a little more exciting than watching a 4th of July parade in a small town in Utah. In fact, compared to what the parade was like in the 1970s and early 80s, the parade has become a practice run for performances before TV cameras and for those special shows in the Convention Center. In prior years, the parade usually lasted until midnight. There was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street then, an actual atmosphere of joyful revelry and personal involvement as people on the street camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched on past. It was that one day of the year when you were allowed to take the party mentality to the limit, stay out late and drink on the street, or sit on a lawn chair by an alleyway while dressed in Mummers glitz. This healthy venue for letting go was great for Philadelphians everywhere. It provided an air of spontaneity and freedom. People would host all day parties along South Broad Street and guests would come and go until the late evening hours knowing that the parade would still be happening when they went back outside.

The new corporate Parade ends at five o’clock like the roll up of a security gate in front of a retail store. By six, the sidewalks are as clean as they were before the first Mummers set foot on Broad Street. While this has an antiseptic, "clean Jean" feel to it, it’s also somewhat spooky. The corporate parade has lost its spontaneous character and patina. The "fun" in today’s Mummers is dispensed like those building passes you get once you pass through security at the lobby desk. The truth is that sometimes real fun involves a little bit of messiness and elements of the unpredictable.

Big money was certainly on Mayor Rendell’s mind when, in 1995, he rerouted the parade to include Market Street so that it could "play to" the proposed Disney entertainment center. But both the rerouting of the Mummers and the Disney complex proved to be complete failures.

Despite the parade’s corporate veneer, our group still managed to have fun. After listening to one string band play outside the Union League (thanks to that hefty cash donation), we headed into the Ritz Carlton bar where the atmosphere was as lively as a 1920s speakeasy. Walton, generous to a fault, bought rounds of red wine as two women sitting next to him proceeded to comment on his British scarf, which resembled something The Who would wear. The women prodded Walton with questions. "That’s an English scarf. We’re Irish. Where are you from? I’m American," the younger of the two said. For some reason, she thought that Walton was a recent immigrant, so he had to tell her that his Dutch family came over on the Mayflower. You can’t get more American than the Mayflower.

Conversations sometimes get skewed at bars, especially on New Year’s Day. Before we left the Ritz and headed to a place called Time, our Irish friend cushioned her good-bye with a warm handshake and some political comments: She told us that she hates Congress, supports Hilary Clinton for president, and is in love with the views of Rick Santorum. That’s quite a stretch.

Leaving the bar Time—where there was a live band and where one guy was happily dancing with himself--we were once again on the streets of Center City, the quiet, dead streets of Center City where there was no evidence of a Parade at all as the sanitation squads, out in force, did their corporate best to erase all the rustic reminders of the Broad Street strut.

Certainly not like the old days when you’d see groups of stragglers limping home or huddled on stoops and street corners while blowing the last silver paper horns of New Year’s Day.