It isn’t “official,” but it’s pretty much a done deal that the 2015 Mummers Parade will take a revolutionary turn, marching north to south, starting above City Hall and ending at Washington Avenue.
There will be other changes as well.
As a former Mummer (like the Marines, you’re never an ex-Mummer) I am a traditionalist and I hate the idea.
As a realist, I’m going to bite down hard, wait and see.
In covering the parade for more than two decades, and attending it for four decades, I have seen the colorful, unique tradition — believed to be the oldest spontaneous folk festival in the United States — shrivel, wrinkle and wither. It’s like watching a loved one die of a lingering illness.
I have sadly described it as being on life support.
The Mummers know it. They smelled the coffee and in the last decade tired to make the parade more inclusive and fan-friendly.
Example: Moving the Fancy Brigades into the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 1998. A lot of the Brigades hated it as first, but they love it now.
The city cooperated by setting up viewing bleachers and installing portable toilets. DJs were hired to pump up the crowd between String Band performances. Vendors put up food stands. All to the good.
In case you missed the news reports, here’s the deal:
The parade will start west of City Hall. The first performance will be for the judges at City Hall. (I can’t confirm whether there will be a drill at the Union League.) The String Bands will drop their props at City Hall and then march down to Washington, playing all the way, where the parade will end.
They will get pre-judging rehearsal time on the Parkway, where they will line up and tune up before hitting City Hall. Fans will get a chance to get up close and personal.
After the noon show at the convention center, the Fancy Brigades will join the parade, from City Hall to Washington. Fancy Brigade President Jim Julia tells me the Brigades will fill in the gaps between String Bands and then return to the convention center for their 5 p.m. show, the one that is judged (and that sells out every year).
Have no doubt, this is a radical change because it kicks to the curb South Philly, the main belly of Mummery. Many in South Philly are screeching like monkeys with their tails in a crocodile’s jaws. It hurts.
Note to South Philly: Where’s the fan turnout on the street? I’m out there every year. Are you? (No, you are not, not in large numbers.)
Lot of reasons why crowds have dwindled, but they have. The reasons don’t matter, the effect does. I’ve attended some parades where there seemed to be more marchers than fans.
This changes are not being made lightly or without careful, fearful thought.
Tom Loomis, president of the String Band Association, says the goal is to make “a more viewable parade for the people.”
All five divisions — String Band, Fancies, Fancy Brigades, Comics and Wenches — bought into it. “All five presidents were sitting around the table putting this plan together,” Loomis says.
This wasn’t a bolt from the blue. Division presidents for a few years had known something had to change. When I spoke to Loomis a year ago, after he had become Strutter-in-Chief, he hinted the parade had to change.
The Mummers I spoke to agreed (or succumbed to) the plan, some of them with trepidation, but they won’t put their reservations on the record.
This unity is itself somewhat unusual as our fine feathered and sequined friends are known more for their vocal hectoring than for their harmony.
Loomis admits this idea went public before he wanted it to and it blew up on social media where the leaders got a lot of loud pushback.
“I’m excited for the people who want to see a parade,” Loomis said. “It’s been a long time since they’ve seen a parade.”
Here he is referencing something I’ve long bitched about — the yawning gaps in the parade, the jerky, stop-and-go quality of the parade, which is the result of performance points.
I’m not going to like the loss of performance points in South Philly, and at Washington, Pine, Walnut and Sansom.
Off the top of my head, the big benefit is this: You take the people (admittedly not that many) stretched over a three-mile parade route) and stuff them into a 1-mile parade route and you have larger crowds, more noise, more energy, more excitement.
If it works, and it is a big “if,” Loomis fantasizes the parade could be reborn, and then extended farther south.
Until this January 1, the parade (the “official,” city-sanctioned parade), always started in the depths of South Philly and strutted north. Lately it’s been stopping just past City Hall, but decades ago it extended all the way to Girard Avenue.
Over the years, the city changed, attitudes changed and to some younger people the parade seems like a strange artifact from a distant era. You know, more than 20 years ago.
Then there are the magpies who watch the parade only to find some tiny, or imaginary, thing to be offended by. Native Americans in buckskin? How dare you? As America gets better, the grievances get smaller. In some areas we have sunk below petty.
Loomis makes the point that the parade is the parade, not the direction and not a street. There were a few years, in a noble experiment disguised as necessary street repair, the parade was moved from Broad to Market — about the same length as the new proposed route.
The crowds seemed bigger. And the parade took less time, of course, because it was covering less ground.
Mummers brass look at the Thanksgiving Day parade as a good template for themselves. It’s 2 ½ hours, and it moves. Just minor stops for brief performances.
While I remain a traditionalist, the realist in me says this could be a transformational moment in Mummery.
You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result.
I say to my fine feathered friends — try it.
You have little to lose. Most of what you had was already lost.
Maybe this brings it back.
If it flops, return to the Old Way in 2016.
Sorry, South Philly. I don’t have your back in this case.