By Jeff Schlegel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
A fellow named Mac said he could try to get me into his private club, but I didn't think it was a good idea. It wasn't because of his appearance (he wore a flamboyant orange pirate's costume and dark shades at night). Nor was I perturbed by the gaggle of fellow club members who stood on the front steps of their windowless meeting hall as they swilled cans of beer while dressed in similarly outlandish orange garb.
No, I politely declined Mac's offer because it didn't seem my place to enter their inner sanctum on this night when men can wear such ridiculous clothes in public and get away with it in blue-collar South Philadelphia.
Mac and his cohorts are Mummers, and earlier that day their troupe danced along Broad Street during the annual Mummers Parade. But now it was nighttime, and the real party -- if not the more lively parade -- was in full swing.
There are two great traditions in Philly on Jan. 1: the Mummers Parade, and the so-called after-parade along Second Street -- the traditional bastion of Mummerdom. The former event is the official parade where musicians and comic troupes strut their stuff in front of judges and television cameras while dressed in elaborately bespangled, sequin-studded, frilly-trimmed get-ups that conjure images of over-the-top Las Vegas shows.
But after the final string band strums its last banjo note, the spectators disperse and the Mummers retreat to their home turf for a freewheeling street party at which Halloween meets Mardi Gras and the City of Brotherly Love exudes a friendliness befitting its sobriquet.
Tourism brochures extol the Broad Street parade as a unique slice of Philly, but it's the after-parade that best captures the event's raucous roots.
In the 19th century, various ethnic groups in the city's southern neighborhoods celebrated New Year's Day by shooting guns in the air, wearing costumes and dancing in the street while blowing horns and banging pots.
Efforts to ban such merrymaking were unsuccessful, so in 1901 officials decided to harness this unruly energy (minus the guns) by sponsoring a parade through Center City. Thus started an annual New Year's Day event whose plebeian roots were a boisterous East Coast answer to the genteel sensibilities of Pasadena's Tournament of Roses Parade.
Mummers began organizing into clubs starting in the late 1800s, and today consist of divisions ranging from parasol-toting dancing clowns to groups of musicians backed by large floats. But the heart and soul of the Mummers Parade are the string bands with their distinctive sound that's a mix of strumming banjos, brassy saxophones, tinkling glockenspiels, sassy clarinets and pounding percussions.
Mummers don't walk as much as they strut in a side-to-side movement. Comic troupe members with parasols bob up and down, arch forward and back, and flap their arms on their long march.
Last year's parade of some 10,000 participants lurched in fits and stops along the nearly two-mile Broad Street route from South Philly to City Hall. The last group stopped marching by 5:15 p.m. as the Avalon String Band wrapped up its Arctic-themed routine. Then, it was time for the real action.
The after-party began forming almost immediately a dozen blocks east and a couple of miles south of the parade route near the Mummers Museum at Second Street and Washington Avenue. But the biggest buzz doesn't start until around 7, leaving enough time to duck into crowded Snockey's Oyster and Crab House for a bowl of Chesapeake Bay crab soup that is spicy enough to make your head swim.
There's little rhyme or reason to the after-parade -- it just sort of unfolds in a stream of unstructured revelry. Buses drop off Mummers near the museum, and the comics and string bands set off down Second Street whenever they get around to it.
Known to locals as Two Street, this is Mummers Row, where a number of neighborhood clubs are headquartered. On the curb in front of the museum, a man with a fake white beard and a sequined red, white and blue outfit took a bottle of merlot from his pack and poured himself a glass.
"The after-parade is a looser affair because there's no pressure of being judged," said Roman Luzecky, a member of the Avalon band that closed the official parade. "It's all about the music and entertainment and drinking with the people."
With that, he picked up his accordion and joined his mates as they struck up a tune and marched southward. Luzecky's merlot was a splash of class in a party where cans of light beer seemed the beverage of choice.
Second Street is lined in rowhouses, lending a touch of intimacy and immediacy missing from the tall buildings and wide thoroughfare of the daytime parade.
Flatbed trucks with DJs cranking music were followed by troupes strutting with a contagious gusto that inspired people to dance on the sidewalks or join the procession.
The Fralinger String Band buzzed down the street playing the Mummers anthem -- "Oh Dem Golden Slippers." Hang around the Mummers Parade long enough and you'll hear this ditty frequently, yet there was something rousing about listening to it played in an energetic block party setting.
A woman turned around and asked how long I'd been standing there. I told her about five minutes. "Oh, then, Happy New Year," she said before kissing my cheek.
People got more lubricated as the night wore on, but the vibe was positive and no one seemed to mind when strangers doused them with Silly String.
The party still had a couple of hours to go at 10 when I stopped to photograph a passing string band. "You getting any good pictures?" asked the guy who identified himself as Mac. We ended up chatting for 15 minutes about his Mummers club, neighborhood union politics and the Eagles' chances in the playoffs.
After I begged off from his kind offer to get me into his private club, he reached into his baggy orange pirate's costume and offered me a can of beer, which I gratefully took. Now that's brotherly love.