I’d been standing outside the Port Richmond Thriftway for two hours in 39-degree weather, but I didn’t feel cold. At least, I wasn’t going to admit it.
“If you’re cold, maybe you signed up for the wrong event, yeah?” shouted a man whose sequin-covered top hat glittered as it amplified the street lamps’ glow. A woman wearing a feathered headband above her winter scarf stomped her feet and shook her head. Another man twirled a ribbon-draped fan, creating a burst of red-orange-yellow color like fire. Laughter filtered through the parking lot.
Two hours in the winter air? Nothing compared to what the Lobster Club Mummers Brigade was psyching itself up for: A marching dance party that would keep us outdoors from sunrise to well after sunset on the first day of the year.
The Mummers Parade has been postponed a few times in its 116-year history, mostly because of rain, not low temps. I discovered that after becoming obsessed with what the weather would be on New Year’s Day. (The forecast has said it would be sunny and maybe hit 50 this year but I haven’t spoken that out loud yet, no jinx no jinx no jinx.)
Even though my costume was little more than a sparkled-out bathing suit over a nude-colored unitard, I’d put needle and thread to use for the first time in maybe 30 years to create it, so I wasn’t going to wear something different, no matter the mercury.
As long as it was above freezing, I was pretty sure I’d be ok — adrenalin is a heck of a body warmer, and I was confident my first parade outing would spark plenty of endorphin flow.
Would I get on TV? Would my costumed self end up in online photo galleries? Would people cheer me on? Would I hear any boos?
The Taming of the Mummers
I joined kind of late, so the first experience I had as a Mummer was attending a sensitivity training meeting.
On an early December night, I met Lobster Club captain Justyn Myers on 2nd Street outside the the Happy Tappers clubhouse. We ducked into the room full of assembled Goodtimers Comics leaders, snagged a beer from the house bar (NB: do not ask for a “High Life” at a place like this if you want to be understood, it’s just a “Miller” here), and sat down just as Philadelphia Deputy City Manager and longtime parade director Leo Dignam was beginning to speak.
“Look, no matter how you feel about this training session, it’s designed to help prevent something we can all agree on,” Dignam said. “No one wants the Mummers to be an international laughingstock again, right?”
Most heads nodded. Out of four dozen people, two or three snickered or stuck out their chins in quiet defiance.
The training sessions were organized by Philadelphia’s Human Rights Commission after several scenes from the 2016 parade went viral — and not in a good way.
Mummers poking fun of establishments and popular beliefs is not new. Satire is basically the founding principle of the Comic Brigades, whose performances have always been skits lampooning current events (as opposed to the highly-choreographed dance and music routines put on the Fancies and String Bands). Intolerant rhetoric in the Comic skits has toned down over the past half-century, but never entirely disappeared. And now that social media can spread a photo or video clip across the world, the issues that had been confined to discussion among Philadelphians suddenly went global.
Not a good look. The city still outlays upwards of $250,000 in support services for the Mummers Parade — more than any other parade, Dignam explained — but if things went awry again, that funding could easily disappear.
“Punch up, don’t punch down,” Dignam said. “You can make fun of groups or people more powerful than you. Not the other way around.”
‘My dad was appalled’
Responses when I’d told my friends and family I’d be marching were mixed.
Some were thrilled. Even those who don’t live in Philly had heard of the country’s oldest folk festival and enjoyed pics of the colorful costumes it’s famous for. But a few were skeptical as to why I’d want to participate in a spectacle with a reputation for bigoted caricature. Same for several other Lobster Club members.
“My dad was appalled,” one first-timer told me.
“My family’s excited I’m getting back into the parade, even if it’s with a new club,” said another, noting that his grandfather was one of the founders of the Mummers Museum.
The Lobsters were one of the very first Mummers clubs, with a founding date of 1908, but as members died or aged out it had become nearly defunct — until Justyn Myers decided to revive it.
Myers, 36, is a Philly native who’d watched the parade in his youth, but never participated. When he got older, he fell in love with the idea of the giant street party that takes place in front of the clubhouses on Two Street after the official judging is over, and so he started marching with various troupes. But he found he didn’t always agree with their messages. Since he happens to be particularly good at coordinating group activities — he calls his group of friends “organized fun seekers” — he approached a buddy whose uncle was a Lobster and asked about appropriating the club. Borrowing it, in a way.
In 2013, he assembled a crew and the Lobster Club marched for the first time in decades. The general message was inclusion — the club is more than 60 percent female, and members come from many different ages, locations and backgrounds — and themes have never been based on prejudice.
So Myers was pretty surprised when Dignam called his name to to discuss the submitted skit theme because it might be considered offensive.
“What’s the problem?” Myers wanted to know.
It wasn’t the start of the act, which features locals being dismayed when out-of-town developers come through and start gentrifying the neighborhood. It wasn’t when a dumpster catches on fire, thanks to a developer’s careless match, and it spreads to the house, or when local hero comes to the rescue, opening a fire hydrant and hosing everything off to save the day. The worrisome part came when everybody saw the dumpster full of water and jumped in, turning it into an impromptu pool.
Kids in Kensington really did make a pool out of a dumpster this year, Dignam noted. “You shouldn’t make fun of the folks that threw the dumpster pool party,” he said.
2016: Of course Mummers are on Slack
A grin spread across Myers’ face. “That’s me! That’s us! I made that dumpster pool!” he said, laughing. Dignam nodded his approval and walked away, while Myers continued to crack up.
“They were worried we were making fun of ourselves,” he posted in the Lobster Club Slack.
Yes, the Mummers club I joined uses Slack.
This is not your father’s Mummers. There are other newer, younger, more diverse clubs dancing in the parade this year, too. The Rabble Rousers’ skit this year parodies the Mummers Parade as bigoted, kind of a meta-mummer commentary. Groups like the drag queen Miss Fancy Brigade and Mexican heritage-themed San Mateo Carnavaleros are back for a second go, now spread throughout the parade instead of marching separately.
I’ve heard rumors that some people plan to show up in blackface despite the rules, just to protest the recent regulations. And there are sure to be some other signs or acts that manage to be offensive.
But the only hope for those who want the Mummers Parade to live on is that it will continue to change with the times, and that new blood will continue the tradition while making it more open to all Philadelphians, not just the white ones.
If I can contribute by jumping in a dumpster pool full of glitter confetti as commentary on neighborhood gentrification, count me in.
Lobster Club Mummers Brigade 2017 Skit:
Local residents are lounging on the stoop on a hot summer day. They pull out a kiddie pool to cool off, but when they try to fill it with water, their bucket is empty, so they return to lounging on the stoop. Meanwhile, a real estate prospector walks by to show some rich out-of-towners the houses they’re lounging on — houses he plans to redevelop. The rich couple is so charmed by the neighborhood that they buy the building on the spot.
Construction workers chase the locals off the stoop and knock down a perfectly good brick house to start building something flashy and new in its place. The real estate developer presents the rich couple with a deed to their new property, and lights a cigar to celebrate the deal. He tosses his match over his shoulder…right into the dumpster behind him. The dumpster catches on fire, and the fire spreads to the new, under-construction house.
The locals realize they can save the day. One “hero” shows up with a key to the city, which he uses to unlock a nearby fire hydrant. He and other local friends attach a hose and start putting out the fires. The dumpster fills up with water, and now that the fire is out, the locals realize they can use the dumpster as a swimming pool. They all run out and jump in the dumpster pool, and so does everyone else. The pool party revels in the cool water and dances their way off stage.