Sunday, January 2, 2011

Oh, Dem Golden Slippers

Philadelphia is famous for a lot of things — The Liberty Bell, soft pretzels and cheesteaks... um.... did I already say "The Liberty Bell"? Okay, Philadelphia is famous for a few things.

Like most cities, Philadelphia has traditions that are not well-known to non-residents. One of the "locals only" customs in the City of Brotherly Love is the annual Mummers Parade. The Mummers parade, which has raged on every New Years Day for the past one hundred and ten years, is difficult to explain.

As a long-time non-fan of the Mummers, I will give it my best assessment. Obviously, it is a celebration of the brand new year. The Mummers Parade participants hail mostly from the close-knit, blue-collar neighborhoods of South Philadelphia. Various "New Years Associations", as they are called, each make their own costumes, arrange their own music and choreograph their own performances in a process that begins just days after the New Year's Day march up Second Street — "Two Street", as true Mummers call it. Like its West Coast counterpart, The Rose Parade, the Mummers Parade is hand-made. Each float is assembled and decorated by "guys in the neighborhood". The difference, though, is the Mummers parade looks homemade. Very homemade.

Each group's themes are kept a closely-guarded secret, as though they were matters of national security. Ironically, the themes duplicate each other from year to year and even from group to group. Face it, there is only so much that can be done with feathers and sequins and glitter when placed in the hands of a bunch of carpenters and pipe-fitters and truck drivers and tavern owners. So, any given year will see a presentation of "Fantasy of the Clowns" followed by an eerily similar "Clown Fantasy". A production of "Mardi Gras On Two Street" will often give way to a competing group's "Two Street Mardi Gras".

The parade is comprised of the unfunny Comics Groups, the not-so-fancy Fancies Brigades and, the most popular part of the parade, the string bands. Here, a simply-choreographed band of plumbers, welders and retired policemen, gaily festooned in fake plumage and rhinestone-encrusted satin, plunk out a barely-recognizable tune on banjo, accompanied by the din of flat saxophones and clinky glockenspiels. The band is led by a smiling and strutting group captain wearing a color-variant version of the band's chosen costume and caked with more make-up than a Times Square hooker.

Once the parade officially ends, the celebration continues well into New Year's night with the streets of South Philadelphia overflowing with music and alcohol and vomit, despite the adamant claim of a "No Drinking" policy among parade participants.

The most intriguing aspect of the Mummers Parade is that one day out of the year, it is perfectly fine for these guys to prance down Broad Street dressed in feathers, glitter, lipstick and gold-painted shoes, but, if these guys saw anyone dancing down Broad Street dressed in a similar fashion on the other 364 days of the year, they would beat the ever-loving shit out out them.

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