Mummers

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The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

Every New Year, the Mummers return to amaze, entertain, and ultimately mystify. They are the greatest show on earth that most outside of Philadelphia (and sadly many in the Delaware Valley) seem to pay little attention to.  The parade is thousands of Elton Johns and Lady Gagas in full feathery regalia. An American Idol competition for marching bands and street choreographers. A city-wide spectacle unfolding block by block up Broad Street.

So why aren’t the Mummers front and center in selling Philadelphia tourism? It’s complicated. The City seems to be annually challenged to make the Mummers Parade a profitable enterprise. Because it falls on the New Year’s holiday, the cost of services escalate (and that’s even when the weather is cooperative). Ironically, at a time when the City is packed with people, many businesses prefer to stay closed for the holiday to making money when the opportunity presents itself.

Separated from the parade, the Mummers seem to lose a lot. A single string band is festive, and “O, Dem Golden Slippers” is lively, but a small representation merely hints at the pageantry and year-long sweat and toil by volunteers and performers to pull off each annual parade.

Not surprisingly, the Mummers haven’t translated well to the web. Lots of sites (like this, this, and this), some selling and supporting the uniquely Philadelphian Mummers enterprise, but none capturing the Mummers experience. A somewhat better repository is YouTube with clips of individual club performances. However, that underscores how hard it is to distill the essence of Mummery.

For years, the local TV stations have taken turns providing Mummers parade coverage and playing hot potato. It is always a LONG day of endless commentary and a thankless job for anchors assigned. Only CNN with its 24/7 filling airtime model might be up to the challenge.

Seeing the parade up close and personal, as it unfolds, is the only way to take in all things Mummers. Once, a friend invited my wife and I to watch the parade from the eagle eye view of the Union League. We were warm, had great food and drink, but it was antiseptic. The Mummers parades I remember best were all ground level, strolling along Broad and around City Hall, enjoying both the string bands and the crowds cheering them on. It wasn’t always family friendly thanks to public drunkenness, but it is hard to be judgemental when carrying your own hip flask to help ward off the all-day cold.

Maybe Philadelphia is holiday’d out, with so much devoted to the July 4th Freedom Week celebrations.  Maybe the Mummers are too much of a peoples’ parade of neighborhood clubs and volunteers to be managed cohesively by city officials. Maybe the competition of Mardi Gras (New Orleans has its own holiday), the pageantry of Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers, and Disney theme park parades, and ever-more-elaborate music videos make the Mummers pale to a jaded public.

However, more and more people are attracted to Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve celebrations at great restaurants, bars, and music clubs, with city-sponsored fireworks, and by attractive hotel packages. In 2012, according to recent reports, the city might even be host to the NHL’s national audience tv event, the outdoor Winter Classic. Capping it all off with a full day of Mummery would seem to make Philadelphia a destination city for the entire New Year’s Holiday. The Mummers are a live event and a street event — the city should start planning for 2012 and how best to integrate the parade into making Philadelphia  and the Mummers synonymous with New Year’s memories for visitors from near and far.

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