Yes, Philadelphia, the Mummers really do provide at least one WTF moment every year.
Actions taken this year by Mummers — brownface-wearing children in sombreros, “Fruit Loops” and Caitlyn Jenner signs — fall somewhere between questionable, insensitive and downright racist and homophobic. And again, we’re talking after the fact about how to clean up the party thrown by crowds of largely white men dressed up in costumes on New Year’s Day.
But the Mummers Parade, one of Philadelphia’s most long-standing traditions, has a well-recorded history of not only racist acts and remarks, but debauchery that has included trucks carrying dozens of cases of beer to club houses hosting sex parties with invitees. Here’s a brief history of the (recorded) bad behavior and controversy that’s been exhibited by Mummerdom. Keep in mind, incidents have been recorded to a higher degree in recent years. Thanks, Internet.
At the height of the civil rights movement in 1963, local NAACP president Cecil B. Moore was pushing for change across Philadelphia. A week before New Year’s, the parade organizer banned blackface for the 1964 parade — it was to be broadcast nationally that year. That didn’t go over well. The home of the parade magistrate was picketed by angry Mummers, so he reversed his decision. Blackface was back in.
According to a 2013 City Paper story, that’s when Moore got involved. The NAACP went to the courts and asked that a judge rule that blackface could not be used in the taxpayer-funded Mummers Parade. Their petition was thrown out on New Year’s Eve and tensions were higher than ever. Off-duty police were called in to patrol the parade as concerns of riots abounded. In the end, few Mummers showed up in blackface anyway.
Organizers officially banned blackface the next year.
But! More than 20 years later, the South Philadelphia String Band in 1985 petitioned parade leaders to be allowed to use blackface in a “Cotton Club-themed” skit. Their request was denied.
The same year, a clown was arrested from the winner’s circle after he tried to punch a random person in the middle of the parade, according to Inquirer archives. “Well, there goes our first arrest of the day,” Officer Bob Patrick told The Inquirer just after 10 a.m. near Pine Street. “He’s 16 years old, and he’s just drunk out of his mind.”
Mayor Wilson Goode drew national attention after he had photos of some Mummers removed from City Hall because it sure looked like they were in blackface. The photographer protested, saying that it just *looked* like blackface, and actually the Mummers were wearing blue and green face paint.
So after pushback from the art community that claimed the photographs were fine, City Council members rounded up support to get the Mummer photos back into City Hall. How they compromised? The photos were eventually brought back into City Hall for the year, but Goode said he didn’t want them anywhere near his second floor office.
The captain of the South Philly Vikings Fancy Brigade that captured first place the two years prior was sentenced to spend four years in prison after prosecutors said he failed to pay taxes on drug money he helped launder.
Carmen “Butch” D’Amato, founder of his Mummers group, was convicted for laundering money made on the manufacturing of methamphetamine through real estate transactions and then failing to pay the taxes on it. Before going to prison, D’Amato was given 30 days to get his life together. He apparently spent the vast majority of that time preparing for the 1990 Mummers performance.
A mummer was found guilty of third-degree murder in the killing of another Mummer that took place in a Mummer clubhouse. According to the Daily News, Dominic Latella was found guilty of “hitting Joseph Fleming, 21, with a foot-long hatchet after a long night of drinking and arguing inside the brigade’s headquarters.” The killing took place at the Satin Slipper Fancy Brigade’s clubhouse at 2nd and Dickinson streets in February 1989.
The Froggy Carr Wench Brigade is one of the largest and most recognizable groups of Mummers out there. In 1995, the group of 360 found out that police had confiscated their beer truck along with the something-like 80 cases of beer that were inside it, according to The Daily News.
Captain Mike “Tooth” Renzi got involved and defended his beer — and was promptly arrested. Why? Kevin Feeley, right-hand-man to then-mayor Ed Rendell, said it was because he was “acting like an asshole.” So the Frogs sat down in the middle of Market Street and brought the parade to a screeching halt. Tooth was let go, the Frogs cheered and went along on their merry way.
One thing the Mummers are rarely accused of: Not being brutally honest. The year of 1996 was the first time that half of the string bands reported having female members and musicians. But captains readily admitted it wasn’t because they really wanted women to be part of their fraternities of Mummerdom. It was because membership was declining.
In December 2001, noted mummer and also mob associate Angelo Lutz was sentenced to spend nine years in prison on charges of racketeering. The close-to-400-pound bookmaker convicted of working with Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino was known for dressing up as the “Golden Buddha” during the Mummers Parade every year and having people rub his painted, bared belly.
The Slick Duck Comic Brigade’s skit was supposed to feature young men dressed up as alter boys being chased around by older men dressed as priests who were being around by still other men dressed as cops. Word got out about the plans and a number of organizations announced opposition to what was apparently part of the brigade’s attempts to poke fun at current events.
The skit was scratched and Slick Duck came out and said that they never actually planned to perform that theme, claiming it was actually just a prank on the media and the public.
The mummers were accused by The Daily News of “blatant racism” when the B. Love Strutters Brigade float included Joey Vento of Geno’s Steaks. In the skit called “Aliens of an Illegal Kind,” groups of men dressed as “immigrants” were trying to break through a fence and were met by “border patrol” and stopped.
According to the newspaper, “in the skit, Arabs had long beards and turbans, Mexicans wore sombreros, and Asian women were depicted as geishas.”
In October 2011, 13 people were arrested after police alleged the Mummers’ Downtowners Fancy Brigade clubhouse was used once a month for food, booze and sex-with-prostitutes parties. For $30 a month, the invitees got hoagies, a beer and pre-paid sex with women.
Police ended up raiding the clubhouse at Second Street and Snyder Avenue and found 50 men and 20 women inside taking part in the, um, festivities. Three men and 10 women were arrested.
The Ferko String Band’s skit was themed “Ferko’s Bringing Back the Minstrel Days.” Not much more needs to be said about that.
The same year, the Venetian NYA club’s theme was titled “Indi-sourcing” and, according to Philly Mag, included men dressed as people from India working in a “call center” that was then raided by others dressed as Native Americans and the call center was moved back to New Jersey.
Remember Carmen D’Amato from above? The guy convicted on tax fraud charges? The legendary Mummer and former captain of the South Philly Vikings Fancy Brigade was arrested again in 2014 along with his daughter, and they were accused of brutally beating a homeless man with a baseball bat and then shooting him in the leg. A trial is scheduled for February.
Despite being banned, blackface has still made appearances over the years, like this guy who was photographed last year casually standing around wearing it.
The Mummers also drew ire after signs appeared that read “Wench Lives Matter,” clearly poking fun at the Black Lives Matter movement.
There’s a lot to go over from this year. First, this group was photographed performing what clearly a Mexican-themed skit that included everyone in the group — including children — wearing brownface.
Then, Finnegan New Years Brigade quickly drew national attention after its members operated with a Caitlyn Jenner-themed skit and held signs that depicted the person who was once Bruce Jenner on the cover of Wheaties next to Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Froot Loops. In addition, a man in the skit emerged in full costume making fun of Jenner’s appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair when she revealed she was transgender.
As if that wasn’t enough, a member of the crew was caught on camera holding one of the signs and screaming “fuck the gays!”
And after all that, a gay man told local news organizations that he was beat up by a group of drunk Mummers yelling slurs but said he wasn’t planning to press charges as identifying the people would have been nearly impossible.
Oh, and “*insert something that is not the word black* lives matter” made more appearances.